Part of the joy in researching and writing local history is making connections between people and places. The re-imagining and re-assessment of historical figures is an important part of this process. The Royal Irish Academy has been prominent in publishing new studies of major historical figures such as Eamon de Valera and its most recent publication, authored by Fintan O’Toole, ‘Judging Shaw’. This an interesting book which the author regards as a re-introduction to George Bernard Shaw. He states that Shaw, as a contemporary figure, has much more in common with musicians such as Bob Dylan and David Bowie than with the great Victorians, William Gladstone or Anthony Trollope. He observes that Bob Dylan in 2016 became the first artist since Bernard Shaw to achieve the unique distinction of receiving both an Oscar and a Nobel prize. Neither Athy nor Kildare can make any claims to associations with Shaw. Carlow town has that honour with the generous bequests made by the Shaw family over the last century, the shining light of which is that great cultural treasure, the Visual Centre for Contemporary Arts Centre and the George Bernard Shaw Theatre built in the grounds of St. Patrick’s College in Carlow.
I was however intrigued to come across a reference to a meeting between George Bernard Shaw and the Kilkea-born explorer, Ernest Shackleton. After Shackleton’s death in 1922 his brother-in-law, Charles Sarolea published in the Journal, ‘The Contemporary Review’ an article titled ‘Sir Ernest Shackleton a Study in personality’. Sarolea was a Professor of French in Edinburgh University and was also married to Julia Dorman, Shackleton’s sister-in-law. Sarolea describes a lunch date shared with Bernard Shaw and Shackleton where he observed two men who had much in common. Both had a quick and ready wit and though in their temperament and outlook in life they were different both were Irishmen who had established their reputations after leaving these shores. The lunch was marked by a continuous flow of stories and quips between the men which Sarolea described as a ‘continuous firework of story and anecdotes.’
Another great figure of that time was Sir Harry Lauder, the famous music hall singer and comedian. His was a name and a voice that would resonate with my late father’s generation and he enjoyed an extraordinary long career from the end of the Victorian age right into the 1930's.
It is not clear when Harry Lauder first ran into Ernest Shackleton, but certainly by 1909 when Shackleton had returned from the Antarctic they appeared to be moving in the same social circles. At a dinner hosted by a wealthy friend of Shackleton's, Lauder performed a series of songs. It was a lavish affair whereby the table was transformed into a picture of the Antarctic, with artificial snow and real ice, where a large model of Shackleton’s ship ‘Nimrod’ was placed at the edge of an ice barrier thickly populated by penguins with menu cards specially created by the artist, George Marston.
Lauder would go on to celebrate this friendship by releasing a song called ‘The Bounding Bounder’ or 'On the Bounding Sea' in late 1910 which was a comic tale of a joint expedition to the Antarctic involving Harry Lauder and Ernest Shackleton as regaled by Lauder. The recording was released on an Edison wax cylinder and such was the success that it was later released on a 78 record and was still available for sale as late as 1921. It appears that Lauder and Shackleton’s paths frequently crossed and an article in the Cork Examiner of 17th December 1912 reported that both men were embarking upon the Lusitania sailing from Cobh to the United States. Shackleton was heading to America on private business with the intention of delivering lectures about his Nimrod expedition, while Lauder had just completed a series of engagements in London and was to begin a tour of the United States for nine weeks, of mostly major cities such as New York and Chicago.
When the Great War broke out in 1914 it would find Shackleton in the Antarctic again on the ship ‘Endurance’, while Lauder was touring Australia. The war brought great sadness on Lauder’s family, with the loss of his only child, his son John, killed in action while serving with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on the Somme in 1916. Lauder spent much of the war years in organising concerts and fundraising appeals, particularly for the charity he established, the Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund for injured Scottish soldiers and sailors for which he received a knighthood in 1919. The death of his son also inspired the writing of the song called ‘The End of the Road’.
Shackleton would find an early death on his expedition to the Antarctic in January ’22, while Lauder would live until February 1950 only fully retiring after World War II during which he made a number of broadcasts with the BBC.