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I SAW A LONE STAR HOVER, GEM-LIKE ABOVE THE BAY

I saw a lone star hover, gem-like above the bay’

It took over three weeks in January 1922 for the news to reach his native county that the celebrated polar explorer, Kildare-born  Sir Ernest Shackleton, had died while on an Antarctic voyage.  The first issue of the Kildare Observer newspaper in February 1922 under a headline ‘Great Explorer Dead’ explained how the sad message had travelled from the southern hemisphere:‘The news was cabled on Sunday (29 January) by Reuter’s correspondent in Monte Video (Uruguay) where the body had been brought by a Norwegian steamer’. He had died over three weeks previously on 5th January on board his ship, the Quest, which had been moored in the small whaling harbour of Grytviken on the remote South Georgia islands. He had been leading his fourth expedition to the Antarctic which intended to carry out scientific explorations on the frozen continent.
The first sign that there was anything wrong with Shackleton’s health emerged in December of 1921 when his vessel had docked at Rio de Janeiro on its long voyage south from Britain to the Antarctic. He had suffered a heart attack there but against the advice of the expedition’s doctors had insisted on continuing as leader of the expedition despite all the stresses of leading men into such a hostile environment as the south Atlantic. And that hostility had proved only too real when having left Rio the ship encountered punishing weather conditions as it plunged into he storm surged waves of the south Atlantic. On Christmas day 1921 Shackleton recorded in his diary that the storms were the worst he had ever experienced.
They pressed on and by the first week of January had found temporary shelter in Grytviken a whaling station of a few hundred souls on South Georgia. Shackleton retired to his cabin on the evening of 4 January but in the early hours of the following morning he called for help and asked Dr. Macklin, the expedition doctor for something to cure pain in his face and back. But it was too late. Macklin was preparing the medicine when Shackleton took a severe turn and died.
Distances in the southern ocean were vast and radio communications almost non-existent so the only way to get news out of isolated South Georgia was to set sail over thousands of miles of ocean for a port on the south American continent to send a message via international telegraph links.
It was decided to send Shackleton’s body on a Norwegian ship from Grytviken across the vast expanse of the Atlantic to Monte Video where a long-distance vessel could be engaged to bring him home to the UK. After a voyage of over two weeks his body was received with full state honours by the Uruguyan government. It was taken to Monte Video’s  military hospital where nurses formed a guard of an honour and put fresh flowers on the coffin each day. It had been expected that once an available ship was found his body would be  carried back to Britain where he would be buried on home ground. However within a couple of days a telegram came back to Monte Video from Britain which changed everything. His wife, Lady Emily Shackleton, was no doubt grief-stricken when the news of her husband’s demise had eventually reached her in Easbourne, Essex. However while the normal inclination of a wife would be for her husband to be brought home for burial she realised that although a good husband his heart lay in the wilds of the south Atlantic. She telegraphed Monte Video instructing that his body was to be brought back to South Georgia and buried there overlooking the wild South Atlantic oceans which had formed the backdrop to his celebrated expeditions over the past two decades. Accordingly his body was taken on board ship for one last time and a course set for a return to South Georgia.
Some weeks later his funeral service was held on the island attended by a handful of whalers and some British officials from the Falklands. He was buried looking over the harbour – Lady Shackleton having given a final instruction that his body was not to be buried facing east as in normal burials, but facing south so that he now looked towards his beloved Antarctic in death as he had in life.
Shackleton’s connections with Kildare were highlighted by the local press in reporting news of the telegram received announcing his death. Under a heading ‘Co. Kildare man’s life of adventure at sea’, the Kildare Observer recalled that he had been born at ‘Kilkea (near Castledermot) in 1874, the eldest son of Dr. Henry Shackleton, a member of a well-known Quaker family.’
His path in life had taken him a long way from the big fields of south Kildare to the wild seas of the south Atlantic. His last words written in his diary the evening before his death as he looked out on the ocean from Grytviken harbour reflected on the beauty of nature even in extreme environs: ‘ In the darkening twilight, I saw a lone star hover, gem-like above the bay.’
(series no: 263).

Ernest Shackleton's last entry in his diary from Liam Kenny's Looking Back series of 10 January 2012. Our thanks to Liam


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