The October Bank Holiday weekend will see many overseas visitors arriving in Athy to attend the 14th Ernest Shackleton Autumn School. The school has become such an important feature in the calendar of Polar studies that many of the attendees from the United States, United Kingdom and Spain had booked their trips to Ireland almost twelve months in advance. It is also an important social event in the life of the town and it gives local businesses a much needed boost before the run up to Christmas.
The weekend will commence on the evening of Friday, 24th October when the newly appointed Chief Executive of Kildare County Council, Mr Peter Carey will officially open the school and launch the exhibition ‘The Crossing of Antarctica’. The exhibition tells the story of the epic first crossing of Antarctica by the Commonwealth Transantarctic expedition of 1955-1958. The exhibition is drawn from the photography of the New Zealander George Lowe who was part of the successful team which climbed Mount Everest in 1953.
The exhibition will be complemented by artefacts from a number of private collections and it will be a unique opportunity to learn more about the expedition which, inspired by Shackleton’s 1914 Endurance Expedition, succeeded in crossing the Antarctic. The expedition will also feature in a talk by Dr. Huw Lewis-Jones whose book on the Commonwealth Transantarctic expedition has just been published.
In tandem with the opening the Shackleton School will host the launch of the latest biography of the Kilkea born Ernest Shackleton. The book titled ‘Shackleton by Endurance we Conquer’ is the latest publication from Michael Smith, the acclaimed author of ‘Tom Crean-Antarctic Explorer’. Michael has dedicated the last 10 years to celebrating in print the Irish heroes of Polar exploration. His new book has generated huge interest at home and abroad and a big attendance is expected on the night of the launch. The book will be launched by the actor and writer Aidan Dooley who has performed his one man show 'Tom Crean' to acclaim all over the world. That show was first performed to an appreciative audience at the Shackleton Autumn School in Athy Town Hall in 2002.
The Shackleton School committee have packed an extraordinary array of events into the weekend together with lectures on various Polar topics across Saturday and Sunday covering both Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Included are lectures on 'Shackleton and his life in poetry' by Jim Mayer and one on the Russian Antarctic Expedition of 1819 – 1821 by American academic, Dr. Rip Bulkeley. Other lectures include the forgotten Victorian explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith by Professor P.J. Capelotti while the early study of the natural history of the Arctic will feature in Dr. Leah Devlin's talk. Modern day exploration will be catered for by Tim Jarvis who recently recreated the famous boat journey taken by Shackleton from Elephant Island to South Georgia to save the crew of the ship Endurance which had been crushed in the polar ice.
Two Irish lecturers also feature, Dr. Rorke Bryan will lecture on his time in Antarctica since the 1960s, while Dinah Molloy will speak about her research into the environmental data she has recovered from the logs of Arctic whaling ships of the 19th century.
Of particular significance, for local people, will be the premiere of the original composition 'Shackleton’s Endurance' at the George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow on Sunday the 26th October. It is a musical composition by our distinguished traditional musician, Brian Hughes and award winning writer, John MacKenna which captures in music and words key elements of the Endurance expedition from its departure in 1914 to the rescue of its crew from Elephant Island in 1916. This is a countywide project with Brian and John being joined onstage by the Kildare County Orchestra and the Monasterevin Gospel Choir, while the graphic artist Craig Blackwell has designed the unique multimedia element for the stage performance. Such has been the demand for tickets for the performance that it is being held in the George Bernard Shaw Theatre in Carlow rather than Athy’s Art Centre to cater for the large numbers wishing to attend. The performance will also see the launch of the CD of 'Shackleton’s Endurance'.
The school is an important feature in Athy’s cultural heritage calendar and I would urge as many locals as possible to attend as many events as they can as it is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the life and legacy of a local hero, Ernest Shackleton.