Two weeks ago a delegation from Athy Heritage Centre Museum travelled to the Municipality of Saltdal in the far North of Norway. The purpose of the visit was to see Shackleton’s 'Cabin'. The cabin is the last surviving remnant of the exploration ship the Quest which Sir Ernest Shackleton voyaged towards the Antarctic in 1921, on what would be his last expedition. In that very cabin on the 5th of January 1922 the great explorer Shackleton died of a heart attack. After the expedition the ship was bought by a Norwegian boat builder Johan Drage who removed the cabin from the deck of the Quest and brought it to his family home where it has been preserved for almost 90 years. The current custodian and owner of the cabin is Johan Drage’s great grandson, Ulf Bakke. After a visit to Athy in March Ulf Bakke felt that Athy Heritage Centre Museum might be an appropriate new home for this important cultural artefact. Negotiations are ongoing at the moment and if they prove fruitful it is hoped that the cabin will be unveiled at the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School this coming October.
The cabin was at the heart of momentous events in Norway during the German invasion in 1940. A British expeditionary force was dispatched to Norway in the spring of 1940 by Winston Churchill. The troops included the first battalion of the Irish Guards. Amongst their number was second lieutenant Denis Fitzgerald. The London born Fitzgerald’s father was Lord Henry Fitzgerald, a younger son of the fourth Duke of Leinster and like many of the Leinster family Denis joined the British army at a young age. On the 14th of May 1940 the Irish Guards were being transported to the Saltdal region on a Polish ship the Chobry. At midnight the ship was bombed by German aircraft while Fitzgerald was having a shower in his cabin. With a fellow Irish guardsman, O’Shea, he escaped death by crawling through a porthole and dropping into the sea. Fitzgerald would publish in 1949 the history of the Irish Guards in the Second World War which, unusually for regimental history, is populated with a lot of detail about the officers and men of the regiment.
Fitzgerald was not the only soldier with Irish connections serving in Norway. A fellow officer in the Irish Guards was Lieutenant John Kennedy. Kennedy was from Bishops Court in North Kildare, from a family whose roots in the County went back to the late 17th century. Although schooled in Britain, Kennedy spent much of his summers in Kildare and was a popular member of the Kildare Hunt. Kennedy, along with Fitzgerald, was commended for his gallant conduct during the attack on the Chobry. The citation states that they 'displayed great calmness and courage and did valuable work in rescuing and caring for the wounded and they were one of the last to leave the ship. Many lives were saved by the display of coolness in their ability to organise the men'. Kennedy particularly saw much action with the regiment over the next couple of days. His coolness under fire impressed an officer in the Norwegian army Captain Ellinger. He wrote “a British plane appeared over us. I wanted to signal the pilot to help us against enemies on a wooded hill on a right flank to which we were unpleasantly exposed. An Irish ensign Kennedy, was very helpful, forming an arrow made up of men lying on the ground. The plane came quite low and the pilot waved to us that he had understood and proceeded on to the target. We held this position for two hours. When I was told that the evacuation of Rognan was completed, I then put my men on the lorries and we drove on very tired but very happy”.
In or about the 25th of May 1940 the Irish Guards found themselves in the vicinity of Saltdal trying to hold back the German offensive.
The cabin in the grounds of Johan Drage’s house was the site of a skirmish between German and British troops and an Irish guardsman died in the vicinity of the cabin. The guardsmen retreated back to the biggest local town Bodo and shortly after were evacuated back to England. They left behind them six fallen comrades all buried in the main churchyard of Saltdal including the soldier killed at Shackleton’s cabin. Among those buried in the Saltdal graveyard is 28 year old Norman Jordan from Belfast, 21 year old Michael Arthur Donnelly from Dublin and the Enniskillen born William Rankin. John Kennedy would go on to fight in North Africa, Italy and the campaign to liberate North-West Europe. Having fought for almost 5 years he died in February 1945 in Holland, two months from war's end