Tales from the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School
Contributor- Fiona Maher Goodwin
It was one of those days you get in late autumn when the wind and rain toss everyone about and you realise with dismay that Mother Nature’s storm conditions are going to hasten the fall of autumn leaves and bring the appearance, if not the full blown effects, of winter. It was on one such wild Saturday morning in late October 2002 that I wandered into a lecture in the Church of Ireland in Athy and found myself discovering a new world.
I had taken a notion to attend some lectures in the second Autumn Shackleton School. I had been aware of the first School taking place the previous year but I worked weekends back then so paid little attention. I was surprised to see a second School had arrived and decided to check it out. Having grown up within spitting distance of the Church of Ireland I was bemused to be sitting in a pew waiting for the lesson to begin and glanced around curiously at the bearded, corduroy wearing men gathering in groups chatting knowledgeably amongst themselves.
Francis Spufford was the first speaker and his fluent, articulate style brought me back to college and the joy of being captivated by someone else’s enthusiasm and knowledge for a subject you weren’t aware that you had an interest in. “I may be some time” is a joy to read and is a book I return to with pleasure from time to time.
Then a very tall man, with brilliant eyes and impressive beard took to the podium and transfixed me with his galloping style of speech and wonderful speaking voice. Sometimes you are lucky enough to find an expert in his field whose love for his topic is infectious , and this man had the ability to carry his audience with him hanging on his every work. I don’t remember the specific topic but he gave me a general introduction to the world of the Antarctic and some of the magic he had experienced rubbed off. Little did I know I had just been bitten by the bug by a professional – his name was Bob Headland.
I suppose there are poor unfortunates reading this who wont know who Bob Headland is, let alone been lucky enough to be the recipient of his wisdom and enthusiasm throughout several Autumn Schools. Bob is the former Curator of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, England. Learning this fact led me on a path to the world of literature surrounding Scott, Shackleton and polar exploration in the early 20th century. There is a world of women out there who took to “Chick Lit” in the last decade; I discovered Antarctic literature – or “Schack lit” if you will.
It began with Schack Lit Lite – Michael Smith was a good introduction and obviously Tom Crean was a superstar of that era. A Kerryman who ran away as a teenager to the British Navy, he became a stalwart of the most important expeditions of that time. Next came the biography of Captain Oates; a sympathetic, somewhat romantic, figure. The joy of the Autumn School was that you got to hear the authors of such books speaking about their subjects which whetted your appetite and led you down new paths to discover new topics and expeditions and heroic figures.
A highlight for me was I think in 2004 when Sara Wheeler gave a talk about her time spent in the Antarctic and her biography of Apsley Cherry Garrard. She was a fascinating speaker who had written a wonderful book called Terra Incognita which I subsequently read and actually finished on board an aeroplane; I remember thinking that the clear blue sky above me and white clouds underneath were the closest I would get to experiencing the landscape and colours she described in such vivid detail. Apsley Cherry Garrard was a discovery too and led me to read “The Worst Journey in the World” – am amazing book and my first book written by someone who was actually there. Of course, it sent me down another path of diaries and first hand accounts. I often feel as if I spent the early winters of this century in Antarctica as each Autumn School would reawaken my enthusiasm and I would disappear into my South Pole books for the winter.
However, returning briefly to that first School in 2002 – with my appetite whetted I returned the following day to the old Parochial Hall to find myself lucky to get a seat at a talk by a bearded lunatic who had spent the previous winter recreating Schackleton’s journey across South Georgia. It was the first time I had heard the story of the crossing of South Georgia and I sat in disbelief that such a feat had been achieved and that anyone would want to repeat it – even many decades later with the latest technology and gear. However, I became aware that I was surrounded by people who not only believed it but had either done something similar or had a desire to emulate the bearded lunatic giving the lecture. My disbelief slowly dissolved leaving only admiration and awe.
This sentiment was to be replicated repeatedly over the years as I was privileged to listen to people who had worked, studied and lived in these extreme places and brought their stories, photographs and knowledge to Athy to share with an appreciative audience year in, year out. The bearded faces became familiar friends and the numbers grew and the places they travelled from became more far flung. Each year the new topics continue to amaze and delight, yet the core remains as fascinating as ever.
Sometimes I am asked why I have never gone to the Antarctic as I am probably one of the few at the School who has never done so; besides the fact that I got seasick recently in the cinema watching “Captain Phillips” the real reason is that I dream of sailing into the Ross Sea from Littleton around 1912 and wandering around the huts and quietly observing Mount Erebus and then magically being airlifted out to fly home! Only in my dreams. However, the beauty of it is that I have my dreams – and my books- and my Autumn School.
The Earnest Shackleton Autumn School is held over the October Bank Holiday Weekend. See the Athy Heritage Centre Museum link for details. Many of the books mentioned, and others, are available in the shop year round.