Tuesday, October 29, 2019

A vision for the Shackleton Museum

On Friday I addressed those gathered in the Town Hall for the opening of this year’s Shackleton Autumn School. Part of my speech follows, being my thoughts on one aspect of the town’s future development potential. Athy historically developed as a market town, providing services and retailing outlets for the wider hinterland of south Kildare, west Wicklow and eastern part of Laois. The industrial development of the 1930s saw Athy benefitting ahead of other towns possibly because of the debacle surrounding the loss of the sugar factory to Carlow in the 1920s. Industrial employment in Athy was at its highest in the late 1950s and 1960s, but the closure of two large factories and job reductions in Athy’s oldest industry saw the beginning of the decline in the commercial life of the town. That decline accelerated in recent years prompting the local Lions Club to commission the production of a regeneration plan for the town. That plan recognising the strength of the area’s natural and man built heritage and the strength of it’s cultural and historical links pointed to tourism as the often neglected element of the area’s economic revival strategy. The development of the Shackleton Museum offers an opportunity to improve the town’s tourism take, which if coupled with an appropriately themed development of Whites Castle could prove invaluable in the revival of the town’s fortunes. This was the point I was making when I made the following remarks:- ‘The people of Athy were slow to recognise Ernest Shackleton as someone who was born within the towns hinterland. It was a failure initially born out of a lack of awareness and a mindset stultified by war weariness. For in the years following Shackleton’s death, the Irish people were pre-occupied with shoring up a nation shattered by war and civil conflict. The polar adventures of the Kilkea born Shackleton were understandably overlooked by the Irish people. Whenever they were reported, the National press invariably claimed Shackleton to be a native of Kilkee, Co. Clare. Research in connection with Athy’s application for Heritage town status in the late 1980s correctly identified the south Kildare place of his birth and from that emerged the initial Shackleton themed Exhibition in Athy’s Heritage Centre. A giant step was taken with the opening of the first Shackleton Autumn School in 2001. This was a recognition of Shackleton’s greatness as a Polar Explorer and appropriately commemorated the Explorer in the County of his birth. The celebration of Shackleton’s remarkable gift for leadership found further expression in the commissioning of the wonderfully executed statue of Shackleton by Mark Richards which now stands proudly outside this building. The re-naming of the Heritage Centre as a Shackleton Museum and the planned re-ordering and re-fitting of the extended museum to occupy the entire former Town Hall, marks a new phase in Athy’s continuing effort to reclaim the Polar Explorer as its own. Our vision for the Shackleton Museum is to build a museum which can be a National and International reference point for polar enthusiasts as well as International and Irish visitors alike. It will, I believe, be the only Museum in the world dedicated to Shackleton and will tell his story through words, images and innovative interpretations as well as displaying our own unique collection of artefacts. The Museum development signals a change in the economic model on which the Town of Athy has developed over the years. The Town’s regeneration plan commissioned by Athy Lions Club recognises the importance of tourism as an element in the future growth strategy for this area. The Shackleton Museum will be an important part of the town’s tourism infrastructure which will allow Athy to reposition itself as a tourist destination.’ Athy is at a crossroads in terms of its transition from market town status to that of a thriving urban centre hoping to benefit from a mix of industry, main street commercial activity and an improving tourism sector. The tourism element can hopefully be fashioned out of the planned Blueway development and the Shackleton Museum experience, complemented by an appropriate museum development in Whites Castle. It is vitally important that the castle sited in such a prominent position in the heart of the town is secured for the public and adopted for use in attracting visitors to Athy.

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