News: DEATH OF AN ICON - 90 YEARS AGO TODAY

 

For Ernest Shackleton, it must have felt like a familiar pattern of adversity. His ship, the Quest, had engine trouble requiring a substantial overhaul in Rio De Janeiro. The subsequent voyage to South Georgia was extremely rough; Christmas Day 1921 produced what Shackleton recorded as the worst storm he had ever encountered at sea. But if Shackleton had one great strength, it was the ability to lead through disappointment and bad fortune until circumstances turned favourable.

 

The weather improved, and the sighting of an iceberg seemed to restore Shackleton's indomnitable spirit. As the Quest approached the harbour at Grytviken in South Georgia, he was joined on deck by his old comrades from previous expeditions, men like Frank Wild, Charles Green, Frank Worsley and Leonard Hussey who had leaped at the opportunity to sail again with 'The Boss'. The sight of this very place must have released a flood of emotions; in May 1916 with Tom Crean and Frank Worsley he had stumbled into the whaling station in South Georgia to raise the alarm for the ill-fated Endurance expedition, and begin the efforts to rescue his 22 comrades stranded 800 miles away on the icebound and storm ravaged Elephant Island.

 

But now, as New Year 1922 dawned, everyone felt things were different.

Shackleton had suffered a heart-attack while in Rio de Janiero, but typically would not admit it and insisted on continuing with the stresses of managing the expedition. Doctors Macklin and McIlroy (who had been with Shackleton on a previous expedition) were concerned, but he paid little heed to their advice. On 4th January, with the Quest anchored in the harbour at Grytviken, he recorded in his diary 'In the darkening twilight I saw a lone star hover, gem like above the bay', before retiring to his cabin.

A matter of hours later, at 2 am on 5th January, he called Dr Macklin. He requested something to relieve the pain he was suffering in the back and face. As Macklin prepared the medicine, Shackleton suddenly took a severe turn, and died. For someone who had pulled off some of the greatest feats of leadership and bravery, it was a serene departure from life, and in a most appropriate location.

 

Ernest Shackleton was born in Kilkea on 15th Febru ary 1874. The family moved to England ten years later, but Shackleton never forgot his Irish roots.

His exploits as a polar explorer are legendary. In 1909, he turned back just 97 miles from the South Pole, surrendering the opportunity of being first to reach it to ensure the survival of his party of explorers Later, he wrote to his wife, by way of explanation, that he thought she would 'prefer a live donkey than a dead lion'. The Norwegian, Raold Amundsen, became the first person to stand at the South Pole in December 1911, while the British team under Robert Falcon Scott reached it just weeks later, before tragically perishing on the return journey.

 

In the period 1914-1917, Shackleton's bravery and leadership were severly tested on the Endurance expedition. The plan was to make the first crossing of the Antarctic continent. The reality was that the ship, Endurance, was crushed and sank, leaving Shackleton stranded on the floating ice with his crew of 25 men. Pushed to the limits of their survival abilities, they made it to Elephant Island using three lifeboats. The world was unaware of their fate or their whereabouts, and Shackleton had to get help before all perished. His final throw of the dice involved sailing 800 storm tossed miles with five others (including Tom Crean and Tim McCarthy) in a 24 foot lifeboat, making the first crossing of South Georgia to a Norwegian whaling station, before finally rescuing the remaining men from Elephant Island.

Following Shackleton's death 90 years ago on 5th January 1922, tributes were received from all over the world. His body was returned to South Georgia to be buried, as his wife felt his final resting place should be close to his beloved Antarctic. A few years later, Kildare County Council received his sledging harness via the New Zealand Government to commemorate a great son of the county.

Athy Heritage Centre hosts the only permanent exhibition worldwide to commemorate Ernest Shackleton while the annual Athy Shackleton Autumn School recalls the great explorer's achievements each October.