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National Maritime Museum to Host Virtual Talk on Ernest Shackleton

15th February 2021
Shackleton's ship Endurance embedded in the Antarctic ice of the Weddell Sea – one of Frank Hurley's remarkable photos which have done so much to immortalise an extraordinary expedition. Shackleton's ship Endurance embedded in the Antarctic ice of the Weddell Sea – one of Frank Hurley's remarkable photos which have done so much to immortalise an extraordinary expedition.

In almost every crisis or period of exceptional and continuing difficulty - such as we're living through now - people will hope to relate to the ultimately successful example of survival to be found in the experiences of Polar explorer Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922) during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-1916. He may not have achieved his objective of crossing the Antarctic landmass, but he and his crew survived a ten month period ice-embedded in the Weddell Sea in their ship Endurance. And when she was finally crushed, Shackleton successfully led the way in an heroic journey across the ice floes for another five months, and then across the Southern Ocean by small boat such that, in time, all 22 expedition members were brought safely home.

There are so many aspects to this story that even now it has not been fully analysed. But as regular Afloat.ie readers will be aware, one of the heroes involved, Tom Crean of County Kerry, is to be further commemorated through having the new Irish Research Vessel named after him. And in Mayo, noted Arctic voyager Jarlath Cunnane is building a replica of the 22ft ship's lifeboat James Caird in honour of the memory of Henry McNeish, the Scottish ship's carpenter who made such a successful job of converting the standard open rowing lifeboat into a decked ketch-rigged sailing vessel that she carried Shackleton and five shipmates across the 600 miles of the Southern Ocean to South Georgia and the eventual retrieval of all personnel.

The 22ft lifeboat James Caird – newly converted to "a seagoing ketch" – tethered to a long line after launching at Elephant Island on 24th April 1916, with the spars being floated out to her for the rig to be completed. Tim McCarthy of Kinsale was one of the crew for the epic voyage to South Georgia, and was subsequently given special praise for his heroism in keeping the James Caird afloat.The 22ft lifeboat James Caird – newly converted to "a seagoing ketch" – tethered to a long line after launching at Elephant Island on 24th April 1916, with the spars being floated out to her for the rig to be completed. Tim McCarthy of Kinsale was one of the crew for the epic voyage to South Georgia, and was subsequently given special praise for his heroism in keeping the James Caird afloat

It's intriguing that several of the key people involved were Irish or of Irish descent. Shackleton himself had been born in Kilkea, Co Kildare, though he lived in London from the age of ten. But Tom Crean was Kerry through and through, and eventually retired to his home village of Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula to run the South Pole Inn.

Another of the small crew which sailed on the James Caird was Tim McCarthy, who'd been born in Kinsale in 1888. Having survived the Trans-Antarctic Expedition, on his return he transferred to the Royal Naval Reserve for service in the Great War of 1914-18, and within months had died while manning a gun on an armed tanker in the Atlantic.

A third Irish surname which resonates down the ages is that of Frank Hurley, the Expedition Photographer and Film-maker, whose exceptional skills in his special role have done so much to enhance the memories of the Shackleton expedition. James Francis Hurley (1885-1962) may sound like someone from just up the road, but in fact he was Australian, though his ancestors hadn't arrived in Australia by way of a prison ship – on the contrary, his father had arrived via work as a printer in Lancashire.

Frank Hurley, one of the great pioneers of expedition photographyFrank Hurley, one of the great pioneers of expedition photography

Be that as it may, his superb images have done much to fix the Shackleton expedition in our mind's eye. But ultimately, it has to be remembered that none of it would have happened had it not been for the exceptional character and abilities of Ernest Shackleton himself.

This was set in context by another noted Antarctic explorer and renowned geologist, Sir Raymond Priestly. When asked to compare the great names of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration – Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundesen, and Ernest Shackleton – he responded:

"For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton".

The National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire has invited Kevin Kenny from the Shackleton Museum in Athy to give an overview of Ernest Shackleton's Life, and he has drawn his title from Priestly's assessment:

"....GET DOWN ON YOUR KNEES AND PRAY FOR SHACKLETON....."

This talk will give an overview of Ernest Shackleton's life, from childhood in Ireland through his extraordinary exploits and what he got up to when he wasn't battling the Polar elements. Everybody knows a piece about Shackleton - the intention of this talk is to build the person around that piece of knowledge.

Shackleton was a multifaceted and in many ways contradictory character whose Irish Quaker roots cast a large influence on his life and his major achievements. Despite failing to achieve the objectives of his expeditions, he has reached iconic status for his determination, leadership and decision making.

In the period 1902 – 1922, he participated in four Antarctic expeditions, three of which he led. He was something of an outsider in the exploration establishment of the time, as a merchant rather than naval seafarer. He was considered as Irish by his contemporaries, though it is only in recent years that he has gained recognition in his country of birth.

A studio portrait of "Ernest Shackleton the Explorer".A studio portrait of "Ernest Shackleton the Explorer"

Sir Ernest Shackleton on his last expedition in 1922, aged just 47Sir Ernest Shackleton on his last expedition in 1922, aged just 47

By any measure, Shackleton is a colossus in the pantheon of Polar exploration. This talk will pull together the well-known and lesser known achievements and traits of the person that was Ernest Shackleton.

The Shackleton Museum, Emily Square, Athy, Co. Kildare hosts a permanent exhibition devoted to Ernest Shackleton. Highlights include an original sledge and harness from his Antarctic expeditions, a 15-foot model of Shackleton's ship Endurance, an exhibition of unique family photographs and an audio visual display featuring Frank Hurley's original film footage of the Endurance expedition.

In 2015, the Museum acquired the ship's cabin from the polar ship Quest in which Ernest Shackleton died in 1922, aged just 47.

ABOUT THE SPEAKER, KEVIN KENNY

The fortunate purchase of a second hand book with a postcard from Ernest Shackleton as a pagemarker is responsible for Kevin's interest in the Kildare-born Polar Explorer. Shackleton has been an easy travelling companion since, and has popped up on the most surprising occasions.

Kevin Kenny (left) with explorer Ranulp Fiennes in Athy, Co KildareKevin Kenny (left) with explorer Ranulp Fiennes in Athy, Co Kildare

From Kildare, Kevin is a board member of Athy's Shackleton Museum. He is one of the organisers of the annual Shackleton Autumn School, now in its 21st year, and has contributed to other projects aimed at understanding the unique traits of Shackleton. He feels that Shackleton's qualities are relevant to many of the challenges faced in modern life, and never more so than the current pandemic. He is always enthusiastic to share his discovery of Shackleton with others

Link to register for this National Maritime Museum event on Thursday 25th February 2021 here

Published in Historic Boats
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

Email The Author

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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