October Bank Holiday weekend has for the past 11 years meant one thing only – the Shackleton Autumn School. It might seem a fancy sounding name for an event which started off as a local one but which in a few years has become a truly international event. Not only that, it has become the foremost Polar event of its kind anywhere in the world.
Each year we have welcomed visitors from abroad to the Athy event – visitors who have returned year after year, such is the welcome they receive and the quality of lectures put on in our early 18th century Town Hall.
Where once rebels and ordinary run of the mill criminals stood in the dock awaiting sentence is now the venue for lectures and discussions on Polar matters, with particular reference to the Antarctic and Ernest Shackleton.
I recall a whiff of cordite a year or so ago when a letter writer to the local newspaper questioned why Shackleton, a man whose allegiance it was claimed belonged to our neighbouring island should be honoured in the South Kildare town of Athy. The answer of course lies in the fact that Shackleton was born just a few miles outside Athy and it was in Kilkea that he spent his early formative years. Shackleton is just one of the many local persons whom the Heritage Centre has chosen to honour over the years and in his case develop an annual conference which draws visitors to our town.
The part played by our Heritage Centre in opening up previously hidden elements of the town’s story is commendable. Apart from Shackleton, the Gordon Bennett Race, the townspeople’s involvement in the First World War and the Irish War of Independence have all featured in exhibitions or lectures which have brought our local history to a new generation.
The extraordinary wealth of talent and expertise which the 2011 Autumn Shackleton School will feature includes Pulitzer Prize winner Edward Larson. His talk titled ‘Did Shackleton care about Science?” takes place on Sunday 30th October at 12 noon. The full programme of events starts on Friday 28th October at 7.30 p.m. and features no less than three book launches over the weekend. It’s a measure of the school’s success that three different publishers sought to avail of the Shackleton School to launch new books. Two of those publishers are based in England, a clear indication of the importance of the Shackleton School in the world of Polar study.
On Friday evening the Norwegian Ambassador to Ireland will open the Shackleton Autumn School at 7.30 p.m. He was invited to do so because this year we have for the weekend only a very important exhibition which was developed by the Fram Museum in Oslo. The exhibition showcases images from the lantern slides of Roald Amundsen which Amundsen used for his lectures following his expeditions through the North West Passage and to the South Pole. The exhibition which will particularly emphasise his expedition to the South Pole is complimented by Amundsen’s material from a number of private collections. The importance of this exhibition, which will be in Athy for the Shackleton weekend only, can be gauged from the fact that it will next appear in Ireland’s National Museum in Collins Barracks Dublin.
The lecturers this year come from England, Norway, Ireland, United States and the Falklands Islands, giving a geographical spread which is quite impressive. There are six lecturers in all, together with three book launches and a showing on Sunday afternoon of the film ‘The Great White Silence’. Made by Herbert Ponting of Captain Scott’s last expedition to the South Pole in 1911, the film restored by the British Film Institute brings the Antarctic landscape to life in brilliant detail. It will be introduced by Luke McKernan who is the Lead curator of Moving Image at the British Library.
On Sunday evening at 9.00 p.m. in the Arts Centre, Woodstock Street, Donal O’Kelly will present his one man show. “Catalpa” is the true story of the whale ship rescue of six Irish convicts from Freemantle penal colony in 1876 whose escape was masterminded by Kildare born Fenian John Devoy. It should be of particular interest to Athy folk as John Devoy’s ancestors came from Athy and indeed his grand uncle Michael Devoy wrote an early interesting history of the town which was included in the Irish Magazine of March 1809.
The Shackleton Autumn School is one of the great success stories of Athy’s recent history and we should be extremely proud of the important place it has earned for itself in the world of Polar studies. The Friday official opening is at 7.30 p.m. and everyone is welcome to come along to the Heritage Centre that evening.