The influence of the Irish during polar explorations

Image source: Irish explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship SS Nimrod in the Antarctic pack ice. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The collective contribution that Irishmen made to polar exploration is massive. Among them were officers, lieutenants, scientists and sailors in pursuit of adventure, scientific breakthroughs and even commercial opportunities.

Many of these explorers took part in failed expeditions, while others received knighthoods for their endeavours. For many years, their contributions were largely overlooked. However, many of their stories are now coming to light.

Below, we take a look at seven Irishmen behind significant developments in the area of polar exploration.

Edward Bransfield: The first sighting of the Antarctic Coast

Born in county Cork in 1785, Edward Bransfield was forcibly enlisted in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Here, he served for over 20 years. In 1819, he was sent to investigate sightings of some uncharted islands to the south of Chile’s Cape Horn and, in 1820, he was the first person to make a verified sighting of the Antarctic coast.

His claim to fame is challenged by a rival Russian seaman who spotted the coastline earlier, but whose records weren’t as definitive as Bransfield’s. The debate over who should receive recognition for the discovery continues today.

Francis Crozier: Mapping Antarctica

Born in county Down in 1796, Francis Crozier joined the navy at the age of 13. When the Napoleonic Wars ended, the navy began to focus on exploration; its three main goals were reaching the North Pole, navigating the Northwest Passage and surveying Antarctica. During Crozier’s 40 years of service, he took part in expeditions that attempted all three.

In 1821, he was the midshipman on Captain William Parry’s second Arctic expedition, which aimed to cross the Northwest Passage. Three years later, he attempted the crossing once again, but the ship he was on sank.

In 1826, as a lieutenant, he also joined a failed attempt to reach the North Pole. However, in 1839, an expedition to map Antarctica with James Clark Ross proved successful. As second-in-command and captain of HMS Terror, Crozier played a role in discovering large swathes of the continent. Cape Crozier is named after him.

Crozier’s expeditions undertook scientific studies too. On HMS Terror, Crozier conducted important research on magnetism. He also set up observatories all over the world.

Ernest Shackleton: Advancements to the South Pole

Ernest Shackleton in uniform c1900

Ernest Shackleton in uniform c1900

Kildare-born Ernest Shackleton yearned for adventure since he read about the quests of explorers as a child. At 16, he became a ship’s apprentice and then rose through the ranks.

By this time, Europeans had already visited most of the globe, so Shackleton decided he would be the first person to reach the South Pole. In 1902, he was just 400 miles from his goal when his team became ill and had to turn back. On a subsequent expedition, he was just 97 miles from his target but, once again, had to turn back.

When another explorer reached the South Pole first, Shackleton set his sights on crossing the Antarctic instead. That’s when his ship, the Endurance, got stuck in ice and Shackleton famously embarked on a journey of survival lasting almost two years. (All 27 crew members lived to tell the tale!)

Robert McClure: Traversed the Northwest Passage

Robert McClure

Robert McClure

Born in county Wexford in 1807, Robert McClure was the first European to successfully navigate the Northwest Passage. Explorers had long sought to do this, because it was believed that the passage – which connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – could be a lucrative trade route.

McClure took part in two rescue missions to the Arctic to find Sir John Franklin’s crew, who had disappeared during an earlier expedition. On one of these trips, McClure’s ship became stuck in ice. This is when the crew began to explore the region by sledge.

Along the way, McClure discovered the Northwest Passage and became the first man to cross it. Although he did it by sledge, rather than boat as originally intended.

Leopold McClintock: Discoveries in the Arctic and innovations in sledging

English: Captain Sir Leopold M’Clintock, R.N., LL.D. Discoverer of the Remains of Sir John Franklin’s Expedition.

Born in 1819 in county Louth, Sir Francis Leopold McClintock is best known for discovering what happened to explorer Sir John Franklin and his expedition party in the Arctic. After many attempts to find them, McClintock found the remains of Franklin’s ship, some crew members and their belongings.

McClintock took part in four search parties for the missing men. During the final two voyages, he made significant improvements to the organisation of sledge journeys. His new method allowed for greater exploration on icy terrain and became standard practice in the navy for over 50 years.

In 1852, McClintock also took part in an expedition to provide assistance to Robert McClure and his crew whose ship was stuck in pack ice. During this venture, he travelled over 2,300 kilometres by sledge and discovered 1,300 kilometres of previously unknown coastline.

Edward Sabine: Established magnetic observatories in the Arctic

General Sir Edward Sabine (1788 – 1883), Anglo-Irish astronomer, geophysicist, ornithologist, and explorer.

Born in Dublin in 1788, Edward Sabine was an Anglo-Irish astronomer and geophysicist who took part in several Arctic expeditions. Together, his experiments in Africa, North America and the Arctic allowed him to precisely determine the earth’s shape.

Sabine also established a system of magnetic observatories around the world. This work later allowed him to ascertain the correlation between sunspot variations and magnetic disturbances on earth.

Tom Crean: Advances in the Antarctic

Tom Crean with skis, photographed in 1911-12

During his naval career, county Kerry’s Tom Crean took part in three major expeditions to Antarctica, including Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery expedition to Antarctica, which made extensive scientific discoveries in zoology, geology and magnetism.

Six years later, Scott’s Terra Nova expedition continued this work, while the crew also raced to be the first to reach the geographic South Pole. However, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen beat them there and Scott’s core party of five died on their way back. Crean survived as he and two other crew members had turned back earlier on.

Crean’s final expedition was on board Shackleton’s Endurance which, as mentioned above, got stuck in pack ice and resulted in a two-year battle for survival. After this, Crean retired and returned to Kerry where he opened a pub called the South Pole Inn. The Crean Glacier in Antarctic Bay is named after Crean and he also received the Albert Medal for Lifesaving.


Want to discover more of Ireland’s heroic explorers? Visit EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum.