Heroes of Antarctic Exploration from Kinsale

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.


Tom Crean aboard the Endurance, 1914. image Wikimedia-commons

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.

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Memorial to the McCarthy Brothers, Kinsale, Co Cork

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.


The Terra Nova in the pack ice December 1910 . Image from Wikimedia Commons (Herbert Ponting negative)

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.


Endurance in the ice – Image Wikimedia Commons

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.


Endurance Final Sinking – Royal Geographic Society via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Map of the routes of the ships Endurance and Aurora, the support team route, and the planned trans-Antarctic route of the British Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Ernest Shackleton in 1914–15. Image Wikimedia Commons.

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


Ernest Shackleton leaves Elephant Island on the James Caird with five other members of the expedition, setting out to reach South Georgia Island 800 miles away. Twenty two men remain on Elephant Island, hopefully waiting. Image Frank Hurley via Wikimedia Commons

On April 24 1916, Shackleton chose a party of 5 men to go with him on the perilous 800 mile voyage to get help back at the whaling station. Among them were the Kerryman Tom Crean and the ever cheerful and reliable Timothy McCarthy. They endured appalling conditions – often frozen and soaked to the skin, the boat often iced up, often battling fierce gales in  the treacherous seas of the South Atlantic.  This voyage of the James Caird remains one of the most astonishing and challenging voyages ever undertaken in an open boat. Miraculously they reached South Georgia on May 10 1916.   Timothy was the first to spot land and the McCarthy Islands of South Georgia were subsequently named after him.
Timothy McCarty was asked to stay behind with two members of the crew who were too ill to undertake the challenging trek across South Georgia to the whaling station. Without compass or navigation equipment and without any mountaineering equipment Shackleton and Crean and Worsley headed off on the arduous march  through the interior. Timothy and his companions were rescued just days later but it took four attempts and some more months to rescue the 22 men on Elephant Island.
In 1917, about 6 months after his adventures in the Southern Ocean,  Timothy McCarthy rejoined the merchant navy. In March of that year his oil tanker, the Narragansett,  was torpedoed by a German U-boat  some 350 miles off the south-west coast of Ireland. All hands were lost. Timothy McCarthy was 28 years of age. Mortimer collected Timothy’s  Bronze Polar Medal. Mortimer lived out his life in New Zealand and made a nostalgic return trip to the Antarctic in 1963 with some comrades from the ‘Terra Nova’.  He died in 1967.
Both he and Timothy who played such pivotal roles in the heyday of Antarctic exploration are remembered by the monument at the harbour in Kinsale that they knew and loved. 
The McCarthy busts at the harbour at Kinsale. (Image Sara Smith, Creative Commons.)
Timothy McCarthy   1888 – 1917
Mortimer McCarthy 1882 – 1967


Great Endeavour – Ireland’s Antarctic Explorers, by Michael Smith,   Collins Press.





Filed under Ireland, Irish Diaspora, Irish History

22 responses to “Heroes of Antarctic Exploration from Kinsale

  1. These stories still give me goose-bumps, but it is the Irish contribution that really involves me in it. And today I loved your passion for adventure too:~)

    • These stories are at last coming to light – like a lot of our history, the achievements of these men were ‘air-brushed’ out of our heritage after independence. Michael Smith, an English journalist and author deserves great credit for recognizing our hidden history and allowing us to have those goose-bumps about the ordinary people who lived here and who lead extraordinary lives.

  2. J. G. Burdette

    How sad that McCarthy lost his life after surviving such an adventure.

    By the way, I just finished reading a book called “All Standing” by Kathryn Miles and thought of you. I don’t know if it is a book you would be interested in. It’s another about the Great Famine. The subtitle is a little misleading—“The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, The Legendary Irish Famine Ship”. There isn’t so much about the Jeanie Johnston but what there is really is fascination.

  3. Very interesting and very well written… 🙂

  4. A fascinating read with lots of amazing information. Thanks!

  5. Awesome stories of adventure and raw courage. I doubt that I’m kin to the McCarthy boys not having an ounce of their spirit. The nearest I’ve gotten to the South Pole is in Tom Crean’s pub of that name in Annascaul 🙂

  6. I have learnt so much more from your very well researched post… I knew of Shackleton’s Irish link, but not of the others… It makes me wonder how many more we have heard little of. I have long been fascinated by the journeys to the South Pole… not somewhere that I have any inkling to go to, even with the flights that visit, but I love reading of other’s adventures and admire from afar.
    Thank you…

    • Thank you Chris. I am writing a book review at the moment concerning a few more. The story of Tom Crean is, to use that awful but in this case the only appropriate word, awesome! And the Kinsale McCarthy’s deserve recognition beyond having geographical features named after them so far away. Thank you for dropping in !

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  10. Lynette Dobbin

    We are setting sail for Antarctica from Buenos Aires next week, exactly 100 years after the Endurance. As an Irishwoman who returned from Kinsale this week it will be an evocative – but hopefully less traumatic! – voyage.

    • Oh how exciting is that – to follow in the ‘sails’ of such courageous men! Have a ball, but do not get stuck in the ice! I wonder if you have read any of the wonderful books by Michael smith on our Irish Antarctic Heroes, especially the courageous and wonderful Tom Crean?Have a terrific adventure and thank you so much for dropping by!

  11. Peter McCarthy

    Hi, thanks for writing such a fascinating piece about the McCarthy boys. Mortimer was my grandfather and Tim my great uncle. Mortimer settled in Lyttelton, the port of Christchurch, NZ. He had 3 boys of which one was my dad, Gerard who is still with us. My dad and 3 bothers are all very proud of our family connection to the heroic era of Antarctic exploration and work to keep the stories alive. Michael Smith included a chapter about Mortimer and Tim in his excellent tribute to the Irish involvement in Antarctica in ‘Great Endeavour – Ireland’s Antarctic Explorers’ (The Collins Press) 2008.
    Best regards, Peter.
    PS hey Roy, you never know!

    • what a renowned family history you have! You must be very proud indeed! Michael Smith is the flag bearer for Irish explorers and his books are so readable. He has also written a book for school children which is wonderful as for decades this part of our history remained hidden! I was fortunate enough to meet him at a lecture two years ago and attended another lecture he delivered in Cork last summer. He told me something very interesting about the memorial to your grandfather and great uncle. I wonder if you are aware what that is ?
      Thank you so much for dropping by..it is a great honour when someone connected to the story sees my posts !

      • Peter McCarthy

        Hi, Silver Voice, thanks very much. Yes we’re very proud indeed. I do know Micheal, in fact I stayed with him in 2010 when I was over for the Terra Nova centenary and we had some great conversations and yes I know about the memorial. So Irish! Cheers, Peter.

      • Well what great and wonderful company you were in! Delighted you stopped by my blog..thank you!

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