SHACKLETON NEWS ARCHIVE
BACKGROUND AND BEGINNINGS OF A GREAT EXPLORER
Ernest Shackleton was born on 15 February 1974 at Kilkea House, near the town of Athy in Co. Kildare, Ireland. He was the son of Henry Shackleton and Henrietta Gavan.
On his father's side, the Shackletons had lived in County Kildare since the 1720s. On his mother's side, the Gavans and the Fitzmaurices had lived in Ireland since the twelfth century.
These excellent photographs (supplied courtesy of Neale Webb, who also furnished the introductory text) show the farmhouse where Shackleton was born as it is today. The front porch is a recent addition; but otherwise the exterior of the farmhouse is largely unchanged.
Ernest was born in the back bedroom on the left - the window is the one below the red guttering.
The glorious views of the surrounding countryside - including historic Kilkea Castle across the fields and distant hills - would be much the same as the views Shackleton drank in during his early childhood.
In 1880, when Ernest was six years old, the family moved to 35 Marlborough Road in Dublin, while his father studied Medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. A two-storey red-brick house with basement on the southern side of the city, it was part of a new development erected a decade earlier on outlying green belt near the (then) village of Donnybrook.
A plaque commemorating the Irish explorer has recent been put up outside no. 35, but the back garden would be much the same as when Ernest played there at the ages of six to ten with friends and younger members of the family. (On one occasion, Jonathan Shackleton tells us in his splendid book Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica, he famously dug a gaping hole in the garden and announced that he was digging his way to Australia.)
Ernest Shackleton never lost his deep love for Ireland and the people he grew up amongst - indeed on several occasions in later life he had no hesitation at all in describing himself as an Irishman. Naturally one of those was the occasion when, following his almost successful Nimrod expedition in 1907-9, he returned to his native land to give a lecture entitled "Nearest the South Pole" at 8 p.m. on Tuesday December 14th 1909 in the large hall of the National University, Earlsfort Terrace, under the chairmanship of the Lord Lieutenant, surveying the achievements of the 1907-9 trek in a talk full of interest and peppered with lively remarks, which drew much laughter and merriment.
Prior to that lecture he was entertained to lunch by members of the Corinthian Club in the Aberdeen Hall, Gresham Hotel. If Shackleton had now actually discovered the South Pole he, an Irishman whose achievements were compared to those of McLure (the discoverer of the North West Passage) and McClintock, had shown others the way there, and he would always be regarded as, at all events, the virtual discoverer of the South Pole. It was particularly appreciated that the proceeds raised by Shackleton's lecture were donated to Lady Dudley's Nursing Scheme.
A further lecture was given at the Round Room, the Rotunda on Tuesday 21 February 1911, an occasion on which he expressed the hope that Captain Scott's forthcoming expedition of that same year would achieve the objective he himself had not quite managed in 1909.
Shackleton's fame was later to be saddled with another murkier episode in Irish history, when it emerged in 1914 that Frank Shackleton, his younger brother by two years, was accused of association with the theft in July 1907 of the Irish crown jewels - a matter that was not fully resolved when the Endurance set sail, and the truth of which has to some extent not been fully resolved or ascertained yet.
However in 1914 began another adventure which wrote Shackleton's and Ireland's name in the annals of heroism, for when Shackleton embarked on his Endurance expedition he took with him two other Irishmen who were to prove vital to the group's survival. They were Tom Crean and Tim McCarthy, both of whom travelled aboard the James Caird. Three of the men in the small boat were Irish by birth, one was a New Zealander, one English, and one a Scot.
The predominance of Irish blood aboard the James Caird for that historic rescue journey was yet another thing which has given Irishmen everywhere tremendous pride in Shackleton and his achievements, as being indeed, from the outset, 'one of us'.
Indeed stories abound of Shackleton's Irishness, and his willingness to vaunt the fact. One senior English civil servant did not see that as entirely an advantage: "I happened to go out to India with Lieutenant Shackleton, a feckless Irishman...."
But others knew better. Louis Bernacchi, who travelled with Ernest on Scott's Discovery expedition, wrote that "Just as in his former ships, Shackleton was the life and soul of the Discovery. His mind was alert, his good humour inexhaustible.... In his deep Irish voice he could wheedle and coax; successfully, if he wanted something, which he generally did. ...Shackleton was the poet,...and in his wheedling Irish manner he kept me from my bunk reciting endless verses." In her life of Captain Scott (1977), Elspeth Huxley refers to "Shackleton's Irish volubility and his habit of quoting thick slabs of poetry." Wilson, she says "admired the Irishman's witty sparkling conversation and remarkable memory, from which an anecdote could be extracted at any moment to suit any occasion."
Shackleton's wife Emily (Lady Shackleton) took a more cautious view: "Although Ernest called himself Irish, one of (his sisters) once said to me, "We were never Irish until mother (Henrietta Shackleton) married into the family." The Dublin Evening Telegraph of 24 March 1909, in celebratory mood, had no such doubts: "South Pole almost reached by an Irishman," ran the headline. Many would echo that. Indeed from his earliest days in London, he was always known as 'Mike' or 'Micky' - like Paddy, a classic nickname for an Irish lad, and one by which he continued to be known to his friends in later life.
Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was equally forthright when praising Shackleton's achievement at the Royal Societies club in 1909, following the latter's return from his attempt on the South Pole: "Shackleton is an Irishman. As a fellow-Irishman I take pride at the thought. Think of what Ireland has done for the Empire. Finally think of that flag flapping down yonder on the snow filed, planted there by an Irishman."
Shackleton himself concurred: "I am an Irishman, he affirmed on many occasions. He allowed it to enter the official record - on the third attempt to rescue his men from Endurance, now marooned on Elephant Island, he and Tom Crean are both listed in the log of the Emma as Irish. And indeed, it has been said, he had "all the inherent characteristics of the Irishman - cheerful, optimistic, good-natured." To one astute observer, he "shamelessly played on his Irishness. Sometimes he almost seemed like a professional Irishman." His sponsor Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills, another shrewd witness, alludes to his "reckless generosity" in these terms: "I cannot understand why his (presumably) thrifty Quaker forebears did not bestow that gift upon him to counteract the reckless generosity of his Irish ancestry."
Such national pride in one of her greatest sons led directly to the launching of the Irish South Aris expedition, of which Frank Nugent was joint leader, and which endeavoured in January 1997 to follow in the great man's footsteps. Although eventually foiled by a Force 10 storm which thrice capsized their boat, this hardy Irish team certainly succeeded in increasing consciousness of Shackleton around the world; while Frank Nugent went on in February l997 to complete a re-enaction of Shackleton's South Georgia traverse from King Haakon Bay to Stromness.
It was also the inspiration for Pat Falvey's 'Beyond Endurance' expeditions, which have given to so many an experience of the challenges of outdoor life and of the Antarctic, including McMurdo Sound and the dramatic island and mainland scenery of the Ross Sea.
Only recently, Pat's team made a celebratory return to Shackleton's 'Furthest South' (88° 23' South), reached by Shackleton, Wild, Marshall and Adams in January 1909. Pat and his men found an appropriate way of toasting their great Irish predecessor.
That raising of awareness of Shackleton worldwide is now also continued by the highly successful annual Shackleton Autumn School, which takes place at Athy, County Kildare, every October half-term, just a mile or two from the house where Sir Ernest Shackleton was born.