The October Bank Holiday weekend will see many overseas visitors arriving in Athy for the Shackleton Autumn School. Now in its 16th year the school brings together international and Irish polar experts and enthusiasts to deal with a wide range of topics concerning the Antarctic and those who have attempted to conquer its inhospitable regions.
In this the centenary of Ernest Shackleton’s courageous exploits following the crushing of his ship, ‘Endurance’ it is wonderful to relate that the Shackleton Autumn School has grown over the years from strength to strength. This year we will welcome eleven members of the Devon and Cornwall Polar Society, many of whom will be visiting Ireland for the first time. Another large group travelling from Norway includes the director and seven staff members of the Fram Museum Oslo. I am told that tickets for the weekend have been purchased by people travelling to the south Kildare venue from Belgium, Spain, Germany and America. Of course there will be, as in past years, a considerable number of attendees from the UK confirming, if such was needed, that Athy’s Shackleton Autumn School has become the premier annual polar event held anywhere in the world.
This is a huge compliment for an event which started off with great enthusiasm but without any experience among its organisers. The contacts made and developed throughout the world of polar studies arising from Shackleton’s connections with Athy have been hugely beneficial in developing the Shackleton Autumn School. It is now an event of huge importance which brings enormous benefits to Athy’s fledging tourist industry. Every bed and breakfast facility in the town of Athy is fully booked for the October Bank Holiday weekend and I am told that bookings have had to be made in surrounding towns by some attendees.
2016, important in itself in terms of Shackleton’s centenary, has been an extremely good year insofar as the development of the local Heritage Centre is concerned. The Heritage Council earlier in the year granted the Heritage Centre full museum status. The award was the culmination of three years work in improving standards and meeting the exacting requirements of the Museum Accreditation Programme. This was achieved with minimum staff levels and limited funding but was a just reward for the enthusiasm and willingness to work of all those involved, whether on a voluntary or paid basis, with the Heritage Centre.
This year also saw the acquisition of the cabin from the ship the ‘Quest’ in which Ernest Shackleton died in 1922. Acquiring this extraordinary piece of polar history for the Athy Heritage Centre was the work of many people, helped by the Centre’s good standing and acknowledges that it was the only permanent exhibition anywhere in the world devoted to Ernest Shackleton. The cabin is presently in Letterfrack, Co. Galway, undergoing conservation work before it comes to Athy to become part of the growing Shackleton display in the Town Hall.
Reports in the national press and television media concerning the cabin’s shipment from Norway to Ireland provided wonderful publicity for the Heritage Centre. It was matched some months later when the statue of Ernest Shackleton was unveiled in Emily Square. The statue has proved to be extremely popular in terms of visitors stopping off in Athy to see the wonderful work of the sculptor, Mark Richards. It has also proved popular amongst the locals, some of whom may have had doubts as to whether the statue was appropriate for Athy. Thanks must go to Peter Carey and his team in Kildare County Council for their foresight in commissioning a beautiful work of art to mark the centenary of the rescue of Shackleton’s men following their abandonment of the polar ship ‘Endurance’.
The development of the Heritage Centre is just a part of the town’s regeneration plan, as is the ongoing shop front painting scheme which has drawn much favourable comments in recent weeks. The town is on the right track insofar as planning for the future is concerned and we can look to the future with a confidence which was not previously shared by many.
The Shackleton Autumn School will be opened at 7.30 p.m. on Friday, 28th October by Mark Richards, the man whose wonderful work stands proud today in Emily Square. Everyone is welcome to attend if for nothing else than to enjoy the wine reception which this year is being kindly sponsored by the Athy Solicitors.
The lectures commence on Saturday morning and continue on Sunday. Pick up a programme from the Heritage Centre or the Athy Lions Book Shop in Duke Street.