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Sir Ernest Shackleton – By Endurance, We Conquer

Shackleton pictured for the Illustrated London News after his return from the Nimrod expedition in 1909. On 2 February 2024, the UK’s Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay placed an export bar on Shackleton’s Polar Medal, which was valued at over £1.7 million.

Listen to the podcast version of this story here.

Ernest Shackleton is one of the best-known names in the world of polar exploration. It wasn’t always like that. For a long time, he was a sort of afterthought, a division B ranker after heroes like Scott and Clark Ross. Some say that’s because Shackleton was an Irishman and so it didn’t fit the British imperial narrative to promote an Irish explorer. I’m not sure I buy that entirely, although there is probably some truth there. What I can tell you is that this son of County Kildare achieved an enormous amount before his death at the young age of 47.

He was born in 1874 in Kilkea House, County Kildare, just south of Kilkea Castle, a home of the Dukes of Leinster in Ernest’s day, and just north of the village of Castledermot on the Kildare-Carlow border which, I think, is where the Shackleton’s went to church. As far as we know, all the Shackleton children born in Kildare were christened in Kilkea House.

They were Church of Ireland protestants by the time Ernest came along but the Shackleton family had actually been famous Quakers. His ancestor Abraham Shackleton established a hugely successful Quaker school in the Kildare village of Ballitore in the Georgian Age, its alumni included the republican Napper Tandy, the philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke and Paul Cullen, who became Ireland’s first Cardinal.

Somewhere along the line the family ditched Quakerism. Ernest’s grandfather had the splendid name of Ebenezer Shackleton and ran a mill on the tiny River Greese which flows through that part of Kildare. Ernest’s father Henry Shackleton was born on the first day of 1847, the worst year of the Great Hunger, or famine, and he seems to have been planning to lead the life of a farmer when Ernest was born. Henry and his wife Henrietta had a big family, ten children: Ernest, his brother Frank and eight sisters, who would all be devoted to Ernest for ever more and he, in turn, learned from them how to charm women.

Shackleton’s birth certificate. He would later give his name as Ernest Henry Shackleton, adding his father’s name to his own.


Things changed rather dramatically for the Shackleton’s when the long, wet summer of 1879 threatened to send Ireland back into famine. With his crops rotting around him, Henry decided he wasn’t much of a farmer and took his entire family to live in Dublin where he studied to become a doctor. Having got the doctor’s licence, he then shifted everybody across the Irish Sea to Sydenham in London where he practiced homeopathy and gynaecology. Dr Shackleton was to become famous across south-east London for the immense length and bushiness of his beard.

PS Banshee, London & NW Railway, a ship built by Laird, Birkenhead 1884, on which the Shackleton family sailed from Dublin to Holyhead in December 1884.


Having spent his first 10 years in Ireland, Ernest now found himself in the heart of the British Empire, a kid with an Irish accent. A little posh, but still Irish. There is a sense that he was caught between two worlds, an Irishman in England, like many before and since. Tellingly, when he became famous, Irish newspapers hailed him as an Irishman and again, whenever he gave a speech in Ireland in later life, he was hailed as an Irishman.

Fir Lodge Prep School, Dulwich, with Shackleton brilliantly perched up top, 1885-1887.

He got on quite well at school, the Fir Lodge Preparatory School in Dulwich. He was a loner, save for a Greek boy who saved his life when he nearly drowned during a seaside holiday on the south coast of England. (Shackleton learned how to swim after that near miss.) He wasn’t a great student but that, he later said, was because his teachers were ‘unspeakably boring.’ He did, however, win fans and friends in school with the elaborate tales he spun to his teacher each morning to explain why he was late, again.

Things weren’t easy on the home front. His mum, who’d always been a sunny-side optimist, was blitzed by an unidentified ailment that left her bedridden for the next 40 years.  So beardy old Dr Shackleton ran the house, and he was a pretty no-nonsense chappie. It was all about the Bible and temperance – Ernest and his sisters would be sent to march outside pubs and sing songs about the evils of liquor.

Left on his own, Ernest liked to read. Poetry, for sure, but also adventure stories like Jules Vernes sci-fi classic ‘20,000 Leagues under the Seas,’ with the heroic Captain Nemo at the helm of a submarine.

Shackleton’s Second Mate certificate, 30 August 1894. With thanks to Max Hartridge.

Ernest’s teenaged eyes duly fastened upon the sea and the possibilities that lay beyond. His dad couldn’t afford to get him a cadetship with the Royal Navy but he was able to get him on board a merchant ship in 1890 that was sailing for Chile with a cargo of coal, returning with nitrates. This was a whopper of a journey around Cape Horn at the southern tip of Latin America and up the coast of Chile, an enormous eye-opener for a 16-year-old who hadn’t spent more than a week away from home until then. It was a very rough voyage, with a rough crew, as well as icebergs and a near capsizing. He also suffered severe seasickness. However, he stayed the course and in fact he remained on the ship when it went around Cape Horn five more times over the next few years, and another time around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean.

By the age of 20, he was a qualified foreign-going Mate. By 24, he was reputedly a Master, qualified to command a merchant ship anywhere on the seven seas. That said, Max Hartridge, who has his 1st and 2nd Mates Certificates, conducted a deep dive for his Master Certificate and informed me in June 2023 that there does not seem to be one.

In any case, merchant shipping wasn’t his endgame. Shackleton wanted to explore. He would make four expeditions to the Antarctic between 1901 and 1921. The first was with Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Scott of the Antarctic, Robert Falcon Scott, a huge figure in British polar exploration, largely because he died heroically and who doesn’t love an explorer who dies heroically?

A fabulous picture of Shackleton standing behind Scott (with medal), with Reginald Skelton (left) and the veteran Arctic explorer Sir Leopold McClintock looking at the CVO medal that Edward VII had just pinned on Scott’s chest. They were pictured on the deck of Discovery, at Cowes, in August 1901, shortly after being presented to King Edward VII. Sir Clements Markham, president of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), was also present according to the Selby Times, 9 August 1901, p. 2. Photographer: Charles William Rawson Royds (1876-1931).

In 1901, Scott was recruiting crewmen for the Discovery Expedition, known officially as the British National Antarctic Expedition, the first official British exploration of the Antarctic in 60 years. Shackleton volunteered immediately – and was declined. However, a well-placed pal got him a second chance and this time he was commissioned as Third Officer, entrusted with holds, stores and provisions, as well as arranging entertainment for the officers and crew.

Discovery’s mission was to discover as much information as possible about magnetism, biology, zoology, geology, meteorology and whatever ology you’re having yourself. It was all about gathering data. They discovered heaps – snow-free Antarctic valleys, the continent’s longest river, a colony of emperor penguins, whole new lands and islands, including the Polar Plateau on which the South Pole is located. Incredible stuff – it was only six years since the first human had actually set foot on Antarctica.

Welcome Home, 1904. As Max Hartridge observes, the polar bear must have travelled pole to pole more than 100 years before Michael Palin!

The only dud note was that Scott sent Shackleton home early.  Scott kind of implied that Shackleton wasn’t up for it, that he wouldn’t last, and that was something that would rankle deep within the Kildare man’s bones. Because he was utterly hooked on the Antarctic by now. I’m not entirely sure I can see the attraction. The Antarctic is the single most difficult place to get to on planet earth. 99% of it is covered in inaccessible ice. It’s the coldest, driest, windiest, blizzardiest place in the world. Everyone who goes there agrees it harsh as hell. I will not be going there myself in this life because I do not like cold, windy, blizzardy places. But Ernest Shackleton did like them. And he was livid that Scott has sent him home early. Scott’s order had described Shackleton as an ‘invalid.’ The word scorched.

In 1903, Shackleton applied to the post of secretary at the Scottish Royal Geographical Society in Edinburgh in December 1903 and started work there 11 January 1904

Scott’s Discovery expedition had come close to reaching the South Pole but it hadn’t got there, so Shackleton now focused his energies on getting there first, on beating Scott to it. This was the space race of its day. When Shackleton announced his ambition to reach the South Pole, the press leaped on him. In fact, the press loved him. He was a natural showman, an entertainer, an eloquent speaker, replete with an Irishman’s courage and gab and hints of mischief and song … anyone who heard him speak reckoned his excitement was contagious.

As such, he wasn’t the sort of man who would instantly secure the support of the Royal Geographical Society or the British Government. They preferred someone like Scott, a no-fuss military mind, not some publicity-hunting show-off like Shackleton.

But Shackleton needed publicity because he required money. He required money because he was now going to command his own polar expedition. Slowly, with private sponsors, he got the goods – the instruments, the ship, the men.

The word Arctic derives from arktikos, the Greek word for bear, and refers to the fact that constellation of Ursa Major, also known as the Bear, is visible from the northern portion of our celestial sphere. By extension, Antarctic means ‘no bear’ because you cannot see the Bear constellation down there. The Bear – translated as “Arcturus” – is one of the few star groups mentioned in the Bible.

The ship was the Nimrod. And Nimrod’s goal was to carry the first men to reach the South Pole. In fairness to Shackleton, he got within 97 miles of the South Pole but the weather was just too appalling – there were constant blizzards and temperatures so low that everyone was getting hypothermia. He’d brought ponies to get them across the ice, an experiment that didn’t work out. A motorcar he brought along was even worse. They very nearly did not even make it home. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the only reason they got back alive was because they were chewing pills all day long made of a wee blend of caffeine and cocaine.

[See footage here of Shackleton’s hut, built in 1907, on Ross Island, at Cape Royds in Antarctica.]

Nonetheless, the Nimrod expedition achieved several things, including a new Farthest South record and being the  first humans to reach the South Magnetic Pole. It’s complicated but that’s not as prestigious as the actual South Pole but it’s still brilliant. And how do you top being in the most dangerous place on Earth? You climb a volcano. A live volcano, which is precisely what Shackleton’s men did when they completed the first ascent of Mount Erebus.

Meanwhile, his long-suffering wife – he was married in 1904 to Emily Dorman, a friend of his sister – was getting letters like this:

“My own darling Sweeteyes and Wife. Think kindly of me … Remember… your husband will have died in one of the few great things left to be done.”

Shackleton made it back to London alive and, by the summer of 1909, he was a hero. He was knighted by his king and showered with awards. The Royal Geographical Society awarded him a gold medal.

Obviously, being Shackleton, the first thing he wanted to do was to get back down to Antarctica and complete that 97 mile stretch to reach the South Pole before Scott.

Shackleton, 1908. Courtesy of Max Hartridge.

His biggest hurdle was money. He was furiously in debt to those who had backed the Nimord expedition. He launched various plans to pay the money back but, suffice it to say, he was no businessman. In fact, his biographers are universally agreed that Shackleton was useless on dry land generally. He failed at nearly every enterprise he touched. His marriage nearly followed suit after various extramarital affairs.

He also had a double gut punch when not one, but two expeditions beat him to the South Pole – Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian, got there in December 1911 and Captain Scott, Shackleton’s nemesis, reached it 5 weeks later. Scott and his four companions would die on the return journey. You might recall the remarkable last words from one of them, Titus Oates when, realising he was dying of gangrene and was thus a useless drain on their limited supplies, he left the tent saying “I am just going outside, I may be some time”

Exploration is a little bit like science in that you kind of have to have a lot of failures before you succeed. Sometimes even the successes are failures for the people themselves because they, like Scott and Oates, die in the process.

These guys were pioneers. Venturing into Antarctica at a time when aeroplanes have only just been invented so nobody has a clue what’s actually down there. For all anyone knew, there could have been a hole that dropped to the centre of the earth, or a golden el dorado. Voyaging there was kind of like being one of the very first astronauts heading into space, except you don’t get to have any connection to NASA back home! Once your pathfinder is out of sight, that’s it. You’re entirely on your own.

In a way, I think that independence, that elemental freedom, was the bit Shackleton prized most. That’s what kept him focused to raise enough funds to get back down to Antarctica. Emily, his wife, said he was ‘a soul whipped on by the wanderfire’. Once he got a plan in mind, there was no stopping him. He was an immense force of energy, intellectual, spiritual, contagious, utterly determined.

Ernest Shackleton

So, dressed in his Gieves & Hawkes suit, he headed off on an extensive lecture tour around Britain and Ireland, talking about his polar exploits, and those of Scott and Amundsen too. He was an intense public speaker, a performer, who could hold his congregation spellbound. One way or another, he got the money from benefactors, from philanthropists, and from selling the rights to the books he promised to write about after his adventure.

He also sold the rights to films and photographs, so he was very much ahead of his time and that’s why we are blessed to have such an incredibly rich collection of imagery from what would be his most remarkable mission, Endurance. You can see Frank Hurley’s beautiful, digitally remastered footage of the ship and the crew and the dogs and the voyage itself on YouTube, for instance. It’s astonishing to see such vivid material. You can also hear Shackleton’s voice, from the Nimrod mission, talking in clipped, well enunciated words about his experiences.

Having raised the funds, he got the ship. A three-masted luxury yacht built in Norway, which he bought on a sort of hire-purchase deal, and rechristened Endurance after the Shackleton family mottoFortitudine vincimus (“By endurance we conquer”).

Next up, the officers and crew – 56 men, which he whittled down from 5000 applicants. Twenty-eight men would ultimately sail on Endurance, including three Franks –Frank Wild (his second-in-command), Frank Worsley (his New Zealand-born captain and navigator) and Frank Hurley (the photographer, film-maker, a fearless Aussie).

‘Shackleton’s Cigar – Sir Ernest Shackleton, who has left Buenos Ayres on his new expedition to the South Pole, was once a very junior officer on a passenger boat, and it happened that one voyage Lord Rothschild was a passenger. He became quite friendly with the young “fourth,’’ and one evening gave him a magnificent cigar. Shackleton knew better than to smoke that cigar. He wrapped it up in silver paper and silk handkerchief, and kept it as a cherished memento of his friendship with the great man. On subsequent voyages he developed a habit of exhibiting his treasure to favoured lady passengers, recounting at the same time how he and Lord Rothschild had been “quite pally, you know.” The chief engineer, a dour old Scotsman, thought would teach him a lesson, so he conspired with the doctor to steal the cigar and replace it with one of a much inferior kind —in fact, with a weed that had cost him twopence at the last port. 
And the Sequel – With a five-shilling cigar in their possession for the first time in their lives, they found it difficult to decide who should have the smoking of it, and so they tossed acoin. The doctor won, and bore his prize off in malicious triumph to his own room, there to enjoy it in solitary state. His triumph was, however, somewhat shortlived for in five minutes he was back again with the chief, very woefully countenanced and swearing volubly. The Rothschild was a somewhat inferior smoke to that which they had left in its place. Somebody had been before them! The joke was never divulged aboard that ship, and Shackleton left the line soon afterwards, so that it is remotely possible that the intrepid Antarctic explorer still treasures, in some secret cabinet, a cigar which he believes to have been given him by Rothschild, but which actually was, in its prime, poor value for twopence. ‘
The Globe, 30 October 1914

A letter Shackleton sent to Marie de Rothschild (née Perugia) the wife of Leopold de Rothschild (1845-1917). The Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition
South Georgia 15.11.14
Dear Mrs Rothschild,
On the eve of my departure from this sub-antarctic island for the polar ice, I dictate this farewell line to once more thank you for the great assistance you have given this expedition and to assure you that all we can do to make it a success will be done.
Yours very truly
E.H. Shackleton For more see here.

Given that Ernest Shackleton’s only brother was called Frank, it all feels very Frankish. Frank Shackleton, incidentally, was in all sorts of bother at this time, deeply in debt and allegedly involved in the theft of the Irish Crown Jewels. I won’t go into the story here but I can tell you there were rumours, inevitably, that the Irish Crown Jewels had been sold to pay for Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic adventure. The money was in fact achieved through his own fund-raising prowess, assisted by a government grant and three substantial private donations. The Rothschilds were among the donors.

While I’m being a little tangential, Irish readers might enjoy the fact that in Chile, the entire Antarctic Peninsula is known as Tierra de O’Higgins (Land of O’Higgins) in honour of Bernardo O’Higgins, the Liberator of Chile.

Back on Endurance, Shackleton’s crew also included Second Officer Tom Crean, the farmer’s son from Kerry, who had been with him on Nimrod, and Able Seaman Tim McCarthy from Lower Cove, Kinsale.

Shackleton would, of course, be the leader. He was born to lead. He was, as his crew called him, the Boss. His men were absolutely devoted to him. They would have laid down their life for him, and he for them.

What did they have in common? Optimism. Here’s Shackleton’s view on the subject.

‘The quality I look for most is optimism: especially optimism in the face of reverses and apparent defeat. Optimism is true moral courage.’

Shackleton was a marvellous optimist. As the English explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote:

“For a joint scientific and geographical piece of organization, give me Scott; for a Winter Journey, Wilson; for a dash to the Pole and nothing else, Amundsen: and if I am in the devil of a hole and want to get out of it, give me Shackleton every time.”

As you may know, Shackleton and his crew were about to get into a devil of a hole.

Endurance set sail in August 1914, just after the outbreak of the First World War, with a green light from the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston S Churchill.

Their mission was to make the first land crossing of the South Pole continent – Antarctica. Shackleton was accompanied by the 26 men he had, and one other, a Welsh stowaway who’d hidden himself in a laundry locker. He was permitted to stay on the condition that if they had to start eating one another, he’d be eaten first.

Also on board were 69 dogs and Mrs Chippy, the chef’s cat.

South they went to South Georgia Island – you should consider looking at a map for this part – where they reach a whaling station manned by whalers, tough men, seriously experienced, whose verdict is that it’s going to be a very severe winter. They believe the Weddell Sea, which Shackleton is aiming for, is going to have way more pack ice than usual and, if it were them, they’d call the mission off and go home. So Shackleton thanked the whalers for their wise words, about turned, went home and became a dairy farmer in Ireland for the rest of his life.

Oh no. Sorry. Wrong script. So, Shackleton thanked the whalers for their wise words and ordered his men to make haste for the Weddell Sea. He couldn’t possibly turn back. If he did, he knew he’d never ever return. It would be the end. He’d done everything he could to scrape the money together and he’d got this far. He had to give it a shot! By endurance we conquer.

Lo, Endurance entered the Weddell Sea. The whalers weren’t kidding. A million square miles of floating pack ice pressed in on the ship. It’s considered one of the most terrifying chunks of water on the planet. Have a look at the footage of Endurance going deeper and deeper into the ice as Shackleton directs it toward the spot where he’s hoping to begin the land crossing of Antarctica.

Endurance trapped in the Weddell Sea.

Little by little, the ship got stuck in the ice, just like the Franklin expedition did in the Arctic seventy years earlier. I don’t know if Shackleton’s crew knew this, but we now know that at least some of Franklin’s men ate some of Franklin’s other men. I imagine that the Welsh stowaway on Endurance was feeling a little nervous at this point.

The ship stayed trapped in the ice for several months, drifting clockwise through the Weddell Sea at a rate of about a mile day. Your pet snail could literally move faster.

The men got so bored that they presented Bobby Clark, the ship’s biologist, with a collection jar full of boiled spaghetti. The gruff Scot momentarily thought it was a new species. His humour was not improved by the rumour that the penguins began shouting “Clark, Clark” and giving chase to the ship whenever he took the wheel.

Everything must have been made even more vivid by the fact the Weddell Sea is the clearest sea in the world, with depths visible to 80 metres.

The hope was the ship would somehow be released but the reality was that Endurance was being very, very slowly squeezed to death. The men stayed on board but the little leaks became bigger and the sound of crushing, grinding ice became unbearable. Finally, on 27 October 1915, Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship.

28 men, a heap of dogs, one cat, three small wooden boats, over 1200 miles from any other humans. They were somewhere east of a place called Graham Land, right down at the bottom of your world map. The Larsen Ice Shelf is there too, if you know what I mean.

Glug glug glug … Endurance sinks beneath the ice. What are you going to do?

This is when Shackleton came into his own. Where he had been impetuous and rash on dry land, he was unbelievable on the ice. Assured and sure-footed. Calm, cautious and just choc-o-block with confidence and positivity. He maintained that cheer, certainly in front of his crew, throughout what was to come, and that is what makes him such an icon. That is why he is now one of the most famous names from the heroic age of polar exploration.

He is considered the definitive model of leadership. There are multiple books about Shackleton as a leader. He’s taught in Business Schools from Harvard to Shanghai to Dublin City. If you’re a leader, the question you’re supposed to ask yourself when things are tough is, what would Shackleton do!?

He led his men through a two-year nightmare in which, as well as losing their ship, nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and yet his decision-making was almost flawless during this time. He was flexible, willing to adapt and improvise when needed. He was fabulous at keeping morale. Humour, games and impromptu theatricals. Before Endurance sank, they’d nicknamed the ship ‘The Ritz’ and used to gather around the piano on board for singalongs. He kept the singing going after the ship sank. He made drinks and served cocoa to people in the morning.

But he was also careful to ensure that every single man felt special and yet bonded to one another. He did all he could to stop factions forming, to iron out disagreements, to keep everyone on as even a keel as possible.  That was not easy because he also had to make some terribly hard decisions.

Like killing the puppies. You might have seen the footage of Tom Crean the Kerryman looking delighted with an armful of puppies that were born on the voyage. He was their mentor. However, the pups needed looking after and they needed food and there wasn’t enough food, so they had to be shot, along with Mrs Chippy, the chef’s cat.  There were still plenty of sled dogs on board though, which were fed seal fat and penguins too, I think, but it was mainly seal blubber which everyone ate, man and dog, day in, day out, along with a single biscuit every day. After a while the seals vanished and the seal meat ran out, so they started to shoot the other dogs too – dogs they knew, dogs they had named – and they ate those dogs in order to survive.




All the while, Shackleton was developing a plan based on a place called Elephant Island. It’s so-called because there are elephants seals there so, at worst, he figured they’d have something to eat when they got there. It’s a seven-day voyage across the icy sea. The wind is a-roaring and a-whistling. There’s heavy snow. It’s utterly freezing. Food and sanity are dwindling.

And so they made a bolt for Elephant Island on three, wooden, open-top life boats. Seven days crossing what Shackleton later called ‘the worst portion of the worst sea in the world’. The men were only allowed bring a measly 2kg of possessions with them. Everything else had to be ditched. Shackleton chose to bring his copy of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’. If you don’t know the poem, look it up. Thirty-two lines of genius. ‘If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you …’.

Actually, Shackleton kept his head about him enough to ensure that all Frank Hurley’s film and photos came with them too. That had to come! That was his gold dust if he ever got out of this horror show.

Bobby Clark was not so lucky. When the ship was abandoned all his carefully specimens had to be left behind. As Frank Worsley recorded:

‘I felt sorry for Clark, as I lay there that night and realised that he had been obliged to leave on the Endurance the whole of his valuable collection that he had been at such pains to classify and study.’

Shackleton’s Top Hat is on display in Tullow Museum. He apparently wore this the day he was knighted.

They reached Elephant Island safely, but it was a dreadful disappointment. A barren rock on which they could possibly last a few months, eating penguins and seal, but no longer. The situation worsened: an unexpected wave swiped two bags full of clothing, and a storm shredded their 8-man canvas tents o they were now sleeping under their lifeboats.

Shackleton went back to the maps with his principal advisors, concluding that his only option was to send a party back to the whaling station on South Georgia Island and get help. An 800-mile journey north in one of the wooden boats.  He says he will go, and he’ll bring five men with him. The others will just have to wait. He selects his five men, including Tom Crean of Annasucal and Tim McCarthy of Kinsale.

The boat they will travel in is a 23-foot-long utility boat, which Shackleton had named James Caird after one of his sponsors, an entrepreneur from Dundee.

The six men shook hands with their 22 friends, got into their boat, and set off from Elephant Island. It was 24 April 1916, Easter Monday. About 13,500 kilometres north, the Easter Rising was erupting on the streets of Dublin.

That journey to South Georgia Island was a petrifying voyage across one of the world’s worst seas. If that flimsy lifeboat had flipped none of them would have ever been heard of again. I can’t begin to imagine the horror of the next 16 days – raw-skin, chafed, aching limbs; utterly sodden clothes; frozen, stinging saltwater; sciatica kicking in; high winds and crashing waves, day after day after day. Madness was in all of them. It nearly overcame them.

Tom Crean sang at the tiller. Badly. “He always sang while he was steering,” Shackleton later recalled. “Nobody ever discovered what the song was, it was devoid of tune and … monotonous… yet somehow it was cheerful”.

And then, glory be, they saw seaweed … and cormorants … and then the icy heights of South Georgia Island. Hurrah! But not yet. They’d landed on the west coast of the island. The Stromness whaling station where humanity existed was on the east coast. So now they had to get across the island on foot. This was too much for three of them so now it was just Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean who set off across this uncharted mountainous island with zero knowledge of what was involved.

They clambered through the night, over icy peaks and frozen crevasses. As dawn broke, they heard a distant sound – the steam whistle from Stromness. It was the first human sound they had heard made by somebody other than their crew in several years. What a spine-chilling moment it must have been!

Onwards they clambered. At one point they were in a deep mist unable to see where they were going, and literally tumbled and slid downhill, all tied together, deliberately. They knew their only option was to plunge. I imagine they were quite doo-lally by this stage: Worsley said they were all grinning and roaring as they powered down the slope.

They arrived alive. The adrenaline must have been coursing through every atom of their body as they plodded as quickly as their frozen limbs would allow in the direction of the whaling station. They’d been walking non-stop for 36 hours since their boat had landed on the island.

Shortly after 4pm on 20 May 1916, Shackleton presented himself to the head of the Norwegian whalers at Stromness. They had made it.

There was still plenty to do, of course. A rescue party was sent to collect Tim McCarthy and the other two fellows from over on the other side of the island. Shackleton was also immediately on the case to get a boat back south to rescue his other 22 crewmen from Elephant Island. It wasn’t easy. It took 4 attempts and many weeks to get back across the heavy seas. Eventually a Chilean ship broke through, with Shackleton and Worsley on board, and they somehow found the camp amid the foggy glaciers. From the shores he could hear his stranded men cheering into the air as they approached. All 22 men were still alive. Again, what a moment!

Frank Wild had been left in charge of them.  ‘I felt jolly near blubbing for a bit,’ he said. ‘I could not speak for several minutes.’

Shackleton was careful to play this feat, this triumph, for every cent it was worth. When he got his 22 castaways back, he made sure none of them shaved or washed before they went on parade in the USA. He wanted them all to look as dishevelled and valiant and real as possible for the photo shoots, which would, in turn, shock and startle and greatly impress everybody.

The flip side of all this was that, in terms of the scientific agenda that investors had bought into, such as the plan to cross the continent, the Trans-Antarctic Expedition had been a colossal failure.

Shackleton was in huge debt all over again and had to go straight back to lecturing when he returned to the UK. As well as his financial worries and an unsatisfactory private life, he was also hampered by bad health, heart problems and breathing difficulties. He may have had a hole in his heart; his ticker was certainly not in good shape.

Aside from lecturing, he was back at sea. His first major mission was to the Ross Sea in late 1916, early 1917, to collect some other men who had been stranded in a tragic sideshow of the Endurance mission that I must look at in more depth one of these moons. He voyaged home from Sydney on the Oceanic Steamship Company’s ship SS Sierra. The ship was initially bound for Hawaii, to which islands it delivered some 950 crates and 1,507 bags of onions when it docked in Honolulu on the morning of 3 April 1917. Stunned to hear that Shacketon was on board, the local Chamber of Commerce hastily arranged for him to give a 3pm talk about his Antarctic expedition in the Roof Garden of the Alexander Young Hotel. As the Honolulu Star-Bulletin observed:

‘Shackleton’s talk was thrilling in its simplicity and as he told of the trip south to the time when his vessel was crushed in the ice and of the cruel hardships and adventures which were experienced on the trip back to civilization, the audience sat ins breathless silence and when he finished a storm of applause broke forth.

At 5pm, Shackleton and Sierra set forth from Honolulu, onwards to San Francisco, with another 20,000 crates of onions on board.

He was also involved in a mining venture in Spitzbergen way up in the Arctic, and as an advisor on all things polar to the Allied Expeditionary Force which was fighting the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War in 1918 and 1919.

A very clean-shaven Sir Ernest. With thanks to Max Hartridge.

In 1921, he returned to Antarctica one more time on board the schooner Quest. Back to the wilds, to the ice where he was at his most content. This final mission was an oceanography expedition sponsored by John Quiller Rowett, an old schoolfriend, who’d become a millionaire. The plan seems to have been to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent. Shackleton only got as far as South Georgia, the island he had rowed to from Elephant Island five years earlier. He didn’t know he was going to die and certainly didn’t plan to. His health overpowered him. He died of a heart attack on 5 January 1922.

Emily requested that he be buried at Grytviken on South Georgia. She had been landed with that huge debt when he died. It was not easy for her or their three teenage children. His younger son Edward went on to become President of the Royal Geographical Society and, as Baron Shackleton, he led the Labour party in the House of Lords for six years in the 1970s.

Tom Crean stayed in the Navy until 1920, after which he returned to Kerry and ran the South Pole Inn in Annascaul with his wife and daughters until he died in 1938. Tim McCarthy, who rowed with Shackleton from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island, was the first of the 28 Endurance survivors to die. He was killed in 1917 when the ship he was on was torpedoed and sunk with all hands.

On 5 March 2022, 100 years to the day after Shackleton’s funeral – and 107 years after the ship sank into the icy depths of the Weddell Sea – the good ship Endurance was discovered by the Endurance22 Expedition. An undersea drone clocked Shackleton’s wooden vessel at a depth of just over 3km (nearly 10,000 feet), about four miles south of the position originally recorded by the ship’s captain Frank Worsley. I listened avidly to Dan Snow’s frequent reports on the journey south and I had just recorded my podcast account of Shackleton where the footage emerged. Viewing the name Endurance filling the screen as the camera rolls over the stern was quite a sensation.

His steamship Quest continued in service until 1962 when thick sea-ice pierced its hull off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. In June 2024, a team led by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) found the schooner at the bottom of the Labrador Sea.

If you’re in Ireland, go see the Shackleton Museum in Athy in County Kildare; there’s a fine bronze statue of the great man himself just outside the museum by the sculptor Mark Richards. It was unveiled by Ernest’s grand-daughter Alexandra Shackleton in 2016.

The Green Barn Restaurant, just east of Athy, is run by kinsmen of the family, while other members of the family run the Shackleton Gardens in Clonsilla in Dublin.


My thanks to The Irishman whiskey, sponsors of the Shackleton episode of the Global Irish podcast, to series producer Liam Mulvaney from 11 for 10 Productions, and to Max Hartridge for additional information.


The first drone footage of the rediscovered Endurance in March 2022 revealed the name of the ship, plus the star of the company it had previously belonged to.




In 2009, I reviewed a series from the National Geographic Channel called ‘Ice Patrol’ for the Irish Examiner. The series followed the journey of the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship in the Southern Ocean. Episode 3 focused on the journey of four good-humoured Royal Marines as they attempted to retrace Shackleton’s gruelling trek across South Georgia Island, billed as one of the most challenging terrains on Earth.

Of course, the Marine’s situation was somewhat different to that of the valiant explorers of a hundred years earlier. For starters they arrived on the island on board a state-of-the-art Lynx helicopter, rather than an open-top, hurricane-lashed lifeboat. Secondly, they had a radio and the helicopter was never too far away.

Thirdly, the Marines knew exactly where they were going. Shackleton and his friends hadn’t a clue, save that Worsley’s sextant suggested east.

Nor did the Shackleton team arrive at the now-abandoned whaling station to be greeted by a bottle of champagne and hoots of joy. On the contrary, when they stumbled into the whaling station in 1916, the whiskery Norwegian whalers within could not believe their eyes. Everybody knew that crossing the island of South Georgia by foot was impossible.

That is not to detract from the achievement of the Royal Marines, three of whom had just returned from a tour in Afghanistan. Their leader, Colour Sergeant Daz Pope, considered the expedition to be one of ‘the greatest challenges I will ever undertake.’ And their journey was not without mishaps. They encountered winds ‘strong as a machine gun’ that flattened them onto the ground. While clambering up the perilous slopes of the 4,400ft Trident Ridge, one Marine slipped, plummeted and banjaxed his hip and thumb. In 1916, that would have meant RIP. In 2009, that meant you whistle up a chopper and get the soldier to a hospital. The three remaining Marines then faced into a brutal thirty-six-hour blizzard, much of which they spent huddled in a canvas tent while the world around them screeched and howled like a bad heavy metal gig.

The final and rather peculiar challenge for the Marines was to negotiate a path through thousands of hostile seals lounging upon the ‘honking beaches’ around the whaling station. ‘Even the pups would have a real good go at you’, explained one Marine. ‘It seems they’re born with that attitude, and it stays with them for life’. Shackleton never had a problem with seals. In the early 20th century, fashionable ladies enjoyed wearing clothes made of seal fur with the result that, by 1916, the local seal population was virtually extinct. But now, with seal fur out of favour, there are upwards of five million of these tenacious characters on South Georgia, which presumably poses an increasing dilemma for any future plans to retrace Shackleton’s extraordinary clamber across the island.


Lifeboatmen of the JC Madge, circa 1904. These were the hardy souls who taught Shackleton how to row on the coast of North Norfolk when he lived in nearby Sheringham circa 1910-1911.


This is the only census form for Shackleton, as he was with Scott in 1901 and on South Georgia in 1921. As Max observes, ‘he probably thought these places not part of the British Empire, so was excused.’ He filled out the 1911 form after he had moved his family from Edinburgh to a house he rented from Commander George Dolphin, in Sheringham, Norfolk. This was a large with house with 16 rooms called Mainsail Haul, with many interesting associations. Shackleton filled out the form in London using as his postal address 9 Regents Street, Scott’s office. He was evidently in a rush, as he got confused about the instructions, and crossed out his incorrect entries re column/line for age of males / females and marriage / children. Small wonder he never kept any financial accounts.