A version of this article will be available in the next edition of The Geographer. 

Athy, County Kildare, Ireland has become one of the principal ‘go-to’ locations for researchers, authors and those with an interest in Ernest Shackleton. Its credentials derive from proximity to the childhood home of Ernest Shackleton (born in the townland of Kilkea, 1874) and its broader connections with the Shackleton family who arrived to the nearby Quaker settlement in Ballitore in the early years of the 18th century. 

From its location on the edge of what was historically the centre of administrative power in Ireland, at a river crossing which in the middle ages formed an interface between the territories of the native Irish chieftains and Crown rule, Athy grew to be a thriving market town benefitting from its rich agricultural hinterlands and the patronage of the Dukes of Leinster. 

Each year, the volunteer team in Athy organise The Shackleton Autumn School, which takes place over a weekend in late October and comprises a range of activities, all presented within the frame of high standards in a friendly and informal atmosphere. A series of lectures broadly falling within the themes of ‘Polar history’, ‘Shackleton’ and ‘Human endeavour’, bookended by masterclasses with senior level exam students, a dinner, and arts/cultural performances, forms the framework on which other activities are hung. 

In 2021, Jo Woolf, Writer-in-Residence at RSGS, delivered a session on Ernest Shackleton’s time as Society secretary, filling in a significant gap at a pivotal point in his life story. And this year, they welcomed RSGS Chief Executive Mike Robinson to Athy where, as well as giving a master class to senior geography students, he addressed the Shackleton Autumn School with a lecture title drawn from a Shackleton quote: “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.” 

Mike commented on the weekend, saying “what an absolute pleasure it was to be a part of the proceedings during the Shackleton Autumn School.  It is coordinated by a wonderful committee, who’s hospitality was endless and their ambition to be applauded and I look forward to our continued friendship.  The quality of talks was excellent, with pilots, scientists, geologists, historians, book lovers and researchers as well as general enthusiasts.  With attendees from all over the world it has become a real date in the calendar for anyone with the slightest interest in polar science and history and I would recommend it to anyone."

Over the years, the Autumn School has established a loyal band of followers: individuals and those representing institutions focused on similar topics. As a result of the Autumn School, the Museum and the efforts of interested others, the local authority and National Government have recognised the need to raise Shackleton’s profile.  They have responded, by commissioning Mark Richards’ wonderful public statue of Ernest H Shackleton, which adorns the town square in Athy, and even more recently through the initiative to develop the Heritage Centre into an international calibre, dedicated ‘Shackleton Museum’.  This month that project took a huge step forwards with the announcement of the funding being awarded.  This will allow the team to begin the full development, after nearly forty years of promotion and organisation by the many volunteers, led by the indomitable Frank Taaffe. 

RSGS took the opportunity of Mike’s visit to present a facsimile of Shackleton’s job application to the Shackleton Museum to add to their collection.