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The Shackleton Endurance Antarctic Expedition Just Keeps On Giving

10th February 2021
Men of the High Latitudes – Jarlath Cunnane and Mick Brogan with Northabout at Westport Quay in their return from circling the Arctic. Their current mission is ensuring proper recognition for Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's Scottish ship's carpenter Harry McNish Men of the High Latitudes – Jarlath Cunnane and Mick Brogan with Northabout at Westport Quay in their return from circling the Arctic. Their current mission is ensuring proper recognition for Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton's Scottish ship's carpenter Harry McNish

When Afloat.ie's Shipping Correspondent Jehan Ashmore scooped all other media last week with the revelation that the new Irish Research Vessel will be named Tom Crean, the wave of warmth and sheer goodwill which greeted the news was remarkable. For although you don't have to know all the details of the heroically-failed Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1917, you'll know that it was led by Ernest Shackleton of a Kildare family, and you'll further know that over the years, one of its true heroes has emerged as Tom Crean of Annascaul in County Kerry.

Tom Crean of Annascaul, Co Kerry, in the AntarcticTom Crean of Annascaul, Co Kerry, in the Antarctic

Their ship Endurance became trapped and ultimately crushed in the ice, and in the end their only hope of salvation was for Shackleton to take a small but select crew including Tom Crean in the modified 22ft ship's lifeboat James Caird, and sail the 600 miles from Elephant Island in the Antarctic across the Great Southern Ocean to South Georgia, starting on 24th April 1916 when the stormy southern Autumn was already well advanced.

Their success in completing the voyage, and the subsequent securing of a ship in South America in order to successfully retrieve their 22 shipmates left behind on Elephant Island, deservedly became the stuff of legend. For at a time when the World War of 1914-1918 was at its height with deaths already in the millions, Shackleton had saved all his men through inspired leadership and management of such quality that his conduct of the expedition has become a regular study in advanced management institutes.

Harry McNish at the vital task of converting the lifeboat James Caird into a sailable seagoing propositions on Elephant IslandHarry McNish at the vital task of converting the lifeboat James Caird into a sailable seagoing propositions on Elephant Island.

Job done. Without the luxury of sea trials of any kind, the Harry McNish-modified lifeboat James Caird was launched at Elephant Island on 24th April 1916, and immediately departed on the 600-mile passage across the Great Southern Ocean to South GeorgiaJob done. Without the luxury of sea trials of any kind, the Harry McNish-modified lifeboat James Caird was launched at Elephant Island on 24th April 1916, and immediately departed on the 600-mile passage across the Great Southern Ocean to South Georgia

It remains a source of a fascination which continues to grow, not least in the tragedy of knowing that, having brought his men safely home against all odds, Shackleton had to live with the knowledge that several were soon killed on being drafted in for active service in the Great War.

But though his great success in completing the incredible voyage to South Georgia has been honoured - not least in the fact that it has attracted at least five re-enactments in replicas of the James Caird - there is one cause of concern which many share, and that's the way in which Shackleton allocated the very special Polar Medals which King George V had created to honour the expedition.

For Shackleton's list was to very deliberately exclude four members of the crew that "The Boss" – as he was invariably called – felt had not really pulled their weight, and one of those was Henry McNish, the Ship's Carpenter, who was actually fully trained as a shipwright, but was game for any job to do with working with wood.

However, McNish (or McNeish) was like a caricature of a Glaswegian, with a sometimes obtuse personality and a Scots accent often impenetrable to people of an English background like Shackleton, who'd gone to school at Dulwich College south of London, such that their relationship was an almost immediate area of friction and misunderstanding.

Yet there's no denying that Harry McNish was a very able carpenter, busy with jobs well done while the Endurance voyaged south, while his ultimate achievement was the conversion to a seagoing sailboat of the lifeboat James Caird, with raised topsides and a proper deck using any materials he had to hand, including planks which he had to create by sawing up a spare spar.

The Supervisor Cat – a crewmate's impression of Harry McNish and his cat Mrs Chippy at work aboard Endurance The Supervisor Cat – a crewmate's impression of Harry McNish and his cat Mrs Chippy at work aboard Endurance

And once the job was done, McNish was selected to be on the crew across to South Georgia, despite the fact that he and Shackleton seemed scarcely able to be in each other's presence. Shackleton later said that the main reason he brought McNish along on the Caird voyage was because he was a very vocal socialist who kept his own journal of the voyage, and was likely to foment trouble if left behind in Elephant Island.

Another source of friction lay in the fact that McNish had been the only crewmember who brought along a pet on the ship, his cat Mrs Chippy. Mrs Chippy happened to be a neutered male, but whatever the officers may have thought, Mrs Chippy was much liked by everyone in the crew, and it was a source of much pain when Shackleton decreed that he'd to be left behind on the Endurance, and shot dead as they left in order to save him from a long and lingering death through starvation and cold.

The James Caird approaching South Georgia at the conclusion of her incredible voyage from Elephant IslandThe James Caird approaching South Georgia at the conclusion of her incredible voyage from Elephant Island

With so much bad blood between them, Shackleton's non-award of the Polar Medal to Harry McNish now defines our perceptions of their relationship. Shackleton himself wasn't to be around long to be aware of this, as he died aged only 47 of heart failure in South Georgia while leading his third expedition to the Antarctic 1922.

But although McNish was to die destitute in New Zealand in 1930, there was already a feeling that he'd been badly done by on the Polar Medal, with his rejection a very public snub. And since then, there has been a growing ground swell in favour of the view that he deserved better of Shackleton.

One who thinks that very strongly is Arctic veteran Jarlath Cunnane of Mayo who – in the latest edition of the Irish Cruising Club Annual superbly edited by Maire Breathnach – tells of how he has been getting himself through the lockdowns by using his very handy building shed near Rosmoney on Clew Bay to build a replica of the James Caird in honour of Harry McNish.

Jarlath Cunnane with the James Caird replica hull in frame at Rosmoney on Clew Bay.  Photo: Mick BroganJarlath Cunnane with the James Caird replica hull in frame at Rosmoney on Clew Bay. Photo: Mick Brogan

The planking advances on the new replicaGetting there. The planking advances on the new replica

The original James Caird is preserved on exhibition in Dulwich College (incidentally also the alma mater of P. G. Wodehouse and Raymond Chandler, a most unlikely grouping with Ernest Shackleton), and during a lifting of restrictions, Jarlath and fellow Mayo sailing polymath Mick Brogan got themselves to Dulwich to confirm measurements, as the James Caird's precise dimensions somehow became a matter of debate.

Now the hull of the Harry McNish is completed to the James Caird's original form, but Jarlath Cunnane is waiting until the spirit of the difficult but talented Glaswegian, who made her into a seagoing sailing proposition, comes along to visit Rosmoney and gives his approval for the final planks to go in.

The shape of the original James Caird hull has now been replicated this week at Rosmoney, and they await the spirit of Harry McNish to tell them to add the planks as he did in 1916The shape of the original James Caird hull has now been replicated this week at Rosmoney, and they await the spirit of Harry McNish to tell them to add the planks as he did in 1916. Photo: Jarlath Cunnane

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, Harry McNish (they called him McNeish) has acquired an almost cult status. It began at his death in 1930, when the New Zealand authorities suddenly discovered who had been living quietly among them, and they gave him a state funeral with full Naval Honours to Karori Cemetery in Wellington. It all then became complete when a determined little statue of Mrs Chippy was placed on the grave in 2016.

And who knows, but perhaps none of this – whether at Rosmoney or in Wellington – might have happened, had not Shackleton denied Harry McNish his well-earned Polar Medal.

Forever together. Mrs Chippy immortalized in stone on Harry McNish's grave in Wellington, New ZealandForever together. Mrs Chippy immortalized in stone on Harry McNish's grave in Wellington, New Zealand

Published in Historic Boats
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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