Irish relive polar hero's finest hour
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Sunday 05 January 1997
Today is the 75th anniversary of the death of Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Born in Kilkee, County Clare, in 1874, Shackleton's name, like Captain Robert Scott, has become synonymous with Antarctic exploration. But unlike other explorers of his age, the record books show that he, perhaps uniquely, got all the men back home alive.
Shackleton, an army lieutenant, was a member of Scott's 1901-1904 expedition when he sledged partway across the Ross Ice Shelf. In January 1908 he returned to the Antarctic as leader of the British expedition sailing in the Nimrod. The following summer Shackleton was back in the area and heading for the South Pole via the Beardsmore Glacier. By January 1909, 97 miles short of the Pole and with dwindling supplies, his adventure ended and he headed back to the Nimrod. Two years later Scott found himself in a similar position, did not turn back, and died.
But it is the astonishing and heroic journeys that Shackleton and his men made during their 1914-16 voyage that the five Irishmen - Dubliner Frank Nugent, Paddy Barry and Mike Barry from Tralee, and Jamie Young and Jarlath Cunnane from Co Mayo - plan to re-create.
At the beginning of 1914 Shackleton planned to cross the Antarctic continent from the Wedell Sea to McMurdo Sound via the South Pole. However, their expedition ship, Endurance, was trapped in pack ice before reaching the continent edge. In the shifting flows of the spring thaw, the Endurance was crushed and destroyed. For six months the men dragged the ship's lifeboats on the open ice, until the thaw allowed them to sail to Elephant Island, part of the South Shetland islands at the north of the Antarctic Peninsula.
From there, Shackleton and a crew of five sailed 800 miles to South Georgia, where they braved hurricane winds and towering seas in a 23ft open whale boat, the James Caird. On South Georgia they also successfully scaled uncharted mountains to reach help. Shackleton then led four relief expeditions before succeeding in rescuing all his men from Elephant Island.
The anniversary expedition, costing pounds 100,000, will involve crossing the same treacherous 800 miles of the Southern Ocean covered by Shackleton in a small replica lifeboat. One of the Irish crew, Frank Nugent, who came within 250 metres of the summit of Everest in 1993, said: "All the odds were against them surviving, but they did."
As well as the Irish voyage, the anniversary is being marked with new book on the rescue called Shackleton's Boat. The James Caird Society, named after the small craft now displayed at Dulwich College, London, was recently formed to celebrate the life of the explorer. Roderic Dunnett of the society said: "Shackleton was distinctive as a rare leader himself. Perhaps above all because he unfailingly got all his men home safe and alive."
On 5 January 1922, Shackleton died of a heart attack while in South Georgia on board the Quest on his fourth expedition to the Antarctic.
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