Tag Archives: The Athy Heritage Centre Museum


24 Jan

Have you heard of the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School? If not you should look it up and consider a visit. The School is held annually in the Athy Heritage -Centre Museum in County Kildare, Ireland. It pulls all strands of Polar experiences together – it could be described as the Polar event of the year! Shackleton was born in Kilkea House, near Athy in 1874 and lived in the area with his large family until the age of ten. The school started in 2001 with the aim of celebrating Shackleton’s achievements and establishing him as a role model in the locality.

I have now attended this event on three occasions and spoken, with John Dudeney my co-author, in one. The meeting is relaxed and convivial with a very a warm welcome offered to delegates, who come from all over the world. But the scholarship of the speakers is world class and the talks are always both fascinating and thought provoking.



The Athy Heritage Centre Museum was opened in 1997, four years before the Shackleton Autumn School. Its aim was to celebrate the history of an area which dates back for hundreds of years from an Anglo -Norman settlement in the 12th century; monasteries were founded a century later, a Charter was granted by Henry VIII in 1515 (who subsequently ordered the dissolution of its monasteries in the 1530s). Athy supported the Catholic/Royalist cause in the Irish Confederate Wars, which ended when  Oliver Cromwell‘s New Model Army defeated the Irish Catholic and Royalists in the 1650s.

In the 1900s the town remained loyal to the crown in World War1. Two thousand volunteers from the area joined the British Army –one of them, John Vincent Holland, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his valour and courage in in the Battle of the Somme.

The museum is the home to the only permanent exhibition dedicated to Shackleton. Numerous artifacts include Shackleton’s sledge and harness from his Antarctic expeditions, a model of his ship ‘Endurance’’, family photographs and Frank Hurley’s film footage of the ‘Endurance’ expedition. A statute of Shackleton is outside the museum.



It occurs to me that not every reader will be familiar with some of the details of Shackleton’s story and the reasons he is so celebrated, so here is a brief summary of his most noteworthy expeditions.

He went to the Antarctic on four occasions –his two most famous expeditions were the ‘Nimrod Expedition’, (official name the ‘British Antarctic Expedition’) 1907 -1909, and the ‘Endurance Expedition’, (the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition) of 1914-1917.

On the ‘Nimrod Expedition’ Shackleton and his three companions pioneered the route up the huge Beardmore Glacier to discover the Antarctic Plateau. The route up the glacier covered 120 miles, riddled with crevasses and rising from a few hundred feet to a height of over 9,000 feet. The team reached within 100 nautical miles of the South Pole. This was an outstanding success, the first expedition to get anywhere near the Pole and was a major source of inspiration for Amundsen’s and Scott’s later expeditions. The achievement is largely overshadowed now by Shackleton’s later exploits, but at the time it was internationally recognized.   Shackleton was knighted by King Edward VII, awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, also the Polar medal; an appreciation both of his achievements and of the geographical discoveries that members of his expedition had made.

Five years later on the ‘Endurance Expedition’ , Shackleton aimed to take a twenty-eight man team to the Weddell Sea in the Antarctic and then, with a small team cross the continent via the South Pole to reach the Ross Sea. He did not succeed, in fact he did not actually get onto the continent, but this is the expedition that became the stuff of legend for its courage, endurance and shining example of leadership. ‘Endurance’ was caught and subsequently crushed by sea ice in the Weddell Sea. As the sea poured into the ship Shackleton and his crew had to decamp onto ice floes. Here they existed for four months (little food and low temperatures). Their final ‘home’, the ice floe Patience Camp was eroded by the sea so the twenty eight men had to abandon the ice and crowd onto three small lifeboats in an attempt to get to safety. They made landfall on Elephant Island – this was a journey that lasted for seven days – the 9th to the 16th April 1916. It was characterized by tumultuous seas, fog, tortuous thirst, gastroenteritis and the proximity of killer wales. Shackleton and the leaders of the other two boats showed outstanding skills in keeping those small boats together.

Elephant Island was out of the shipping routes so Shackleton had to effect a rescue for his men. In an era prior to wireless communications, his only realistic option was to attempt to reach the peri-Antarctic island of South Georgia, (which he had left at the start of his expedition). He took five men with him, leaving his remaining crew of twenty –two living under upturned boats on a beach on Elephant Island. The voyage, made in a twenty-two foot boat, the James Caird took them across Drake’s Passage and via eight hundred miles of the wild, sometimes snowy and icy, Scotia Sea. The sail is said to be the most remarkable example of small-boat seafaring ever achieved. But even the arrival at South Georgia was not the end of Shackleton’s trials. He and two others, Captain Worsley and Petty Officer Crean had to cross South Georgia’s unknown and uncharted snowy mountains to reach the whaling station that he had left sixteen months before. He returned then to Elephant Island (with great difficulty) and rescued the twenty two men who had been marooned on the island for four months waiting and hoping, sometimes despairingly for his return. All Shackleton’s crew survived.

Throughout these ‘Trials of Job’, Shackleton showed his remarkable qualities of leadership, positivity and optimism. As a true leader, he knew when to alter his plans as circumstances changed. It is wonderful that he is so celebrated in the county of his birth.


In the meeting that I attended diverse matters were covered: a workshop by sculptor Mark Richards, who has sculpted the statute of Shackleton that stands outside the museum, a book launch (Shane McCorristine’s The Spectral Arctic: A History of Ghosts and Dreams in Polar exploration, a talk on Amundsen, a discussion on what the sea floor can tell us about ice sheets, shipwreck mysteries, Jose Manuel Moneta in the Antarctic, the Patriot Sailor and Adventurer, Conor O’Brien, Icebreakers Kathleen Shackleton, a lecture on Isolation when wintering and working in Antarctica, William Speirs Bruce, the Forgotten Polar Hero, a film Ice in the Sky and, a bus tour through Shackleton country.

A fascinating selection of topics the likes of which are repeated annually


A wonderful acquisition for the museum will be Shackleton’s ‘Sea Bedroom’, the cabin on The Quest in which Shackleton died on his fourth expedition south in 1922. The Quest was bought by the Norwegian shipyard owner, John Drage. Drage for use as a sealing ship, but he kept the cabin, which he transported to his farm in Norway. Now Drage’s great grandson, Ulfe Bakke, has donated this precious artifact to the Athy Heritage Centre. Joe O’Farrell a committee member of The Shackleton Autumn School accompanied the cabin, which was transported by the shipping company DFDS from Norway to Ireland.

The cabin measures seven feet by six feet, contains a bunk, wash basin, chair, enamel cabinet, a mirror and an oil lamp. Restoration is underway. It is planned the work will be completed by 2022 in time for the centenary of Shackleton’s death. This will coincide with the reopening of the redesigned ‘Shackleton Museum’ which will tell the story of the man, his family, and Ireland’s contribution to exploration.

Finally I must mention an unusual event that is celebrated in the museum – a motor race around Athy that took place in 1903. James Gordon Bennett, the flamboyant publisher of the New York Herald presented the Gordon Bennett Cup to be given to the winner of the race which was held on a racing circuit around Athy (Gordon Bennett is probably best known for his sponsorship of Stanley’s successful expedition to Africa to find David Livingstone). The race, over 527km (327.5 miles), was won by Camille Jenatzy, for Germany, in a time of 6 hours, 39 minutes.

The Shackleton Autumn School should be noted by everyone with an interest in Polar events.