by ehistoryadmin on January 23, 2016


The iceman cometh – celebrating Kildare’s polar hero

Liam Kenny

As the weather changes and hints of winter creep into the bones, it might be a good time to think of Kildare and its association with places where the climate is unimaginably colder than anything an Irish winter can deliver.

For the people in Athy Heritage Centre Museum there is one standout connection to Ireland’s polar heritage and that is Kilkea-born Ernest Shackleton – a figure of world-class stature in the annals of Antarctic exploration. This October bank holiday weekend, the 14th Shackleton Autumn School will open in the Town Hall, Athy, with a diverse list of events which have been more than a year in the planning. The School, internationally recognised as one of the premier events in its field, features a top class list of speakers on a variety of subjects covering the environment, science, leadership, history and geography. Tim Jarvis, the renowned explorer who for the first time recreated Shackleton’s epic boat  journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia this Spring, will be talking of his experiences. The School programme ranges across international topics, from Russian involvement in early Antarctic exploration, to Castledermot based  Sharon Greene’s introduction to Eleanor Shackleton, sister of Ernest and pioneer of child nursing services in Canada. The scale of Shackleton’s ambition in 1914 is evident in an exhibition accompanying the School which tells the story of the 1957 crossing of Antarctica, a full 40 years after Shackleton’s attempt.

Two books will feature in Athy over the bank holiday weekend. The celebrated author Michael Smith has produced the first biography of Ernest Shackleton in a generation. This is a much anticipated publication and actor Aiden Dooley, well known to all as ‘Tom Crean – Polar explorer’ will launch it on the Friday. Dr Jesus Alcoba, Director of La Salle Business School in Madrid will launch his Spanish publication which focuses on Shackleton’s unique and highly effective style of leadership. It is an indication of the prestige associated with the Autumn School that Jesus has chosen the event for his new book.

One hundred years ago, Shackleton and his 28 crew were departing Buenos Aires for South Georgia and the Antarctic. Nobody could have anticipated the events of the following two years. Endurance was crushed, but though great energy, leadership and vision, Shackleton ensured all safely reached home. In so doing, he earned enduring admiration and respect worldwide. Meanwhile, others from Kildare were caught up in the heroic, but ultimately savage and destructive struggle in the trenches of Flanders and France where leadership and concern for individuals was often sorely lacking.

In addition to presenting a superb programme for the 14th Autumn School, the staff and committee at the Athy heritage Centre Museum deserve great credit for bringing to fruition a world class production which tells the Endurance story through words and music. “Shackleton’s Endurance” is the title of this project, which combines the skills of top authors, musicians, design and film artists from the locality. Brian Hughes, well known for his work on whistle and pipes has composed a unique and evocative soundtrack, which combines with broadcaster John MacKenna’s subtle and personal narrative to capture the emotions of the Endurance expedition.  Packaged in collectors-item sleeve designed by Francis Taaffe and Eamon Sinnott, the CD fills a major void in the retelling of Shackleton’s 1914 expedition.  On Sunday October 26th in the GBS theatre, Carlow, to a mood capturing backdrop developed by sculptor and graphic artist, Craig Blackwell, John and Brian will be joined on stage by Kildare County Orchestra and Monasterevin Gospel Choir in a premiere performance of “Shackleton’s Endurance”.

It is down to enthusiastic local groups, of which we have many in the locality, to highlight the rich historical heritage of the area. The Athy Heritage Centre Museum has an enviable track record in events and exhibitions, and with Shackleton has shown the possibilities of building an international event around a local hero.

In 2001, Frank Taaffe gathered a small group around him with the idea of running an autumn event on Ernest Shackleton. For the first few years, the constant challenge was to find lecturers and performers to fill the programme. Fourteen years later, the fledgling has gained an international reputation and is an eagerly sought-after event for the lecture circuit. Prestigious attendees, including Alexandra Shackleton, granddaughter of the explorer, and Polar experts Bob Headland, Rob Burton and Rob Stevenson go to great lengths to attend and lend their support. Recognition must also be given to local civic and business organisations for their response to this year’s initiatives to mark the centenary of the Endurance expedition, with particular mention to Kildare Arts and Library Services, and Athy International Concentrates.

The hardworking organising committee, led by Seamus Taaffe, have a lot of other plans in readiness for the coming years; a review of the 2014 programme and associated events makes it clear that they have once again excelled themselves. And although the subject matter at the polar conference might be chilly in nature, the welcome in Athy will be of the warmest.

Details of the 14th Shackleton Autumn School and “Shackleton’s Endurance” performance can be found on . Leinster Leader 21 October 2014 Looking Back, Series no: 404.

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