Thursday, August 25, 2016

Shackleton, man of Antarctica ... and south Kildare

"I deem the night a success — we ran out of chairs."

Librarian Julie O'Donoghue put it in a practical numbers context, writes Brian Byrne, but Mario Corrigan's illustrated talk last night on the life of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton was also super successful both for its content and for Mario's delivery, which blended heritage and history with his own inimitable salsa of wry humour.

Some 40 people attended the National Heritage Week event in Kilcullen Community Library. An occasion which provided a picture of a man who became obsessed with the South Pole, but who also never let his obsession take over his belief that life, especially the lives of those who travelled with him, was the most important thing.

The Ernest Shackleton connection with Kildare is direct, if short-lived because his father gave up farming in Ballitore when Ernest was six and went to study to be a doctor in Trinity College Dublin. After he qualified, the family moved to London.

"There's a lot of commentary at the moment that Ernest was an Englishman," Mario noted. "But he was born in Kildare, and that makes him Irish." He showed a slide of the England Census of 1901, when Ernest was living in the household of his future father in law. "He was registered there as being from 'Ireland, Kildare', so even then it was recognised."

With deft addendums to his illustrations, Mario brought to life what might have been in another environment mere dry facts of the various Shackleton voyages — the first being part of the Robert Falcon Scott 'Discovery' expedition in 1901. It was on that trip that Ernest met Kerry man Tom Crean, who was to be an important compatriot in Shackleton's own later expeditions. "Crean was a man who had shown that he could get things done, and perhaps when you know that you're going into a tough place, you like to have your own around you."

We also heard that the explorer was no great businessman, and most of his attempts to build an income on his explorations failed. Yet he was able to persuade backers to underwrite further expeditions. Probably using the same charisma by which he led men on extremely dangerous endeavours, and maintained their spirits in what were otherwise impossible to survive situations.

This is not a place to reprise in detail Shackleton's life, exploits, and eventual death on South Georgia in the early part of his last attempt to conquer Antarctica — after which his wife Emily sent a message that he should be interred there. Rather that we should appreciate that he is an intrinsic part of the heritage of south Kildare as much as an explorer hero of Britain and the Royal Geographic Society.

The Athy Heritage Centre-Museum is building a strong section on the explorer, with the model of the 'Endeavour' that was used in a film about the man. And the currently being refurbished actual cabin where Shackleton lived and died on his last voyage is also destined for the venue. A statue of Sir Ernest is being unveiled in Athy next Tuesday by the Mayor of Kildare, Cllr Ivan Keatley, in the presence of descendants of the Shackleton family.

But in Kilcullen last night, it was the words of Mario Corrigan, along with surviving photographs and film clips of the travails of the 'Endurance' expedition, in which both Shackleton and Tom Crean played heroic parts in enabling the rescue of their stranded shipmates, which brought home an appreciation of a special man whom we can indeed call a local.