On Friday next, the 17th Shackleton Autumn School will be officially opened. The very first Autumn School was launched with enthusiasm, some little knowledge and lots of ambition but with little realisation of what would be achieved over the following years. The School has grown to become a truly international event regarded by Polar experts and enthusiasts as the worlds foremost annual Polar gathering. A relatively small Irish provincial town previously largely known outside the island of Ireland is now known far and wide as a centre for its annual Polar get together.
Looking back over the years and reviewing the visitors books in the Heritage Centre I have identified visitors to the Autumn School from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Chile, America as well as France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Norway and all regions of Great Britain. The Autumn School had received as guests, Ambassadors from Japan, Norway and Australia and this year we had hoped for the American Ambassador to Ireland to open the School but unfortunately the ambassadorial appointment is still awaited.
For me one of the highlights of past years was the attendance of President Michael D. Higgins to open the 2012 Shackleton Autumn School. This was a great honour for Athy and the local Heritage Centre and confirmed, if such was needed, that the Shackleton Autumn School had become an important national cultural event. There has been a great variety of national figures who have come to Athy over the last weekend of October since the first school was opened. One of the early school’s was opened by Brian Keenan, the Northern Ireland writer who was a hostage for several years in the Lebanon with Terry Waite and John McCarthy. His visit aroused enormous interest and his address in the library of the Town Hall did not disappoint. David Norris, Joycean scholar was a colourful and highly entertaining guest of honour on the opening night a few years ago. Another guest on opening night was Fintan O’Toole, Irish Times journalist and writer who gave a thoughtful and incisive exposition of Ireland’s social and political development on the fringe of the European Community. One of my favourites was Kevin Myers whose address to the audience was followed up by a question and answer session which gave rise to a contribution from the floor making an uncomplimentary mark regarding Kevin’s writing ability. I must say how disappointed I am that such a wonderful writer as Kevin Myers is deprived of a readership because of the reaction to the very last article he wrote for the Sunday Times.
The Shackleton Autumn School is not just a series of lectures for every programme includes either a musical or a dramatic presentation which always proves an attractive addition to the weekend’s events. One of the early Autumn Schools featured Aidan Dooley’s dramatic presentation of the Tom Crean story and he returned the following year with the Ernest Shackleton one man show. Since then Aidan Dooley has presented his shows in London, New York, Dublin and many other venues and we are delighted to welcome him back this year for a further presentation of his Tom Crean show. It takes place in the Church of Ireland community hall on Sunday starting at 8.30pm. Tickets costing €10 can be purchased in the local Heritage Centre or at the Church of Ireland Hall on the night.
John MacKenna, author, whose latest book of poetry is now on sale has been a wonderful friend of the Autumn School having acted in several of his own dramatic presentations over the years. Perhaps his best known contribution was to the “Shackleton Endurance” a musical journey through the story of the Endurance expedition of 1914 - 1917. John scripted that wonderful story while Brian Hughes composed the music. Both John and Brian with others put on a wonderful performance in the Visual Arts Centre, Carlow which at the time was the only venue in this area which could cater for the numbers attending. Brian Hughes whose latest album “This Day Twenty Years” celebrating 20 years of music making was launched last week, also performed during previous Autumn Schools. One such performance was in Frank O’Brien’s Pub recognised as the School’s Clubroom during the Autumn School weekend, when Brian on the tin whistle teamed up with the late Michael Delaney of Kilkea and Dun Chaoin, Co Kerry whose rendition of local ballads, some written by Michael himself, proved a great hit with visitors and locals alike. Brian performed on another Shackleton weekend as did the Clancy group of Irish musicians which included Toss Quinn, Martin Cooney, Seamus Byrne and Conor O’Carroll. Mention must also be made of Jacinta O’Donnell who charmed the overseas visitors when she performed at an Autumn School dinner in the Clanard Court Hotel a few years ago.
The official opening of the 17th Ernest Shackleton Autumn School takes place in Athy’s Heritage Centre at 7.30pm on Friday, 27th of October. Come along and join the visitors from overseas and from elsewhere in Ireland in celebration of one of the premier events hosted each year in Athy.