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Shackleton Diary Discovery Presented to Kildare Museum

16th November 2019
Detail from the diary. A full transcript of the extracts is downloadable below Detail from the diary. A full transcript of the extracts is downloadable below

“We are celebrating here afloat on the Antarctic floe not knowing what way we will drift next or be frozen in for another winter... Breakfast a seal steak and cup of tea...dinner a pancake made of flour water fried in seal blubber... supper stewed seal and cocoa....”

The writer getting tired of a diet of seal was “186 miles from known land”, and stuck on a ship trapped in an ice floe in the Antarctic.

Now his recently discovered diary extract from over a century ago has been presented to the Co Kildare museum dedicated to the adventures of Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Shackleton museumThe diary extract has been presented to the Co Kildare museum

The mixture of diary and philosophical and scientific notes – the first of its kind to be unearthed in relation to Shackleton’s Imperial Transantarctic expedition 1914 -1917 – is believed to have been kept by Harry McNish, ship’s carpenter on the Endurance expedition.

The Endurance was focus of one of the most famous sea rescues of the early 20th century, when it became stuck in ice in January 1915 and was crushed that November during Shackleton’s attempt to sail south and cross Antarctica by land.

Kerryman Tom Crean and Corkman Tim McCarthy were part of the lifeboat crew who sailed some 800 nautical miles with Shackleton from Elephant island to south Georgia to get help for their stranded colleagues.

The diary surfaced at the BBC Antiques Roadshow, during a recording in Belfast in July 2018

The diary surfaced at the BBC Antiques Roadshow, during a recording in Belfast in July 2018.

Ms Nicki Jemphrey said it had been in her family’s possession for decades after it was given to her father over 40 years ago. She said she had “no idea who wrote it”.

The writer describes the ordeal of surviving on drifting ice and being forced to kill their dogs.

“Penguin came up rudder hole..Anxious for war news, ”the writer says at one point and muses on the outcome of the first world war.

“ Hope Russians will get Kaiser If Britain gets him they will set him up in a Palace at ratepayers expense", the writer says, giving latitude on each entry.

At one point, the writer records sledge races, and records how “all had hair shaved” and were photographed looking “like a fine lot of convicts”.

“Hope to get to civilisation one day,” he adds – and they all did.

Organisers of the annual autumn Shackleton school in Athy, Co Kildare, contacted Ms Jemphrey, and circulated copies of the diary for examination by three experts.

Philippa Wordie whose grandfather James Wordie was on Endurance and who collated the official accounts from diaries, Jonathan Shackleton, a descendant of the Irish-born explorer, and Bob Burton, formerly of the British Antarctic Survey, examined the document at their autumn school last month.

There is still a “bit of a mystery” about the entries, according to Kevin Kenny of the Shackleton autumn school, as Henry (or Harry) McNish wasn’t an officer and would not have been required to keep a log.

Handwriting also varies, with one entry referring to the importance of “increasing the supply of Irish honey, which is, by the way, superior to English honey...”

McNish was the oldest member of the expedition, and a socialist and United Free Church of Scotland member who hated bad language. He was known by his nickname, “Chippy”.

He fell out with Shackleton after a decision to have the ship’s cat, Mrs Chippy, put down along with the dog teams.

The diary has been given by Ms Jemphrey to the Shackleton Museum in the Athy Heritage Centre on long-term loan, and is now on display as the only account of its type.

Published in News Update
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004) on Irish helicopter search and rescue; and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010).

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