October brings with it a greyness in our morning skies and also unremitting rain. It is also the month that sees the return of the Shackleton Autumn School to the town of Athy. This year marks the 17th year of the school which has been a great success since its inception in 2001.
This year the school will feature lecturers from Ireland, Britain, Norway, Canada, Australia and the US. The diverse range of events planned by the Autumn School Committee will appeal to many different interests. The Norwegian Ambassador to Ireland, Ambassador Else Berit Eikeland, will be talking about the importance of polar history to the establishment of the Norwegian National Identity. Ambassador Eikeland took up office in September 2016 after a career in the Norwegian Foreign Service, laterally as the Polar Ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctica where she represented Norway’s interests in these regions. Her fellow Norwegian, Anne Melgård, a Curator at the National Library of Norway, will be talking about Norway’s great polar hero, Roald Amundsen, the first man to lead an expedition to the South Pole in December 1911.
Irish interest will not be neglected as the Galwegian, Enda O’Cioneen, now residing in Kildare, will talk about his exploits on the high seas over the last thirty years. Many of us will remember when Enda first came to prominence in the early 1980s when he attempted to cross the Atlantic singlehandedly in a 16ft. dinghy, albeit unsuccessfully when he capsized 300 miles short of the west coast of Ireland, but undaunted he completed the trip a few years later as a world first.
A particular feature of this year will be the involvement of the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre from Ohio University, Columbus, United States. This is the premier Polar institution in the United States and its involvement is a notable first for the Athy-Heritage Centre Museum. As I write this article a crate of artefacts is winging its way from America to Ireland to form the nucleus of an exhibition about the great American polar explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Byrd’s exploits in the Antarctica in the late 1920s and early 1930s were pioneering in their scale and their ambition. They effectively paved the way for the scientific research stations and bases which now are located all over the Antarctic continent. An exhibition dedicated to Byrd’s exploits with the title ‘Ushering in the Age of Mechanical Exploration: Richard E. Byrd’s First and Second Expeditions to Antarctica’ will be opened on the night of 27th October by Miss Laura Kissel, the Polar Curator for the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Centre Archival Program.
There is a welcome return to the Shackleton Autumn School for another Galway man, the actor Aidan Dooley. I can well remember a stormy night in Athy in October 2002 when I sat transfixed by the extraordinary performance of Aidan in his one man show ‘Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer’. To use that old theatrical cliché, ‘he held the audience in the palm of his hand’. Little did I know that many years later when he came to write a book about his experiences in performing as Tom Crean he was extremely concerned that the polar experts in the audience would not be convinced by his performance!
Since that date he has criss-crossed the world performing the show to huge acclaim. The performance, which will begin at 8.30 p.m. on the night of Sunday 29th October in the Athy Church of Ireland Community Centre, is bound to be a sell-out event and whether you have an interest in polar history or not you cannot but be enthralled by the drama of the life story of the Kerryman, Tom Crean.
There are a variety of lectures and events which should have some appeal to all of us and I would encourage the people of the town to attend as many events as they possibly can. As well as the lecturers themselves, there is a wonderful array of nationalities who come and stay in the town for the four days of the Shackleton School and there is a universally positive response to the town and its people from these visitors, which sees many of the same visitors return year after year after year. The Shackleton Autumn School has been pivotal in establishing Athy as the centre of the commemoration and celebration of the life of the Kildare-born explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton and it has been a catalyst in the plans for the re-development of the Museum which will gather pace once the Athy Library moves to its new site in the Dominican Church. There is no doubt that the success of the Shackleton Autumn School will be a source of pride for the people of Athy for many years yet to come. The Shackleton Autumn School runs over the weekend of 27th-30th October and details of all events can be found on the school’s website, www.shackletonmuseum.com.