President Michael D Higgins formally opened the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School, celebrating the centenary of the 1912 Scott expedition to the South Pole and the key role of heroic Irishmen in that and other Antarctic endeavours.
Hundreds packed into the Athy Heritage Centre-Musem last Friday evening, October 26, to welcome the President and to celebrate the famed Antarctic explorations.
Welcoming President Higgins, Frank Taaffe, director of the Athy Heritage Centre-Museum, said the autumn school was a “celebration of a confidence in human possibility and the achievements of polar explorers”.
“This is a story of realising limitless possibilities, a story not just of endurance but a great capacity to move forwards. It is a great honour to have President Higgins here in Athy,” he added.
President Higgins then addressed the warm crowd. He described Ernest Shackleton as a true leader, a great hero who had weakness in his trials of life but never failed to push the bounds of curiosity.
“He was restless in his character. He was inspired towards things that have not been done. There were no barriers, he concentrated on the possible. He had incredible spirit and courage.”
President Higgins then described his voyage as one of the greatest endurance survival stories ever told, reflecting that it was somewhat similar to Ireland’s current woes.
“It is the power of the human spirit in times of hardship and despair. It is this that I like about him, his life, his literature, his legacy and that of not being in any sense dominated by the inevitable.
“We are at the moment in our own country on our own voyage which we must take responsibility and we must make our expedition and find our Aisling and dream of a better kind, happier, shared world. There is not doubt we are currently navigating our way to somewhat stormy waters where we preserve on a journey, life will not be life without its challenges.”
As a special tribute to the President, a operatic recital of his poem Stargazer was then performed by local musicians.
The Shackleton School runs in Athy, Co Kildare each year over the Bank Holiday weekend. This year it was attended by the grandchildren of Captain Scott and of two Irishmen who played major roles in Antarctic exploration, Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean.
The school was also delighted to welcome Kari Herbert, daughter of distinguished Polar explorer Sir Wally Herbert. Kari, who grew up with the Intuit in Greenland, is the author of a new book celebrating the contribution to women to Polar exploration and will deliver a lecture on that theme.
Kevin Kenny of the Shackleton School Organising Committee said: “Now in its 12th year, the School brings together leading historians, environmentalists, explorers and scientists in focusing on the Polar regions”. Ernest Shackleton, born in Kilkea, Athy in 1874, is renowned for his exploits when leading Antarctic expeditions. He is famed for his exemplary decision making and leadership skills, best summarised in a quote from a contemporary “when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton”.
A wide variety of lectures, film and drama was augmented by a vibrant social programme over the weekend. It also included a fascinating exhibition of artefacts relating to Scott’s tragic expedition which be on display in the Athy Heritage Centre-Musem until December 14th.
- Lisa Deeney