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A Beacon of Memory for Edward Bransfield, Discoverer of Antarctica

22nd November 2019
The Bransfield Memorial The Bransfield Memorial Photo: Tony Whelan

The well-known beacon at the entrance to Baltimore Harbour in West Cork has provided the idea for the memorial to the Irishman who discovered Antarctica.

In the cold, icy waters of the Southern Ocean, Edward Bransfield was keeping a lookout on a British expedition ship in January of 1820 when he saw Antarctica – the first man to set eyes on this vast icy continent.

A native of the village port and harbour of Ballinacurra in East Cork, he had been press-ganged - forced into service in the British Royal Navy, where he rose through the ranks to command.

So an Irishman, sailing under the British flag, was the first to set eyes on Antarctica. But, unlike Shackleton, Tom Crean and others, his name is not widely known, a regrettable failure of national knowledge about Irish mariners.

"An Irishman, sailing under the British flag, was the first to set eyes on Antarctica"

We’ve been reporting on Afloat the efforts of a local committee in East Cork to change this and they are very close to doing so, having raised the money to pay for a memorial which will be erected to his memory in Ballinacurra, near Midleton in January – 200 years after his discovery of Antarctica. Two weeks ago we reported that Ireland’s world sailor, Damian Foxall, will be leading voyages in the waters where several areas are named after Bransfield.

ICBERG IN THE BRANSFIELD STRAIT ANTARCTICAAn iceberg In The Bransfield Strait, Antarctica

The sculptor, chosen to make the memorial is Matt Thompson whose workshop is at Churchtown, on a lovely stretch of the East Cork coastline, south of Ballycotton, as the coastal area winds onwards to Cork Harbour.

The Bransfield commission was challenging for him to decide on the type of memorial because of the lack of a photograph of the mariner.

“None exists. Despite intensive searching, we could not find a photograph of Edward Bransfield,” according to the memorial committee.

So a decision had to be made on what form the memorial would take.

Matt Thompson, who himself sailed in the harbour waters up to Ballinacurra, did not know a lot about Bransfield, much like the general public situation of lack of knowledge of the mariner, before the Ballinacurra memorial committee started its campaign. I went to his workshop to see the memorial, where he explained to me the connection with the Baltimore beacon with which sailors cruising the Cork coastline will be aware.

Listen to Sculptor Matt Thompson on the Podcast below.

Published in Tom MacSweeney
Tom MacSweeney

About The Author

Tom MacSweeney

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Tom MacSweeney writes a weekly column for He also presents the maritime radio programme This Island Nation on community radio stations around Ireland.

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