The early part of the 20th century was a time of great adventure in the frozen Antarctic wastes, a time when explorers sought to test their endurance and document the uncharted wilderness of the South Pole. This ‘Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration‘ had its own superstars, with two in particular becoming household names.
Probably the most famous is Robert Falcon Scott, later known as ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. Scott led two expeditions to the South Pole. His first was on board the ‘Discovery‘ in 1901. The second trip in 1910, on the ill-fated ‘Terra Nova‘, was a race to be the first to reach the South Pole. However, when Scott and his men reached their destination, imagine their bitter disappointment to find a Norwegian flag already planted there several weeks earlier by members of Roald Amundsen’s expedition. Tragically, Scott and 4 of his companions perished on the ice on the return journey to their base camp.
The other memorable name from that era was Ernest Shackleton from County Kildare, Ireland. Shackleton was with Scott on the 1901 ‘Discovery’ expedition but had to return early due to health problems. In 1907, Shackleton himself led the ‘Nimrod‘ expedition and set a record for a march in the southernmost latitudes. From 1914 – 1917 he led the ‘Endurance‘ expedition to the South Pole, with the aim of crossing the entire continent of Antarctica. The names of these two explorers, Scott and Shackleton, are synonymous with great polar expeditions and are instantly recognized.
In recent years the truly remarkable courage of yet another Irishman, Tom Crean from Annascaul, County Kerry has been recognized and acknowledged for the extraordinary part he played as a great Polar explorer. Not only did he serve on Scott’s ‘ Discovery‘ and the ‘Terra Nova‘ expeditions, he was also second officer on Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition. Tom Crean’s truly inspiring story is now well documented. However he was not the only Irishman who ventured into the Antarctic wastes.
On a recent visit to Kinsale, County Cork, I came across a very attractive memorial to local brothers Tim and Mortimer McCarthy, both of whom had also participated in ‘the Heroic Age of Arctic Exploration’. The McCarthy boys were brought up overlooking the river estuary in Kinsale and as boys learned how to handle small boats.
Mortimer (known as Mort or Murt) was born about 1882 and went to sea at a young age – it is thought that he may only have been aged 12!- and ended up living in New Zealand where he honed his skills as a seaman. Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ had departed England but stopped off in New Zealand for repairs and to stock up on supplies. Mort was recruited there on the day before she sailed for the Southern Ocean in 1910. Perhaps his reputation as an excellent seaman had gone before him as Captain Pennell recruited him as helmsman, the only additional crew member taken on in New Zealand.
Soon after setting sail from New Zealand in November 1910, the ‘Terra Nova‘ was hit by a hurricane. The ferocious wind and waves caused havoc on board, with animals and supplies being hurled about the place. ‘Often the waves swept over the stern, almost carrying the helmsman off his feet and he was frequently knee high and sometimes waist deep in water‘ wrote a member of the expedition. Having landed the members of the expeditions – a small one led by Campbell and the major Scott expedition -the ‘Terra Nova‘ turned for home and once again met with treacherous conditions. She arrived back in New Zealand in April 1911.
In December 2011,the ‘Terra Nova‘ again sailed south with McCarthy at the helm. The plan was to return to New Zealand with all the Antarctic expedition members on board. They made contact with Campbell and his men, relocated them further down the coast as planned, and left them enough food for 6 days. They were to be picked up again on the return voyage to New Zealand. The ‘Terra Nova‘ sailed on to pick up the other expedition party, but they learned that Scott and 7 of the 16 men who went to the South Pole had not yet returned. In addition, one of their number Lt.Evans, was seriously ill. Pennel decided that they could not risk getting stuck in the pack ice and decided to pick up Campbell’s party. The pack ice was very thick, there were high seas, strong winds and blizzards. McCarthy battled at the helm for 13 days before they were forced to retreat to pick up Lt.Evans. Once again they attempted to pick up Campbell but were beaten by the appalling conditions. They had to abandon the attempt and again headed for New Zealand. This time they encountered the very worst storm while surrounded by icebergs. It was so ferocious that the crew was unable to sit down to eat and had to survive on cold food. It was reported by Taylor a geologist on board that, when they were swamped by a mountainous wave’ It broke down the canvas screen protecting, but didn’t dismay the jaunty McCarthy’. Later McCarthy spotted a huge iceberg looming out of the mountainous seas and managed to save the ship from a potentially catastrophic collision. They eventually reached New Zealand in April 1912.
In December 1912, they embarked on the third voyage to the Antarctic arriving in McMurdo sound on 18 January 1912. Here they learned that Scott and his 4 companions had died on the return trek from the South Pole. Campbell and his men had managed to join up with the main expedition With all survivors safely on board, they turned for home on 26 January 1913. Again McCarthy stood solidly at the helm as the ‘Terra Nova‘ was battered by the cruel sea and ‘tossed about like a cork’ in yet another hurricane. On 10 February they reached New Zealand and the tragic news of the fate of Scott and his party was telegraphed across the world.
Mortimer McCarthy remained with the ‘Terra Nova‘ for her return to Britain in June, and shortly afterwards he and the other expedition survivors were decorated by King George V- Mortimer received a Silver Polar Medal in recognition of his valiant work as helmsman on the three 5,000 mile voyages during which he lost 2 fingers to frostbite. Mount McCarthy in the Barker Range in the Antarctic, is named after Mortimer.
Timothy McCarthy (also known as Tadhgh, the Irish form of Timothy) was born in 1888 and was 6 years younger than Mortimer. As a member of the Royal Navy Reserve he served on a guard ship in Cobh (then Queenstown). Like Mortimer, he was credited with a good sense of humour and was very popular with his fellow crew members.
Timothy joined Shackleton as an able-seaman on the ‘Endurance’, sailing from London in August 1914, the purpose of the expedition being to cross the icy Antarctic continent from coast to coast – via the South Pole -a distance of some 1,800 miles. Also on board was fellow Irishman, Tom Crean. Little did they know that they were about to take part in one of the most celebrated tests of human endurance every undertaken in the Southern Ocean.
They sailed from Buenos Aires to the island of South Georgia where they took on supplies and learned much from Norwegian whalers about the often ice bound Weddell Sea. They left there on 15 December 1914 and forged through a thousand miles of pack ice. However a sudden drop in temperature caused the pack ice to freeze solid and the Endurance was trapped 100 miles short of the continent of Antartica.
For months the ‘Endurance’ drifted in the ice, until finally in October Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On 21 November, the ice finally crushed her and the ‘Endurance’ sank into the icy sea, leaving the 28 men on the icefloe with lifeboats and some supplies.
About a month later, they decided to march west, hauling the lifeboats laden with their supplies behind them. For 5 months they wandered on the moving ice floe until finally they sighted Elephant Island. In April 1915, they set out in their lifeboats and safely made landfall on Elephant Island – at least they were off the ice floes.
Colour key to map:
Red:Voyage of Endurance Yellow: Drift of Endurance in pack ice; Green: Sea-ice drift after Endurance sinks; Blue: Voyage of the lifeboat James Caird; Turquoise: Planned trans-Antarctic route; Orange:Voyage of Aurora to Antarctica; Pink: Retreat of Aurora; Brown: Supply depot route
Great Endeavour – Ireland’s Antarctic Explorers, by Michael Smith, Collins Press.