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Leinster Leader 18 October 2007
Kildare-born explorer recalled 100 years after Antarctic adventure
It’s the time of year again when householders will be dipping the oil tank, rooting out the hot water bottles from the back of the press, and ensuring that the there is a can of de-icer tucked in the car glovebox. And all because the temperature might drop to three or four degrees below zero on a few days of an Irish winter. Think then of the resilience needed to cope with weeks of existence where the temperature rarely rose above minus ten … add in biting wind, penetrating blizzards, and an almost complete lack of shelter and support and you will get some idea of the ordeal faced by Kildare-born explorer Ernest Shackleton whose name has become a byword for vision, determination and leadership.
Although the placid tillage lands of south Kildare might seem a long way from the ferocious storms of the south Atlantic it might not be all that surprising that Ernest Shackleton was to find himself in the pantheon of polar explorers. His father’s background was rooted in generations of stoic Quakers who had settled in Ballitore since the early 1700s. His mother’s maternal roots lay ultimately in the fighting Fitzmaurices, ancient Norman stock who had settled in Kerry. As one account of Shackleton’s life noted ‘ These two family lines – hardworking Quaker pacifists and hot-blooded adventurers – were to find a perfect point of fusion in Ernest.’
He was the second child of this union and spent his early years at the family home in Kilkea House, between Castledermot and Athy. His father however was unsettled and moved the family on several occasions so that by his tenth year Ernest found himself living in London. Not interested in following a conventional career into the civil service or professions he was apprenticed to be a ship’s boy in the Merchant Navy. Although it was a harsh introduction to life on the high seas Ernest seemed to develop a rapport with his shipmates and showed leadership quality,  earning the respect of old salts many years his senior.
While he was literally learning the ropes in the skills of long range navigation other currents were stirring in the drawing rooms of London which would eventually see him taking ship to the frozen wastes of the Antarctic, the one continent not yet coloured pink on the map of the British Empire. His first experience of the icebound southern continent was on the crew of an expedition promoted by Britain’s Royal Geographic society and led by Robert Falcon Scott of the Royal Navy. Scott and Shackleton’s polar stories, the first ending in tragedy, the second in survival, were to define for all time the British experience of polar exploration. Shackleton was to return to the Antarctic 100 years ago, when on 31 October 1907 he led his own expedition on board a ship called the Nimrod. His expedition, like others launched in later years, was freighted with serious scientific objectives to study the weather and geology of the Antarctic, but ultimately too there was the public expectation to plant the Union Jack on the South Pole before any other nation got there. The story of Shackleton’s expedition which came within 100 tantalising miles of the Pole, further into the ferocity of the Antarctic climate than any previous explorer, was itself surpassed by his later expedition on the ship, the Endurance, when the vessel became trapped in the ice and he led a mission to get help across 800 miles of storm lashed ocean.
It is the 1907 expedition which will form the theme of the annual Ernest Shackleton autumn school which takes place in Athy over this October holiday weekend. A programme of theatre, films, field trips and most particularly talks by polar experts will recreate the life and times of the most internationally famous Kildare native of modern times. It would be good if his achievement was also recognised by his county compatriots of the current generation. The full Shackleton weekend programme is available from Margaret Walsh at the Athy Heritage Centre, tel: 059-8633075.
  • Shackleton – an Irishman in Antarctica by Jonathan Shackleton and John McKenna published by the Lilliput press gives more detail on the explorer’s Kildare origins.
series No.37

Liam Kenny examines the life of ther great Antartctic explorer, Ernest Shackleton. Our thanks to Liam

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