Ernest Shackleton was born on 15 February 1874 at Kilkea House, near the town of Athy in Co. Kildare, Ireland. He was the son of Henry Shackleton and Henrietta Gavan.
The Shackletons had lived in County Kildare since the 1720s. On his mother’s side, the Gavans and the Fitzmaurices had lived in Ireland since the twelfth century.
In 1880, when Ernest was six years old, the family moved to 35 Marlborough Road in Dublin, while his father studied Medicine at Trinity College, Dublin. A two-storey red-brick house with basement on the southern side of the city, it was part of a new development erected a decade earlier on outlying green belt near the (then) village of Donnybrook.
A plaque commemorating the Irish explorer is displayed outside no. 35, but the back garden would be much the same as when Ernest played there at the ages of six to ten with friends and younger members of the family. (Jonathan Shackleton tells us in his splendid book Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica, that on one occasion, Shackleton famously dug a gaping hole in the garden and announced that he was digging his way to Australia.)
Ernest Shackleton never lost his deep love for Ireland and the people he grew up with. Indeed on several occasions in later life he had no hesitation at all in describing himself as an Irishman. Naturally one of those was the occasion when, following his almost successful Nimrod Expedition in 1907-9, he returned to his native land to give a lecture entitled ‘Nearest the South Pole’. This took place on Tuesday 14 December1909 in the large hall of the National University, Earlsfort Terrace, under the chairmanship of the Lord Lieutenant. The achievements of the 1907-9 trek were explained in a talk full of interest and peppered with lively remarks, which drew much laughter and merriment.
The predominance of Irish blood aboard the James Caird for that historic rescue journey was yet another thing which has given Irishmen everywhere tremendous pride in Shackleton and his achievements. He was from the outset ‘one of us’.
Stories abound of Shackleton’s Irishness, and his willingness to vaunt the fact. One senior English civil servant did not see that as entirely an advantage: ‘I happened to go out to India with Lieutenant Shackleton, a feckless Irishman….’
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was equally forthright when praising Shackleton’s achievement at the Royal Societies Club in 1909, following the latter’s return from his attempt on the South Pole: ‘Shackleton is an Irishman. As a fellow-Irishman I take pride at the thought. Think of what Ireland has done for the Empire. Finally think of that flag flapping down yonder on the snow field, planted there by an Irishman.’
Shackleton himself concurred: ‘I am an Irishman’, he affirmed on many occasions. He allowed it to enter the official record – on the third attempt to rescue his men now marooned on Elephant Island, he and Tom Crean are both listed in the log of the Emma as Irish. And indeed, it has been said, he had ‘all the inherent characteristics of the Irishman – cheerful, optimistic, good-natured.’ To one astute observer, he ‘shamelessly played on his Irishness. Sometimes he almost seemed like a professional Irishman.’ His sponsor Dame Janet Stancomb-Wills, another shrewd witness, alludes to his ‘reckless generosity’ in these terms: ‘I cannot understand why his (presumably) thrifty Quaker forebears did not bestow that gift upon him to counteract the reckless generosity of his Irish ancestry.’
That raising of awareness of Shackleton worldwide is now also continued by the highly successful annual Shackleton Autumn School, which takes place every October at Athy, County Kildare, just a mile or two from the house where Sir Ernest Shackleton was born.