On Easter Monday 24th April 1916 the Easter Rising erupted in Dublin. Contingents of men from the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizens Army quickly sought to seize sites in Dublin such as the GPO and the Four Courts. On that same day thousands of miles away three Irishmen embarked upon a boat journey which is now regarded as one of the greatest adventure stories in maritime history.
Six men manned the boat called ‘The James Caird’. The Caird was one of the lifeboats from Ernest Shackleton’s expedition ship, ‘The Endurance’ which had been crushed on the ice of the Antarctic seas in October 1915. Shackleton and his men had spent five months surviving on the ice floes until the ice began to break up and then made a dash for safety to Elephant Island. Elephant Island was a forlorn rocky isle on the edge of the Weddell Sea which did not offer any prospects for long term survival for the men of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.
On that fateful Easter Monday the Kildare-born Shackleton, the Kerry man Tom Crean, the Cork man Tim McCarthy, the Scots man Henry McNish, the English man John Vincent and New Zealander Frank Worsley left their comrades on Elephant Island on a forlorn mission to rescue the crew of the Endurance now left behind on Elephant Island under the leadership of Frank Wilde, Shackleton’s second in command.
Although these men were experienced seafarers it is hard to imagine that they held up much hope for reaching civilisation given that it was almost 800 miles from the island to South Georgia which was occupied almost exclusively by Norwegians in the whaling and sealing industries.
Under extraordinary tough conditions and with limited equipment and even more limited food they made the journey to Elephant Island in just under 17 days. When they first reached the coastline around South Georgia they were appalled to find that they had reached land on the wrong side of the island where there was no habitation whatsoever. Realising that the James Caird could not survive another couple of days at sea they resolved to beach the boat and cross the island, a feat which had never been attempted by any man before.
Notwithstanding their emaciated condition and not having any suitable mountaineering gear Shackleton with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley embarked upon a 36 hour crossing of South Georgia. What now faced them was the task of attempting to traverse the peaks and glaciers of South Georgia which had never been crossed nor mapped before.
Over the course of 36 hours they achieved the crossing after many hair raising episodes. They took little or no rest during their trek across South Georgia. At around 5 a.m. on their final day of the crossing Shackleton directed his companions Crean and Worsley to stop for a brief rest. Both Crean and Worsley immediately fell into a deep sleep. Shackleton himself stayed awake. After five minutes he woke his companions, telling them they had slept for half an hour. As Michael Smith, Shackleton’s most recent biographer put it, ‘it was a lie that saved their lives.’
At around 6.30 a.m. they reached a rocky ridge overlooking what they believed to be Stromness Bay. Although they had no sight of the buildings of Stromness Shackleton knew that the whalers aroused from their beds around 6.30 a.m. most mornings and that at 7 a.m. the steam whistle of the factory would summons them to work. The three men waited patiently and at 7 a.m. on the dot they heard the shrill sound of the steam whistle, the first sound of the outside world that they had heard in 17 months.
Their trek was not yet over but Shackleton knew he had to push himself and his men all the harder to get down to Stromness Bay before the reserves in strength gave out. Finally at 4 p.m. on 20th May 1916 they made it to Stromness. They encountered Mattheus Anderson, the station foreman at Stromness, who was working when he first saw the three bearded and dirt encrusted men. Anderson brought them to meet the manager of the whaling station, a man who was very familiar to Shackleton. The manager did not recognise Shackleton. One of Shackleton’s first questions to the manager was ‘was the war over?’. The Endurance had left England in August 1914, just as the Great War began in France and Belgium. The manager answered, ‘the war is not over, millions have been killed. Europe is mad. The world is mad.’ Eight days previously the last of the 1916 leaders were executed at Kilmainham Jail. Among them Sean Mac Diarmada and the critically injured James Connolly. The world indeed was mad.