If ever a man lived up to his family motto then Ernest Shackleton is most definitely that man. The words ‘By Endurance We Conquer’ were borne out to the maximum as he led all his 28 men to safety during the Antarctic expedition of 1914-1917. It is a tale of unbelievable skill, bravery and determination that is considered one of the greatest achievements in exploration. For this he is remembered as a man who showed consummate leadership skills and, of course, endurance, and they are all well presented in the Endurance Exhibition in Dun Laoghaire.
Shackleton was born on the 15th February 1874 in Kilkea, near Athy in County Kildare. His father, Henry, decided to study medicine in Trinity College and moved his family into 35 Marlborough Road, Ranelagh for four years from 1880-1884. After graduating the family moved to Sydenham, south London where he practiced medicine for more than thirty years. Ernest, or ‘Mickey’ to his family and friends, went to school in Dulwich College where he admitted that was ‘not a good student’. And, surprisingly, when you consider what he did later on, he did not like geography! He had no desire to follow his father into the medical world and joined the merchant navy when he was sixteen. He progressed quickly, becoming a very capable mariner and met many influential Navy officers. It was through these contacts that he was invited by Captain Scott to travel aboard the Discovery to the Antarctic in 1901. They failed to reach the South Pole, as did his own 1907-09 Nimrod expedition that got to 88 23 degrees South, only 97 miles short of its goal. They turned back due to lack of provisions and to ensure their safety. At that time is was the closest that anyone had got to the South Pole.
On his return he received much public adulation and was knighted by Edward VII. He was feted when he came back to Dublin, and gave lectures in Earlsfort Terrace (now the National Concert Hall) and the Gresham Hotel.
For the 1914 expedition to cross the Antarctic, the team sailed in the Endurance on the day Germany declared war. After a final stop on South Georgia they set sail for the Antarctic on 5th December and arrived in the Weddell Sea on 19th January 1915. The ship became frozen in the thickening ice and it was eventually crushed and lost on 21st November. The team headed in three boats to Elephant Island, and from there Shackleton and five others made the momentous 800-mile journey in horrendous weather to South Georgia. The 17-day journey in the James Caird, the strongest of the open 20-foot boats, and the subsequent safe return of all the crew, is heroic and bordering on the miraculous. Endurance, indeed!
Shackleton was only 47 when died on the 5th January 1922 on South Georgia. He suffered a fatal heart attack, and is buried in the small graveyard in Grytviken.
Photo Credit: The James Caird by P O’Neill