Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.
Last month, the Royal Navy ship ‘HMS Protector’ made its first official visit to East Antarctic, during which it became the first Navy vessel to sail below 77 degrees latitude since before the Second World War. While taking a break from their mission of inspecting fisheries in the area, the 88-member crew trekked across the snowy and icy terrain to visit ‘Scott’s Hut’, a small building located on the north shore of Cape Evans. Drawing its name from Captain Robert Falcon Scott, the hut once served as the ill-fated explorer’s headquarters before his fatal expedition to the South Pole in 1912. Despite the comforts of modern technology, the crew of the 5,000 tonne ice patrol vessel was still in awe of the unforgiving environment in which Scott and four of his companions had met their demise. WO Jimmy Stuart, the ‘Protector’s’ deputy marine engineering officer, noted after making a visit to the nearby Antarctic research station, “This was my first station visit and it was fascinating to see how the team supported themselves in such an inhospitable environment…While it was a bright sunny day when we visited, we have become all too aware of how quickly the weather can turn nasty down here.” Amongst the 65 men, selected from over 8,000 applicants to join Captain Scott on the infamous Terra Nova Expedition was 30-year old Patrick ‘Patsy’ Keohane, a native of Courtmacsherry.
Born near the site of the longstanding lifeboat station at Barry’s Point, it is perhaps apt that three years before his father would rush to rescue survivors of the RMS Lusitania in 1915, as the commander of the local lifeboat crew, the younger Keohane found himself as part of the infamous arctic relief effort, tirelessly attempting to locate Captain Scott and the other members of the ‘polar party’.
The story of Scott’s quest to be the first to reach the South Pole began in September 1911, when the famed English explorer announced a daring plan in which 16 men, including Keohane, were to trek across the polar plateau. The proposal outlined that along the route the men would be divided into three small groups, with only that which was to be led by Scott travelling the full distance to the pole. Luckily for Keohane, he was selected to return to base with the first of the parties to do so. Such is not to say that Scott wasn’t impressed with Keohane’s ability to physically and mentally handle the harsh environment of the plateau. Reflecting on one instance in which he, Keohane, and two other members of the exploratory party had been confined to their tent for four days during a severe storm, Scott made note of the Corkman’s unique sense of humor. With snow rapidly falling outside of their tent, Keohane was purported to have suggested that when the storm had ceased and the snow begun to melt, they might be better off turning the tent upside down and using it as a boat. Besides his ability to make light of what was undoubtedly a challenging situation, Scott also recalled Keohane’s drive and determination while manhauling through the treacherous terrain. Ultimately, the physical exhaustion endured by Keohane and the three other crewmembers tasked with pulling the sledges through the thick ice and snow to altitudes of up to 8,000 feet was what influenced Scott’s decision to send them back to camp, thus sparing their lives.
After sending another contingent back to base in early January, Scott and his remaining crewmembers, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates, and Edgar Evans, pressed on to their desired destination. Upon reaching the South Pole on January 17, 1912, any excitement they might have had was curtailed by the realisation that they had been beaten there by Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who had reached the locale some 35 days before and left a flag, remnants of a camp, and a letter to be found by his competitors. Conveying his disappointment in his diary, Scott noted, “The worst has happened…Great God! This is an awful place.”
With dour spirits, the polar party began the 800-mile return journey back to Cape Evans. A series of communicative errors, bad weather, and deteriorating health sealed the crew’s fate in early March. Following a failed search and rescue effort led by Keohane, another search party, which again included the Courtmacsherry native, set off to find the final whereabouts of their colleagues and leader. Scott’s final camp was found on November 12, 1912. Before the crew’s final departure aboard the Terra Nova in January 1913, the men erected a large wooden cross in memory of those lost. Inscribed below the names of their deceased friends was a line from Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Ulysses’, which epitomised the nature of the men, their journey, and their place within historical memory: ‘To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.’