Ireland's Antarctic Explorers

Remembering the great endeavours of Ireland's most intrepid

It is remarkable that so many Irish are unaware of the exceptional contribution the nation has made to the exploration of the world’s most inhospitable continent – the Antarctic.

A new book by Polar historian, Michael Smith, Great Endeavour: Ireland’s Antarctic Explorers, describes the triumphs, tragedies, endurance and hardships of a special breed who courageously trekked into the world’s most hostile environment.

Some were driven by a quest for adventure and discovery while others were motivated by a desire to enhance scientific knowledge and understanding. Most survived the ordeal, a few perished but, with the exception of Shackleton, all have been largely forgotten, passing into obscurity soon after returning home.

Great Endeavour covers Irish Antarctic feats over a 200 year period, beginning with the exploits of Edward Bransfield in the early 1800s through to the significant 21st century contributions of Clare O’Leary (2008), the first Irishwoman to walk to the South Pole, and Simon O’Donnell and Mark Pollock, the latter making the journey in 2009 despite being blind.

When looking at a map marking their birthplaces it becomes apparent how many hailed from Ireland’s southern counties, with their rich seafaring tradition: Bransfield and Partick Keohane from Cork, Tom Crean from Kerry, and Mortimer and Tim McCarthy from Kinsale.

The most notable deviations from this ‘maritime loop’ were Ernest Shackleton (Kilkea, County Kildare – pictured above) and Francis Crozier (Banbridge, County Down).

Smith reasons that Ireland played such a significant role in Antarctic exploration because, 'For centuries Ireland had provided thousands of sailors for the British Navy – there were many Irish sailors on James Cook’s ships which discovered Australia and about 1 in 10 of the seamen who served during the Napoleonic Wars were from Ireland'.

Edward Bransfield (the only explorer in Smith’s book of whom there is no photograph) was a Napoleonic War veteran, master seaman and navigator, who had been ‘press ganged’ into naval service in 1803. He was the first known man to sight the Antarctic continent. Francis Crozier became the first man to map and name it.

The modest, self-effacing Crozier had an outstanding career serving with the Royal Navy for over 40 years. He was involved in the three great maritime quests of the 19th century – to discover the North West Passage, attempting to reach the North Pole, and mapping Antarctica. With James Ross he visited Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) to set up a magnetic station.

During 1840/41, Hobart Town served as a base for his voyages to the ‘new’ southern continent. He was the only leading naval explorer of the age to be denied a knighthood. His exploits in Antarctica and those associated with his voyages amidst the Arctic ice must make Crozier Ireland’s greatest Polar explorer. (But then, being a Banbridge man myself, I may be a tad biased.)

Kilkea’s Ernest Shackleton, who, it is said, lived his life 'like a mighty rushing wind', was a fascinating character: he wrote poetry, carried on a string of extra-marital affairs, was often racked by debt, but was utterly respected and relied on by his crew for his inspirational leadership, bravery and survival skills.

Besotted by Antarctica, his 17 day journey (1916) in an open boat, accompanied by (amongst others) Tom Crean and Tim McCarthy through raging seas and prowling icebergs, from Elephant Island to South Georgia, was an incredible feat of endurance, courage and seamanship.

Shackleton managed to locate the isolated South Georgia island by taking just four sightings of the sun while at sea. On reaching it the explorers’ ordeal was far from over, with a dangerous walk across the frozen ocean awaiting them.

Tom Crean, a good humoured, resolute farmer’s son, was born in Anascaul, County Kerry in 1877. He ran away to sea at the age of 15 to become a prominent figure on three major expeditions to Antarctica, where he served with both Shackleton and English explorer, Captain Robert Scott.

While Shackleton (who also served under Scott) was often at loggerheads with his leader, Crean was implicitly trusted by the Royal Navy captain and accompanied Scott on the initial part of his tragic and unsuccessful race (1911 – 13) to be first to reach the South Pole.

It was during this expedition that Crean made his heroic walk across the Ross Ice Shelf to save the life of Edward Evans, resulting in him receiving the Albert Medal. Modest to the end, Crean never spoke about his exploits and, on his retirement from the Navy in 1920, settled in his beloved Anascaul where he became landlord of The South Pole Inn.

The classical era of Antarctic exploration effectively came to an end with Shackleton’s death in 1922 – just two days before the Irish Parliament approved the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which gave Ireland independence. It was this political act that somewhat stymied the world recognizing the magnificent efforts of Bransfield, Crozier, Crean, Keohane, and McCarthy.

According to Smith, 'Every single journey of discovery during the 100 year era of Antarctic exploration was made under a British flag and it was unwise to be associated with the British in the new Ireland. Keohane fled the country, Crean’s brother (a policeman) was shot dead and all were compelled to remain silent about their exploits. No statues were erected, no books were written and there was no celebration of what these men had achieved which meant that over the years they were quietly forgotten.'

Great Endeavour will undoubtedly help to ensure that these Irish Antarctic explorers are recognized, revered and remembered by posterity for their remarkable exploits and courage.

Learning about Shackleton, for instance, is awe-inspiring. This is a man who, on minimum rations and with a body temperature four degrees below normal, suffering from nosebleeds and piercing headaches, hauled a heavy sledge for hundreds of kilometres over the iceflows in conditions registering 70 degrees of frost while battling fierce polar winds.

The book, which contains a selection of quality maps, together with an array of atmospheric, evocative photographs (some never before published) is the first single volume to illustrate and describe Irish participation in unlocking the great frozen southern continent.

Smith’s meticulous research, which has uncovered many hitherto unknown facts, together with his eloquent, flowing style makes for absorbing reading. This book is a remarkable tribute to the heroism and fortitude of a unique group of Irish pioneers. Smith has chosen a truly apt title.

Great Endeavour: Ireland’s Antarctic Explorers is published by Collins Press, Cork.