During the Golden Age of Antarctic Exploration, two men from Ireland achieved nearly impossible feats of bravery and endurance in the race to the South Pole. In this letter we will meet Ernest Shackleton and the Irish explorers who took on the one of the harshest landscapes and survived.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. One of our readers commented recently:
“Ireland would be a great place to visit if it had a roof!”
Well, I’m happy to report that the gentleman in question, John Hartnett, is here this week – and we have obliged him with a really lovely week or two. I hope the weather is treating you well wherever you are in the world today.
Before I go on, our friends in the USA are marking Memorial Day this weekend – we hope you are having a nice relaxing time – and our thoughts are especially with you if you are remembering friends and family members at this time.
I’m settling into a nice cup of Cork Rebel Roaster’s coffee (feeling patriotic this morning) as I write – I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.
Although the sun is out in this part of the world, and the air is heating up nicely – today’s letter is going to settle on a slightly more “chilly” theme. In fact, there’s going to be a fair mention of icebergs as well as the Antarctic regions. Ready then?
We’ll start off with a nice bonus letter. One of our readers, Sue McElroy, was on some time ago. She told the story of her ancestor who not only survived the sinking of the Titanic following it’s collision with that iceberg, but went on to have quite an amazing life. How about you? Do you have any family stories related to the Titanic?
Wasn’t that some lady? For the rest of the letter, we’re going to head to the opposite side of the planet – down into the frozen regions of the South Pole, as we look at three Irish surnames belonging to three remarkable men.
Carina and myself were settling down in front of the TV last night – and up came the story of one Ernest Shackleton, in this case played by Kenneth Branagh. About 30 minutes into the movie, we are introduced to the Irishman who accompanied Shackleton on his South Pole voyage in 1914 – one Tom Crean from County Kerry.
However, many people do not realise that both Ernest Shackleton and Kenneth Branagh – are also Irishmen. Let’s see how their stories combine.
Kenneth Branagh was born to Frances Harper and William Branagh in the city of Belfast in 1960. However, by the age of 10 – he had moved with his family to England to escape the worst of the escalating “Troubles”. The Irish surname “Branagh” has a very interesting origin.
The “Britons” was the name the Romans gave to the natives of most of what we call Britain today. However, these “native Britons” were pushed further to the west and southwest by the invading Angles and Saxons in the fifth century. The majority of the ancient “Britons” ending up in what is now Wales – where their Irish neighbours gave them the name of “Breathnach” (pronounced “Brah-nock”) – essentially the Irish for “Briton”.
So, the surname Brannock, or Branagh, comes from the Irish for “Briton”. However, you might know the Irish surname by it’s more common translation into English – the Irish surname “Walsh” or ” Welch“. So, while you might think that Irish surnames are quite complicated – their logic is quite simple at heart! Do you have any Walshes or Branaghs in your family tree?
However, Kenneth Branagh summarises his own heritage by saying:
“I’ll always be a Belfast lad at heart”.
Branagh must have been attracted to playing the part of Shackleton, as their early stories were quite similar. Abraham Shackleton arrived in County Kildare from Yorkshire in the early 1700s. He immediately set about building a multi-denominational school based on the ethos of his own Quaker faith. Do you have any Irish Quaker ancestors in your family?
About 150 years later, Ernest Shackleton was born into this same family – to Henry Shackleton and Henrietta Gavan – near the town of Athy in south County Kildare. His father, Henry, gave up farming when Ernest was a boy – and attended Trinity College in Dublin to study medicine. By the time Ernest was ten, the family were ready to migrate to London.
Ernest Shackleton was drawn to the sea from an early age, and in 1901, became part of Captain Robert Scott‘s South Pole Discovery expedition. The sense of adventure, competition and camaraderie must have had a big impact on Shackleton – as he later set up his own expedition to further explore Antarctica and to be the first to reach the South Pole.
However, neither Scott nor Shackleton became the first to reach that pole. Scott and his comrades arrived at the pole on January 17, 1912 – only to find that Roald Amundsen had beaten them by five weeks. Scott and his party perished on the return journey – and lie entombed in their tent under metres of sheet ice even today.
Shackleton decided to push ahead with another polar expedition – heading off on his ship “The Endurance” on the eve of the First World War. The mission was to be the first to traverse the pole from one side of Antarctica to the other.
However, the Endurance was caught in pack ice – and Shackleton took the decision to abandon ship and travel to the nearest inhabited outpost in South Georgia island – about 750 miles away. The leadership of Shackleton, and the ability of his crew, eventually returned almost all the crew (there were three fatalities), to safety after months of hardship and isolation.
Shackleton went on to launch one last Antarctic expedition in 1921. However, he died of a heart attack in South Georgia where you can find his grave today. His expedition doctor, Alexander Macklin, wrote at the time:
“I think this is as the ‘Boss’ would have had it himself, standing lonely in an island far from civilisation, surrounded by stormy tempestuous seas, and in the vicinity of one of his greatest exploits.”
Although Shackleton was viewed as an adventurer who “never quite made it” in his own lifetime, his ability to lead his team under the most ferocious circumstances is celebrated and studied in Universities and military establishments around the world today. If you ever visit the county of Kildare – you can visit the Shackleton Museum, or attend the the Ernest Shackleton Autumn School, held annually to honour Ernest Shackleton and the era of heroic polar exploration.
Tom Crean was born in 1877 near the village of Annascaul, on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. Maybe you’ve passed through here on your way to Dingle? Like many young men of his time, he joined the Royal Navy to see the world. However, the adventure he encountered must not have been enough for him – for he volunteered for Captain Scott‘s first Antarctic expedition in 1901 – alongside the young Ernest Shackleton.
He proved himself well, and was a regular for Scott right up until his final 1912 expedition. This was the expedition that saw Scott lose out to Amundsen in being the first to reach the South Pole. It was also the expedition that led to the deaths of Scott and his small, final, party that made the final dash for the Pole.
It was also during this expedition, that Crean travelled solo for 35 miles over the Ross ice shelf to rescue one of his crewmates – a feat for which he was awarded an Albert medal.
When Shackleton came to recruit for the Endurance expedition, Crean was a natural choice – and joined the crew as second officer. Crean’s calmness under pressure, ability with dogs and his toughness – were welcome attributes on what was to become a most challenging journey.
When Shackleton’s Endurance was caught in the ice – he looked to a small team to accompany him on the rescue mission back to South Georgia – naturally including Crean. In fact, Crean was also part of the three man team that made the final overland trek across South Georgia. A later explorer commented:
“I do not know how they did it, except that they had to — three men of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration with 50 feet of rope between them — and a carpenter’s axe”.
Following the expedition, Crean returned to active service – and eventually retired from the navy in 1920. He married Ellen Herlihy and opened a pub in Annascaul called the “South Pole Inn”.
Let me ask you something. Do you have members of your family who aren’t interested in speaking about the past? Well, Tom Crean was one of those men. He put his medals away and never spoke again of his Antarctic exploits. The only clue he gave to his achievements was the naming of “The South Pole Inn”.
It was only later, as the true accomplishments of Scott and Shackleton were being examined and celebrated, that the part this quiet Kerryman had to play in the survival and success of so many of those expeditions during the “heroic age of polar exploration” became apparent.
Tom Crean died in 1938, and is buried in Annascaul. He has since had Mount Crean and the Crean Glacier named after him in South Georgia and the Antarctic. And today, if you travel through the small village of Annascaul – do drop in to the South Pole Inn, it’s still a thriving pub – and give a toast up for Branagh, Shackleton and Crean.
That’s it for this week. As always, do feel free to leave a comment below if you would like share a story or the Irish surnames in your family.
Slán for now,
Mike and Carina : )
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