This coming October Bank Holiday weekend visitors from the UK, the U.S., Canada, Norway and all over Ireland will be coming to Athy to attend the 9th annual Ernest Shackleton Autumn School. The school was established in 2001 by a group of local polar enthusiasts in conjunction with Athy Heritage Centre. The school was established to commemorate the year of heroic polar exploration of which so many Irishmen were key figures including Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean. Such has been the consistent interest in the school that it has gone from strength to strength since its foundation. Many of us will recall the wonderful performances of Liam O’Flynn and his fellow musicians in the Dominican Church Athy for the premier of his piece specially commissioned by the Heritage Centre to commemorate Ernest Shackleton’s exploits. The piece was an eloquent tribute to Shackleton and all those men who served with him and hopefully one day Liam will release a recording of it. In the intervening years there have been a number of different events during the school which have left indelible impressions on those who attended it. Chief amongst these must be Aidan Dooley’s wonderful evocation of the life of Tom Crean. Aidan’s extraordinary virtuoso performance gave life to this wonderful Kerry man whose exploits earned him a reputation almost on par with Ernest Shackleton. Last year one of the most significant events was the hosting of the Face to Face polar portraits exhibition. This exhibition, on loan from the Scott Polar Research Institute of the University of Cambridge, was the first time that the Scott Polar Research Institute had brought a full exhibition to this country. It is testament to the growing reputation of the Shackleton School that the Scott Polar Research Institute were pleased to be associated with it. The exhibition displayed a wonderful array of historic polar photography over the last 150 years, again featuring prominently many Irishmen, including Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean as well as the Dundalk-born Arctic explorer, Francis Leopold McClintock.
This year the school will be marking the centenary of Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. This is the expedition which established Ernest Shackleton’s international reputation where he came within 90 miles of the South Pole. His pragmatic decision to return to his base without having reached the South Pole was a tribute to his leadership qualities insofar as he was unwilling to risk the lives of his men to achieve his geographical object. He famously wrote to his wife Emily Shackleton afterwards that he presumed that she would prefer to have a ‘live donkey than a dead lion.’
The Heritage Centre this year will host an exhibition of material and artefacts from the Nimrod Expedition including Shackleton’s own sledging flag and some of the equipment used on the expedition. Many of the artefacts will be on loan from the Scott Polar Research Institute and from private collectors from all over the world.
The Exhibition is only one of a number of events which is sure to draw particularly good crowds this year to Athy. Dr. Michael Rosove, from California will lecture on Shackleton's books and writing. Mr. Hans Kjell Larson, a grandson of Captain C.A. Larson, one of the most distinguished Antarctic pioneers, will be travelling from Norway to lecture about his grandfather. Dr. David Wilson, a grandnephew of Dr. Wilson, a member of the polar party who perished with Captain Scott in 1912, will be talking about his new book ‘Nimrod Illustrated Pictures from Lieutenant Shackleton’s British Antarctic Expedition’.
Professor Andrew Lambert of Kings College, London and Dr. Russell Potter of Rhode Island College, U.S.A. will also be talking about aspects of the famous Franklin Expedition lost in the Arctic, which to this day continues to generate a huge degree of scholarship in this area of Arctic history. A living link with modern Arctic life will be provided by Lady Marie Herbert. The Dublin born writer and traveller will speak about her life with the Inuit. A notable first for the school in that it follows the very successful talk given by her daughter Kari Herbert last year. A particularly interesting feature this year will be a session on historic polar cinematography to be hosted by Dr. Hugh Lewis Jones, the curator of art at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge and Dr. Russell Potter, Professor of English from Rhode Island College. They will present, perhaps for the first time in Ireland, a series of historic polar films from the early 20th century, many of them unlikely to be ever seen in this country again. There will also be a few surprises as there will be a number of contributions from special guests yet to be announced.
On the Friday night the school will begin with the launch by American polar historian Regina Wilson Daly of her latest book titled 'The Shackleton Letters - Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition'. This will be a particularly significant book launch in this the centenary year of the Nimrod Expedition. The launch will be followed by the Shackleton memorial lecture to be delivered this year by Caroline Casey. Caroline, a social entrepreneur and disability activist, was the founder of the Aisling Project, recently re-named Kanchi which has been to the forefront in heightening awareness of and enhancing the relationship between disability and society. One of her most significant achievements has been demonstrating that disability should not be a bar to an individual’s active participation in society or in the work place. The O2 Ability Awards, established by Kanchi, were the first Irish business awards which recognised best practice for the inclusion of people with disabilities as customers, employees and members of the community. Caroline’s extraordinary commitment and dedication has resulted in a series of significant acknowledgements and awards both nationally and internationally. She was the first Irish person to be appointed a young global leader of the World Economic Forum in 2006 and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland in the same year. A hugely popular, energetic and charismatic speaker, her lecture on the opening night of the Shackleton weekend is not to be missed.
A very important part of the Shackleton School has been the social aspect particularly after the lecture sessions on the Saturday and Sunday and the friendships and relationships that have been fostered between the lecturers and the attendees has been an important factor in contributing to the continued success of the Shackleton Autumn School. It is true to say that while Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic endeavours established him internationally, the school which carries his name continues to promote Athy both nationally and internationally in a manner which was difficult to imagine when the school was first established in 2001.
Further details of the 2009 Ernest Shackleton Autumn School can be got from the Autumn School’s website: www.shackletonmuseum.com.