by jdurney on February 4, 2011

Ernest Shackleton … Kildare’s greatest person?

Over the past few weeks RTE has been running a series of documentary programmes as part on a selection process to nominate Ireland’s greatest person. The final slate identified by RTE after various public surveys and on-line polls includes Michael Collins, James Connolly, Mary Robinson, John Hume and Bono – an eclectic mix for sure. The series – brilliantly presented by such competent broadcasters as Miriam O’Callaghan, Joe Duffy and Dave Fanning – provided an opportunity to consider the contributions made by prominent figures to Irish society in the context of their times. Applying the concept to Co. Kildare with a view to identifying the greatest son or daughter of the short-grass would throw up an interesting list of high achieving Lilywhites. From the domain of politics there would be a range of characters from Lord Edward Fitzgerald of 1798 fame to former European Commissioner Charlie McCreevy. There would be a long list under the heading of sport with the racing industry likely to provide strong candidates – Dermot Weld and Ted Walsh being obvious choices under this category. The most commercially successful Co. Kildare export is one Arthur Guinness who in 1759 founded a brewery at St. James’ Gate in Dublin which was to gain global recognition for his product and brand. However in terms of honours for leadership and achievement in the face of adversity it would be hard to find a better Kildare-born representative than Ernest Shackleton, Antarctic explorer and adventurer. Curiously, Shackleton’s fame lies as much in what he did not achieve as what he did. His judgement in turning back from an attempt to reach the South Pole in January 1909, one of the great prizes of early twentieth century exploration, won him admiration as a leader who put commonsense above ambition. Somewhat self-effacingly he later told his wife Emily that his decision in turning back was based on his thinking that ‘a live donkey was better than dead lion.’  Shackleton was never to reach the South Pole, the honour went to the efficient Norwegian explorer Amundsen in 1912 who won the race for the pole ahead of the tragic British explorer Robert Falcon Scott who died on the return journey with three companions. Modern writers have, controversially, compared Shackleton’s good sense in turning back with Scott’s rashness in insisting on marching for the Pole. Shackleton’s enduring reputation was based on his super-human resilience and leadership when his second expedition in attempting to cross the Antarctic continent was halted by the punishing conditions. His ship the Endurance was trapped in the ice in January 1915. For more than a year Shackleton and his crew endured life on the ice, surviving such disasters as the crushing and sinking of  the Endurance, and a period camped on drifting ice floes, all the time hammered by violent storms and blood-chilling temperatures. Eventually they reached a barren island known as Elephant Island and prepared for a long wait for help.  More than twelve months later with no sign of help appearing Shackleton made the decision to take to the turbulent ocean in an open lifeboat and attempt to organise a rescue from the distant South Georgia island. With a small crew including Kerry man Tom Crean, he braved the appalling seas and after fifteen days of the worst sailing conditions in the world reached the unpopulated southern shore of South Georgia. Shackleton summoned his strength again and trekked across the mountainous island to a whaler settlement. From there he managed to get a rescue effort underway and return to Elephant island and rescue his twenty-two crew. When some months later he returned to Britain, Shackleton was lauded for his resourcefulness and leadership. The lure of the South Pole was compelling for the Kildare man and in 1921 he set off again for the Antarctic. It was to be his last expedition; at South Georgia in January 1922 he suffered a heart attack. His wife, Emily, sent instructions that he was to be buried on the island overlooking the cold southern oceans which had been the setting for his life of exploration. His Co. Kildare origins (he was born at Kilkea House near Castledermot) have inspired the Shackleton autumn school in Athy, this year marking its tenth anniversary. A great variety of speakers, film, exhibitions and drama feature over the October Bank Holiday weekend where activities are based in the Town Hall in Athy. Details of the attractive programme for the weekend can be found at or by calling the Athy Heritage centre at 059-8633075.  Attendance at some or all of the events on the Athy programme might help answer the question … is Ernest Shackleton Kildare’s greatest person?

Liam Kenny in his column ‘Nothing New Under the Sun’ from the Leinster Leader of 21st October 2010 asks the question is Ernest Shackleton Kildare’s greatest person? Our thanks to Liam.

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