For the last nine years the local Heritage Centre has hosted the Shackleton Autumn School over the October Bank Holiday weekend. It has grown in status over the years, hosting as it does each year a gathering of overseas polar experts who bring to an Irish audience an unrivalled knowledge and experience of polar affairs. This year the weekend’s event will have lecturers from Norway, America and England and many overseas visitors will be arriving in Athy to take part in what has become Europe’s premier Antarctic event.
The mixture of lectures, exhibitions, drama and film has proved to be a winning formula. With the other local festivals such as the Bluegrass Festival, the Athy Waterways Festival and the Medieval Festival, the Shackleton weekend provides a welcome addition to the social and cultural life of the town.
This year on the opening Friday night the Shackleton Memorial Lecture will be given by Caroline Casey. Caroline is registered blind but despite this has packed more into her short life than many of us could hope to do in a lifetime. You may recall her journey across India on an elephant some years ago, a trip which got nationwide coverage on radio and TV. On her return from the Indian continent Caroline founded the Aisling Project now re-named Kanchi which works to facilitate the integration of persons with disabilities into the work force. From that she developed and presented on Irish TV the O² Ability Awards. Her achievements in the face of enormous difficulties have been recognised nationally and internationally, culminating in her appointment as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum in 2006. She was the first and only Irish person appointed to that forum and further honours came courtesy of the National University of Ireland when she was awarded an honorary doctorate. Two years ago she received the Eisenhower Fellowship.
Earlier on Friday evening and prior to Caroline Casey’s talk, Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton, will launch the book ‘The Shackleton Letters: Behind the Scenes of the Nimrod Expedition’, a book published by the Erskine Press of Norwich, England. The choice of Athy Heritage Centre to launch the book written by Regina Daly is quite an achievement for the Shackleton Autumn School. Unquestionably the launch confirms the growing importance of the Shackleton weekend within Antarctic exploration circles. The Shackleton School’s own publication, ‘Nimrod’ – Volume 3 will be on sale during and after that weekend. It includes some of the lectures given at the 2008 School and with previously issued volumes 1 and 2 provides a well ordered and comprehensive coverage of lectures in past years.
On Saturday 24th October the lectures commence at 10.30 a.m. with a talk by Hans Kjell Larsen, a native of Norway on his fellow countryman and grandfather, the Antarctic pioneer Captain C.A. Larsen. This is followed at 12noon by Professor Andrew Lambert’s talk on the Franklin Expedition. That expedition remains to this day shrouded in mystery following the disappearance of it’s ships and all their crew in the Arctic.
Dr. David Wilson, the grand nephew of Dr. Edward Wilson who perished with Captain Scott’s Polar party, will give an illustrated talk on Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. Dr. Russell Porter from Rhode Island College, U.S.A. will give the final talk on Saturday on the subject of the Franklin Expedition. Sunday morning will have particular interest for book lovers when Dr. Michael Rosove, a Professor of Medicine at the University of California and the author of several books on Antarctic history, gives his talk on ‘The Great Books of Shackletonia’. Dublin-born Marie Herbert who with her husband Wally spent years with the Inuit in Greenland will conclude the Sunday morning lectures and in the afternoon a selection of unusual and long forgotten early polar films will be shown in the Town Hall.
Sunday night sees the first performance in Athy of John MacKenna’s new play, ‘We Once Sang Like Other Men’. This prolific writer has produced a body of work including novels, short stories and plays which has been scarcely paralleled by any other modern Irish writer. Adding to his literary achievements is John’s continuing involvement as an actor and in his new play directed by Marion Brophy John plays the role of Peter the fisherman, in a modern re-telling of an age old tale. We had hoped to have the local writer’s new play as the first drama to be shown on the stage of the new Arts Centre in Woodstock Street, but unfortunately it’s not possible pending the completion of planned fitting out work. Instead the play will be staged in the Town Hall on Sunday night, 25th October commencing at 9.00 p.m. The bus tour through ‘Shackleton country’ will conclude the weekend’s activities. Those wishing to travel should assemble at the Heritage Centre no later than 10.00 a.m. on the Bank Holiday Monday.
This year the exhibition to run in conjunction with the Autumn School tells the story of Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition. This was the first expedition led by the Kilkea-born explorer and it will feature several priceless artefacts from the 1907-1909 Expedition never before displayed in this country. The Scott Polar Institute of Cambridge has cooperated with the Heritage Centre in putting on this Exhibition. Some of the items on display will include equipment from that expedition, together with tins of food carried by the explorers as they traversed the Antarctic continent. Other items include Shackleton’s sledging flag and a copy of the route chart prepared for the search party which set out to find Captain Scott and his companions who perished on the later Terra Nova Expedition. There will be many more important artefacts on display, including a unique original copy of the book ‘Aurora Australis’ which was the very first book printed on the Antarctic Continent.
The help of Kildare County Council, Athy Town Council, Tegral, Athy Credit Union, Athy Chamber of Commerce and Diageo in supporting the Shackleton School is acknowledged. The continuing support of the local people of Athy and district is also welcomed and an invitation is extended to all our readers to attend the official opening of the Autumn School at 7pm on Friday, 23rd October in Athy Heritage Centre. The wine reception that evening will be sponsored by the Carlton Abbey Hotel.