Sunday, October 25, 2009

Arctic Meets Antarctic in Athy

It takes a singular town, and a singular community of people, to bring both of the ends of the earth together in congenial conjunction -- and Athy, County Kildare, is just that town.  Athy has all of the charms of any picturesque Irish town -- a long, winding high street filled with shops, restaurants, and pubs, lovely old churches, and cobbled pavements -- but it has one thing no other place can boast: here, the Shackleton Autumn School is in its ninth year. And so, amidst the townsfolk going about their daily business, a crowd gathers early each morning at the doors of the Athy Heritage Centre, next to a tent erected by a group of historical re-enactors; once the doors open, that same crowd will mill about historical displays and gaze upon artifacts ranging from Polar provisions (a Primus stove, hard tack, and canned pemmican) to a beautiful copy of Aurora Australis, the first full book ever printed in Antarctica.  At precisely (more or less) ten-thirty, the summons comes to ascend to the lecture hall, and there they'll take their seats amidst the book-crowded shelves of the centre's library to hear a variety of Polar and related lectures that rivals, and perhaps exceeds, those of any any nineteenth-century Lyceum or assembly room. 

The observant will note that, rather than an image of these proceedings, I've posted a photograph of O'Brien's Pub -- where, in the view of some, the best conversations of the event take place, and having now enjoyed two nights' worth of them, I would be inclined to agree! Nevertheless, it's a shared, serious, and sober passion that brings together the remarkable crowd for this event, and which at the end of each day enlivens the back-room at O'Brien's.  This year has featured a remarkable conjunction of polar personalities, among them Hans Kjell Larsen (grandson of legendary Antarctic skipper C.L. Larsen), Kenn Harper (Give Me My Father's Body: The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo), Andrew Lambert (Franklin: Tragic Hero of Arctic Exploration), David Wilson (the grand-nephew of Dr. Edward Wilson, who perished with RF Scott's party), Huw Lewis Jones, (Face to Face: Polar Portriats), and Lady Marie Herbert (Winter of the White Seal, Great Polar Adventure).  This year, the Shackleton School is hosting scholars and enthusiasts both North and South, and although their regions may be antipodal, their interests are surely not.

There's more to tell than I could possibly cram into a single posting, so I'll not try (and indeed, if I want to have any hopes of enjoying an unhurried breakfast before this morning's first lecture, I'd best finish now!).  I'll post accounts of some of the lectures, and give the best report I can of the related proceedings, over the next day or two.  For now I'll just say this: should you ever have the opportunity, the Shackleton School in Athy is an event not to be missed; there is no more convivial community of scholars, explorers, and polar enthusiasts to be found in any other corner of the world.


  1. Hi Russell:

    The event sounds like a wonderful experience. Is anyone videoing the presentations? After all, this is the age of web podcasts. I hope someone thought to bring a camera. Be sure and let us know if you hear of any plans to put the presentations on the web. Thanks.


  2. Hi Ron,

    Thanks for posting! I'm sorry to say that the proceedings weren't videotaped, or (so far as I'm aware) audiotaped. Nevertheless, many of the papers given at Athy are printed in the Shackleton School's journal Nimrod, which is generally available just prior to next year's school. I do think a vodcast or other video would be a good idea, and will be sure to mention it to the organizers!