Forgotten heroes who conquered the Pole

Shackleton and Crean were just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, of Irish Antarctic explorers, says Richard Fitzpatrick

MANY of us know about Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean’s Antarctic expeditions. Perhaps what is not as well known is that they are part of an incredible strain of Irish explorers who have trekked to the South Pole region.

“When you look at the history of Antarctic exploration, which covers about 100 years, the most amazing thing is that wherever you look, in every episode, there’s an Irishman involved, which for a small country is quite remarkable,” says Michael Smith, author of Great Endeavour: Ireland’s Great Antarctic Explorers.

“It seems out of proportion, given their size, that they were so influential. For example, Edward Bransfield, the man said to have seen the Antarctic before anybody else, was from Ballinacurra in Cork.

“Francis Crozier from Banbridge was the first man to really map the Antarctic continent and to name it. You have the giants of the era – Crean and Shackleton – and then there are lesser known characters whose lives have not been covered before, like Patrick Keohane and Robert Forde and the McCarthy brothers, all, incidentally, from Co Cork. The Irish have left a wonderful footprint in Antarctic history.”

Smith suggests the fact that the majority of these explorers come from either Cork or Kerry is because of the rich seafaring tradition in both counties, citing the fact that Crean, for instance, was born about 10 miles from where St Brendan’s voyage to the Americas began a thousand years earlier. In present times, Mike Barry, from Tralee, Co Kerry, is the first Irishman to trek overland to the South Pole.

During the era of the Napoleonic Wars, one in 10 seamen in the British Navy was Irish. One of these recruits was Bransfield, the most unlikely explorer of the characters featured in Smith’s book. He’s also the only man profiled where no photograph or portrait exists.

A hallmark of Great Endeavour is the quality of its maps and photographs, an inordinate amount of which feature men smoking pipes. The British Army’s pay was derisory but they did, points out Smith, give their men free tobacco, which he says made it unusual to find a sailor who didn’t smoke.

Bransfield was whipped up into the navy during a recruitment drive. His natural seafaring skills meant he quickly ascended the ranks, culminating in his famous four-month expedition, which began in December 1819.

“His voyage to see the Antarctic,” says Smith, “was an extraordinary thing to do – to go down to unknown territory, riddled with icebergs, into completely unchartered waters in a sailing ship on your own with no back-up, no radios, no telephones; and this guy just sails off in a little merchant sailing ship, a cargo vessel, but he was a master seaman.”

Of all the incredible feats of endurance cited in Smith’s book, the author singles out Shackleton’s journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia aboard the James Caird. Shakleton was born in Kildare, the other two Irishmen aboard being Crean and Tim McCarthy. They survived 17 days in an open boat, managing to find their destination, a remote island in the Waddell Sea, from only four sightings of the sun in that time.

Shackleton was a fascinating character, who, it was said, lived his life like “a mighty rushing wind”. He inspired tremendous loyalty in his men; he was a poetry-writing romantic who carried on a string of affairs, openly, to the despair of his long-suffering wife; and was racked by debts throughout his life, owing to poor judgment in the businessmen he cavorted with and his own incompetence. His men, someone once noted wryly, could trust Shackleton with their lives but not with their money. Even though he gave his nationality as Irish, he stood unsuccessfully for election, as a Liberal Unionist Party candidate in Dundee in 1906.

“Shackleton’s biggest success and at the same time his biggest failure was the Nimrod expedition,” says Smith. “This was an extraordinary feat of survival but had he taken teams of dogs he would have got to the South Pole in my view, but he took ponies.

“Ponies are hopelessly suited to travelling on the ice and snow because they’re too heavy. Their paw-prints break through the ice all the time so they’re wading up to their bellies in soft snow. Also, carrying dog food is a lot less weighty than carrying pony fodder. That was a catastrophic mistake.

“But on the other hand, he got to within 97 miles of the South Pole and had the enormous balls to turn around and go home. The South Pole was within a few days’ march. He knew he or his men wouldn’t survive. It took tremendous courage.”

Michael Smith’s Great Endeavour: Ireland’s Great Antarctic Explorers is published by The Collins Press, cost €29.99. He will give two lectures at Cork City Library tonight. The first is at 11am to school children as part of the annual Books Festival; the second, an illustrated talk about Great Endeavour, will be at 7pm. For more information, visit:

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