Ancestry & Irish connection

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.

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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 December 1909 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 Conon 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 Octoer at Athy, County Kildare, just a mile or two from the house where Sir Ernest Shackleton was born.

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In 1884, Dr Shackleton crossed the water and settled in England. It was in suburban London that Ernest Shackleton spent the remainder of his boyhood years. Ernest’s mother became mysteriously an invalid and remained so for the last 40 years of her life. Dr Shackleton, with help from his mother-in-law and various female relatives from Ireland, raised Ernest and the other children.

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Until the age of 11 Shackleton was educated at home by a governess. He then went to Fir Lodge Preparatory School, down the road from his home, Aberdeen House, in West Hill. In 1887 Ernest left Fir Lodge to go to Dulwich College. Henry desired for his son to enter the medical field but Ernest would have no part of it. Longing for the sea, he left Dulwich at the end of the Lent term in 1890 and on April 19, at the age of 16, went to Liverpool and joined the full rigger Hoghton Tower, owned by the North Western Shipping Company of Liverpool. Ernest’s first experience at sea belongs to sailor’s folklore. The Hoghton Tower was bound for Valparaiso round Cape Horn. They reached Cape Horn in the middle of winter and fought against storms for nearly two months before finally rounding the Cape. Battered by the seas, the Hoghton Tower reached Valparaiso in the middle of August. From there she sailed for Iquique, Chile where for six weeks she loaded nitrates. The Hoghton Tower returned to Liverpool at the end of April, 1891, with food and water running out. It was a hard, difficult trip, especially for a 16-year-old old novice. Shackleton went on to spend five years sailing to and from the Far East and America. In 1896, without much difficulty, Shackleton passed for First Mate. In April 1898, he was certified as Master. At the age of 24 he had qualified to command a British ship anywhere on the seven seas.

In the summer of 1897, Shackleton met and became attracted Emily Dorman, a friend of his sisters. Ernest had just returned from a voyage to Japan aboard the Flintshire when he met the tall, dark-haired young woman ‘with a good figure’. At the end of 1898, the Flintshire ran aground near Middlesbrough which gave him the opportunity to take leave for 24 hours in order to go home for his father’s birthday on 1 January. On the way, he stopped and visited The Firs, where Emily lived, and for the first time Ernest was seriously in love. Shackleton had enough of tramping to the East. To improve his standing with Emily and her father, he left the Welsh Shire Line and, early in 1899, took a position with the Union Castle Line.

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Early in March 1901, Shackleton returned to Southampton on the Carisbrook Castle to find himself part of the National Antarctic Expedition. Shackleton would depart with Scott on the historic Discovery Expedition to Antarctica later that summer.

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Shackleton became seriously ill on Scott’s southern sledge journey, midway through the expedition, and had to be invalided home aboard the relief ship Morning. As Bernacchi, with Scott’s Discovery Expedition noted, Shackleton was ‘deeply disappointed & would give anything to remain. Although everyone is so anxious to return this year with the Discovery, few are so poor-spirited as to wish to return in the Morning’. On 12 June 1903, after convalescing in New Zealand, Shackleton landed in England. A huge scandal had broken out about the affairs of the Discovery Expedition. It seems everyone was upset about Scott remaining for a second winter in the Antarctic. The organizers had explicitly said that under no circumstances was Scott to stay for a second year…it would be considered professional incompetence to allow the Discovery to be frozen in, risking being crushed by the ice. Sir Clements sent a telegram to Shackleton: ‘The Admiralty will undertake rescue of Discovery. Committee appointed. Come to me. I wish to consult you’. The expedition organisers wanted Shackleton to sail out as chief officer on the Terra Nova to assist the Morning, if necessary, to get Scott and his men back home. Shackleton declined as, according to Armitage, ‘he meant to return and prove to Scott that he—Shackleton—was a better man than Scott’. Besides, Emily had now agreed to marry him. Meanwhile, early in October Shackleton visited Sir Clements Markham, in Markham’s words, with ‘full plans for another expedition’. Sir Clements discouraged him, and Shackleton went on to join the staff of Royal Magazine as a journalist. On 11 January 1904, after a long and nerve-racking wait, Shackleton found himself elected to the desired post of secretary to the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. He now had a full-time job and, as he wrote to Emily, ‘I am so happy dearest thinking about all the times which are to be in the future…we do want to settle down and have our own house at last after all these years of waiting’. In London, on 9 April, Ernest Shackleton and Emily Dorman were married at Christchurch, Westminster. A week before the wedding the Discovery returned to New Zealand after her second season in the ice. The record southing, in which Shackleton had participated, was still intact. When Shackleton walked up the aisle with Emily he was still one of the men who had reached the Furthest South…no finer wedding present could have been given.

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In the Geographical Journal for March 1907, Shackleton outlined his plans, some of which subsequently had to be changed. The expedition was expected to leave New Zealand at the beginning of 1908 and proceed to winter quarters on the Antarctic continent. Here the men and stores would be landed, followed quickly by the retreat of the ship to New Zealand to prevent her from being frozen in.

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Shackleton announced, ‘The shore-party of nine or twelve men will winter with sufficient equipment to enable three separate parties to start out in the spring. One party will go east, and, if possible, across the Barrier to the new land known as King Edward VII Land, follow the coastline there south, if the coast trends south, or north if north, returning when it is considered necessary to do so. The second party will proceed south over the same route as that of the southern sledge-party of the Discovery; this party will keep from fifteen to twenty miles from the coast, so as to avoid any rough ice. The third party will possibly proceed westward over the mountains, and, instead of crossing in a line due west, will strike towards the magnetic Pole. The main changes in equipment will be that Siberian ponies will be taken for the sledge journeys both east and south, and also a specially designed motor-car for the southern journey…I do not intend to sacrifice the scientific utility of the expedition to a mere record-breaking journey, but say frankly, all the same, that one of my great efforts will be to reach the southern geographical Pole. I shall in no way neglect to continue the biological, meteorological, geological and magnetic work of the Discovery’.

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Finally, on 4 January 4 1922, the Quest came within view of South Georgia.

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‘Like a pair of excitable kids’, said Worsley, he and Shackleton ‘were rushing around showing everyone where we first came over the mountains on our 1916 tramp across S.G. from King Haakon (Bay) to Stromness Bay after our boat journey from Elephant Island. Finally the ‘Boss’ called me when I was on the bridge to come & show some of the others a point he wasn’t quite sure of, but I couldn’t leave here at the time & came down later, but the dear old ‘Boss’ was quite prepared for me to let the ship wander along on her own’. The Quest anchored outside the whaling station of Grytviken; it had been eight years since Shackleton had sailed up the same fjord in Endurance on his way to the Weddell Sea. Surprisingly, many of the same old faces were there. Fridthjof Jacobsen was still station manager. He came out in a boat and took Shackleton ashore. Macklin was not surprised when in the early hours he was called to Shackleton, and found him in the midst of another heart attack. Macklin, as many times before, told him he would have to change his style of life. Macklin said that Shackleton replied, ‘You’re always wanting me to give up things. What is it I ought to give up?’ A few minutes later, in the wee hours of 5 January 1922, Shackleton was dead.

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Shackleton’s body was originally to be sent back to England for burial. With it went Hussey, who had no heart for the expedition now that his leader was dead. When Emily heard what had happened, she decided that her husband should be buried on South Georgia. His spirit had no place in England…if he had a home on earth, it must be among the mystic crags and glaciers of the island in the Southern Ocean which had meant so much to him.

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Hussey reached Montevideo where Shackleton’s body was given a remarkable reception by the people of Uruguay. The President issued a special decree:

‘Sir Ernest Shackleton synthesised every splendid quality; courage, always quiet and modest; limitless abnegation; fine tenacity … all applied to the conquest of universal science, with a life-long devotion… In an age of war-like heroism, he was the hero, calm and strong, who, who left behind him neither death nor grief.’

Then on 15 February 1922 – the 48th anniversary of his birth – with state ceremonial, the body was conveyed through the streets of Montevideo and placed on the British whaler Woodville, which took Shackleton, accompanied once more by Hussey, on his last voyage south.

The burial took place on 1 March at Grytviken, South Georgia, ‘the gate of the Antarctic.’  Shackleton was laid to rest in the Norwegian cemetery, along with the whalers amongst whom he had felt at home. The original cross was replaced in 1928 by a formal granite headstone bearing this simple inscription:

Ernest Henry Shackleton


Born 15th February 1874

Entered Life Eternal

5thJanuary 1922

On the headland above the little whaling town a large cross has since been erected in his memory.

On 2 March 1922 a memorial service was held in St Paul’s Cathedral, attended by representatives of the King, the Dowager Queen Alexandra, Shackleton’s family and the Alleyn Club (the organisation for old boys of Shackleton’s former school, Dulwich College).

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