An Irishman's Diary

Thu, Oct 11, 2012, 01:00

EVERYONE knows about Ernest Shackleton, the Kildare-born polar explorer. Less famous by far is his cousin Jane Wigham Shackleton, who was something of pioneer in her own right. Instead of a sled, her means of exploration was a camera. And rather than the Antarctic, her journeys took her only to such wildernesses as the Aran Islands and Co Kerry.

But for an Anglo-Irish Dubliner in the 1880s and 1890s, that could be a voyage of discovery too. And it was; all the more so since, bringing a woman’s sensibility to the work, she seems to have been more interested in people as a subject than was the norm among the photographers of her era.

Many of the results feature in a handsome new book called Jane W Shackleton’s Ireland, published by Collins Press. Reflecting her development as a photographer, it starts with family portraits in Lucan, where she was born Jane Wigham in 1843, and then gradually branches out to the Ireland beyond, apparently via the river Liffey and other waterways.

An interest in rivers was an occupational hazard of the family into which she married, since the Shackletons owned several mills. In fact, she used to develop her negatives in a Liffey-side mill owned by her husband, and once had to apologise during a lecture to camera enthusiasts for the flour on her exhibits.

But leaving Dublin and mills behind, the culmination of her work, at least as presented in the book, was in trips she made to the west of Ireland around the turn of the century. And among some bigger questions raised by her pictures, there are fascinating incidental details.

Three local women pose at the walls of Dún Aengus in 1899, for example: one standing apart from the others, half-way up the wall, in a recess. She has her best dress on and looks a bit haughty. Until you notice, as Shackleton did in her notes, that the subject “is doing her best to conceal her feet”.

Presumably the feet are bare or, maybe worse for a proud woman, covered in the rough cow-skinned shoes that were the island’s standard footwear. Hence her appearance as a wall-flower.

Such observations apart, however, the book also has a very political epilogue, even if it doesn’t come from the photographer herself. Rather it was the product of a trip to west Kerry made by her son, William Shackleton, and some of his friends in the summer of 1890.

Kerry was a troubled place then: a “proclaimed district” in which the visitors at first feared for their safety and might have welcomed the attentions of the policemen who seemed to be everywhere. Instead they found the locals nothing but friendly and generous. It was the ubiquitous policemen, who shadowed even them, that the visitors came to fear.

For one of the group, who later wrote an account of the trip in an English newspaper, the experience was a revelation. His prejudices had hitherto been “decidedly anti-Irish”, he confessed, but the poverty he witnessed in Kerry, the dawn-to-dusk drudgery endured by agricultural tenants, and the injustices of a system wherein they could never own their own land, all shamed him.

While his article blamed the political system for their plight (he described himself, in the wake of the visit, as an “ex-unionist“), he also diagnosed a more personal problem: “The Irish landlords, the descendants of the heroes of ‘the clearances’, have still to be taught that the root-eating dwellers in those mud cabins are, like themselves, men.”

IT WAS FROM Kerry, of course, that Ernest Shackleton found one of his most trusted lieutenants, Tom Crean. And Crean’s role in the doomed Scott expedition of 1911/12 will be among the subjects discussed at this year’s Shackleton Autumn School in Athy, which commemorates Jane Wigham’s better-known cousin, and the town’s most famous son.

Athy has been called the “almost town”, as one of the school organisers Kevin Kenny points out. After all, Shackleton almost reached the South Pole, Shaw’s (the local department store) is almost nationwide, and locals almost got their much-needed bypass, before the country ran out of money for road projects.

The Celtic Tiger has since travelled in the same direction as Shackleton, and the bypass is now unlikely to happen soon. But Athy has secured at least one accolade without qualification.

Despite modest origins and being run by a tiny committee, the autumn school has been declared “the best polar gathering of the year” by antarctic-circle.org. a website that has a penguin-like familiarity with the subject.

The 2012 event will start on October 26th and the full programme can be seen at shackletonmuseum.com. Most of it, inevitably, will concern those intrepid men who risked, and in many cases lost, their lives during the golden age of exploration. But not all of it. Getting back to where we started, another side of the story will feature too: most notably in a lecture entitled “Mrs Shackleton and the other polar wives”.

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