Ballinacurra, Banbridge, Athy, Annascaul, Barry’s Point, Kilmurry , Kinsale….these Irish places have a fascinating shared history, for they produced some of the world’s greatest Antarctic explorers.
Following a recent visit to Kinsale where I came upon the memorial commemorating the Antarctic adventures of the McCarthy Brothers (see my earlier blog post here), I undertook some research to discover more about them. And so it was that I came across Michael Smith, journalist, author, authority on Polar exploration and in particular on the Irish who had been pivotal in pushing out the boundaries of human endeavour in the early 20th Century and in more recent times. As luck would have it, he was about to give a talk at the Ennis Book Club Festival on March 2, 2013 , so I reserved a seat!
Michael Smith is a natural storyteller, in both word and print. With meticulous attention to detail, he has traced and recounted the biographies of these Irishmen mostly from ‘ordinary’ and modest backgrounds who went on to do extraordinary things. He has located many of the surviving descendants of these polar explorers and the resulting personal insights add a fascinating dimension to stories of great heroism.
As early as 1820 Edward Bransfield from County Cork was in the Southern latitudes and is arguably the first person ever to have sighted Antarctica. Some few decades later Francis Crozier penetrated the pack ice of the Ross Sea for the first time. Shackleton, who hailed from Kildare is widely acclaimed for the expeditions he mounted to explore the Antarctic wastes. Not so the others – Tom Crean, who served with Shackleton and Scott in 3 expeditions to the South Pole; Patrick Keohane who served with Scott on his fatal expedition to the South Pole; Robert Forde who served with Scott on the same expedition, Timothy McCarthy who served with Shackleton on the Endeavor and Mortimer Mc Carthy who was helmsman on the Terra Nova, Scott’s expedition. Michael Smith tells the stories of these extraordinary people in passionate detail – each story demonstrating courage and bravery that is truly inspiring.
Each of these Irishmen has a geographic feature in the Antarctic named in their honour - mountains, islands, seas, – monuments to their courage – yet they remain virtually unheard of here at home. They have largely been airbrushed from our history – a history that regrettably did not recognize honour in any achievement by our countrymen, prior to independence. That, thankfully is changing, thanks in no small part to the Englishman, Michael Smith who has documented these feats of heroism about which we can be justly proud.
This iconic image of Tom Crean has looked out from the shelves in bookshops for several years now, but it has only been in recent memory that the heroics of Tom Crean have been shared and appreciated. This has been largely due to the work of Michael Smith, whose book ‘Tom Crean - Unsung Hero‘ tells the amazing, incredible and inspiring story of this man from County Kerry. Recognition of the extraordinary achievements of this quiet man from Kerry is now being passed on to our children as Michael Smith’s Tom Crean – Ice Man: The Adventures of an Irish Antarctic Hero is now on the school syllabus. Hopefully many parents of the children who read this book will also discover this legendary Irish hero.
Michael Smith’s tale of Irish explorers does not end with these great explorers of days gone by. He brings it right up to date with a chapter on the Irish Expedition that reached the South Pole in 2008, with Pat Falvey, Jonathan Bradshaw, Shaun Menzies and Clare O’Leary, the first Irishwoman to reach the South Pole on foot, and the remarkable achievement of Irishman Mark Pollock, who reached the South Pole on foot in 2009 – most remarkable as Mark is totally blind.
This book is beautifully written, with Smith’s attention to detail adding to the authenticity of the stories and to the drama. It has superb photographs, not seen elsewhere, as many are from family sources. It is well referenced and has an extensive bibliography for those who wish to read more.
I heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to read of daring, adventure, willpower, for here you will find inspiration straight from our very own history, in which we can be rightly proud.
Great Endeavour. Ireland’s Antarctic Explorers by Michael Smith. The Collins Press.