On This Day – February 15th 1874

The Birth Of Ernest Shackleton

Kilkea, Co. Kildare

On this day in 1874, Ernest Shackleton was born on his families farm at Kilkea, near Athy in Co. Kildare. His father came from an English Quaker background, his ancestors having fled to Ireland in the early years of the 18th century. Shackleton’s mother was from the Fitzmaurice clan of Co. Kerry.
Ernest was the second of ten children and was the oldest son, and when he was 10 years old the family moved to London. Somewhat against his fathers wishes Shackleton joined the merchant navy at the age of 16.

In 1901 he left for Antarctica with Robert Falcon Scott, on the Discovery Expedition, and he Scott and Wilson would set a new ‘Farthest South’ record of 82º 17’S on December 30th 1902. All three men, but Shackleton in particular, would suffer greatly on the return journey, due to frostbite and scurvy, and when they eventually returned to the ice-bound Discovery on 3rd February 1903, after a round trip of almost 1,000 miles, Shackleton was invalided home on the relief ship Morning, on Scott’s orders.

On January 1st 1908 Shackleton would lead his own expedition to Antarctica, on the Nimrod. Although the expedition had scientific and geographical objectives, the main aim of the venture was that of being first to reach the South Pole.

Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton

Shackleton would not make it to the Pole, but he, Frank Wild, Jameson Adams and Eric Marshall, had got to within 97 miles of their goal, before they were forced to return to base. Their remaining provisions, were simply not sufficient enough to sustain the effort. Shackleton’s decision not to proceed, even though they would have almost certainly reached the Pole, and equally as certainly would have died on the return, was an astute and responsible example of his leadership. “Better a live donkey, than a dead lion” he would write of the decision. A new ‘Farthest South’ record of 88º 23’ S, had been established.
The gruelling return trip for the men, which they were very lucky to survive, proved that Shackleton had indeed made the correct call. Shackleton and Wild arrived at Hut Point on February 28th, having left a weakened Marshall, in the care of Adams, 33 miles behind. The two men would be rescued three days later.

Shackleton’s ambition to be the first to stand at the Pole ended when Roald Amundsen claimed the honour on December 14th 1911, and instead Shackleton shifted his attention to being the first to cross the entire continent, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea, via the South Pole.
The Endurance set sail from London on August 1st 1914, and the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition was underway. By January 1915 the ship was held fast in the merciless grip of the Weddell Sea’s ice pack, and would eventually be crushed and sunk by the pulverising floes.

Sir Ernest Shackleton watching a lead forming, 1915 / photographed by Frank Hurley

Sir Ernest Shackleton watching a lead forming, 1915 / photographed by Frank Hurley

Shackleton and his crew spent many months surviving on the drifting ice, and attempts to trek to land proved futile. In early April as the ice they were camped upon began to break up, the 28 men set sail for Elephant Island in the ship’s three lifeboats. The voyage would take over a week, and conditions were desperate on the boats, as the men battled turbulent seas, freezing cold, hunger and sea sickness, but ultimately they made safe landfall on the rocky outpost.

With no hope of rescue from the tiny beach they now occupied, Shackleton selected a crew of five men to sail 800 miles with him, across the worlds most violent stretch of water to South Georgia.
The voyage of the James Caird across the Weddell Sea, commenced on Easter Monday 1916, and after more than two weeks, the men had somehow made it to the island having endured appalling conditions, dicing with death on several occasions and surviving a hurricane along the way.

But the journey and hardship did not end there, as the Norwegian whaling station Shackleton needed to reach was on the opposite side of the island, and the Caird was damaged beyond use during the rough landing. The icy, mountainous and uncharted interior of South Georgia now lay between them and salvation, and so it was that Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley roped themselves together and climbed into the unknown, in the darkness on May 19th. Thirty seven hours later, after a continuous march, the three men staggered into Stromness whaling station and relayed their remarkable story to the Norwegians stationed there. Rescue was quickly arranged for the three crew on the other side of the island, but the men 800 miles away, had to wait a little longer.

After three unsuccessful attempts to reach his stranded crew, Shackleton eventually got through the ice and arrived at Elephant island on 30th August, aboard the Yelcho. Amazingly ‘The Boss’ had ensured the rescue of every man on his crew, and not a single soul was lost.

Shackleton would return to South Georgia again, en route to Antarctica aboard the Quest, on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition, arriving there on January 4th 1922. In the early hours of January 5th, Shackleton summoned Alexander Macklin, the ships physician, to his cabin, complaining of feeling unwell. A short time later Shackleton suffered a suspected heart attack, and died. At the request of his wife, Sir Ernest Shackleton was buried in South Georgia.

Below is a link to an excellent article in the Irish Times by Michael Smith, on how Ireland as a nation should do more to remember the heroics of it’s Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Time to raise a glass, with ice, to Irish hero Ernest Shackleton