Every October bank holiday weekend since 2001, Athy has welcomed overseas visitors attending the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School. It has become an important event in the town’s cultural calendar bringing business to our local hotel, B&B’s, restaurants and shops. At the same time it has given Athy an international profile it never previously enjoyed. The town now enjoys a confirmed association with the Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, unacknowledged before the advent of the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School in 2001. Indeed prior to the setting up of the Heritage Centre media reporting on the Polar explorer invariably referred to Kilkee, Co. Clare as his place of birth.
The Athy Heritage Museum is the focus for the events for the weekend which will begin with the opening of the Autumn school at 7.30pm on Friday, 23rd of October. The school will be officially launched by Alexandra Shackleton, the granddaughter of Ernest Shackleton. The exhibition to be launched that night is “Life on the Line”. The exhibition is the result of many years of work by the English photographer, Christina Barnet who journeyed to the Arctic Circle to record the rich diversity of peoples for whom the sun never sets in high summer nor rises in deepest winter. The exhibition will run in the Heritage Centre until early in the New Year and should not be missed. The opening night will also feature the launch of the Scottish author Anne Straithie's book 'From Ice Floes to battlefields'. This book examines the fates of the various Polar explorers who served with both Scott and Shackleton during the Great War. This is of particular relevance for Athy given the many thousands of men who served in the British army in the Great War, a war which touched every family in this town. A number of Irish men feature in the book such as Tom Crean, Ernest Shackleton and Tim McCarthy. It is particularly pleasing to have an opportunity to launch this book which has been published by the History Press.
An important feature of the event has always been the diverse experience of the invited lecturers and the lecture topics they have chosen. This year sees lecturers drawn from the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Norway, Canada and the U.S.A. Dr. Kevin McKenna, a Consultant in Belfast City Hospital will give a talk on the effects of scurvy and its impact on Polar exploration. Scurvy was a very invidious disease which affected many of the early Polar explorers. It was caused by the lack of vitamin C and Kevin’s lecture will be an intriguing mix of medicine and exploration. Another lecture which caught my attention is that by Erik Seedhouse. Erik is an Norwegian/Canadian suborbital astronaut who has published a book on the striking parallels between the pioneering Polar explorers of the 20th century and those future space explorers of the 22nd century who may or may not get to Mars. His lecture is one of the more unusual topics and it is clearly going to be an intriguing mix of fact and speculation.
The world of business over the last two decades in the United States has found many proponents of Shackleton’s leadership qualities and Dr. Jesus Alcoba the Dean of La Salle International Graduate School of Business in Madrid will be extrapolating from the world of Polar exploration some lessons for us about success in business. Other lecturers include Robert Burton, Dr. Phillip Sidney, Naomi Boneham, Samuel Blanc and Anne Strathie.
Sunday afternoon will see the showing of the film “Antarctica - A Year On Ice”, a documentary by the New Zealand film maker Anthony Powell which was ten years in the making. It is a wonderful record of the life and work of those hardy souls who over winter in the Antarctic.
The climax of the weekend will be the premier performance in Athy’s Dominican Church of 'Shackleton’s Endurance' on Sunday, 25th of October. Commissioned by Athy Heritage Centre- Museum with financial support from Kildare County Council, this was first performed in Carlow’s George Bernard Shaw Theatre last year. Brian Hughes’s musical composition, John MacKenna’s narrative and Craig Blackwell's visuals combine to tell the story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 transantarctic expedition. They will be ably assisted on stage by Kildare County Orchestra, Monasterevin Gospel Choir and a number of local musicians. This event, with the participation of so many local musicians, it is very much deserving of your support. Tickets for the Autumn Schools lectures and for the musical performance on the 25th of October can be obtained from the Heritage Centre. Copies of the full weekend programme are also available in the centre.