Easter: The Endurance Christian heritage

April 6, 2015

Easter is the time of year at which Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here at the Shackleton exhibition, it got us thinking on the faith of Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Christian heritage of the Shackleton family. Although it would seem that Sir Ernest had no great Christian faith, he often referenced God in his writings and used Christian imagery and terms through which he expressed himself. Also, the faith of the family is an important context to understand their identity and their activities. This latter point will be outlined below. References to God and the Bible in Shackleton’s story will be the focus of a post next week.

The first of the Shackletons to come to Ireland was the family of Abraham Shackleton, born in 1696. Abraham lived on lands in Harden, West Yorkshire, held by the family since the sixteenth century. When working as an assistant teacher in Skipton, he came to meet the woman who was later to be his wife, Margaret Wilkinson. They travelled across the Irish Sea in 1720 following employment by Quaker families near Carlow.

Quakerism originated in the north-west of England with the teachings of George Fox, born in 1624. Looking for a sense of ‘true religion,’ Fox said that Christians could experience and access the Divine in the present and emphasised a rooted sense of community. The Quakers used ‘immediate inspiration to illuminate and confirm in their own experience the written words of scripture’. There are still four key theological ideas held by Quakers every where:

  1. The centrality of direct inward encounter with God and revelation and thus forms of worship which allow this to be experienced;
  1. A vote-less way of doing church business based on the idea of corporate direct guidance;
  1. The spiritual equality of everyone and the idea of ‘the priesthood of all believers’;
  1. Based in part of the latter, the preference for peace and pacifism rather than war, and a commitment to other forms of social witness.

A large number of the first Quakers In Ireland were Cromwellian soldiers. William Edmundson, an ex-Cromwellian soldier, is credited as the first Quaker in Ireland in 1652. As in the other Stuart kingdoms, Quakers were viewed with suspicions by the authorities. They did not recognise the need for a church hierarchy or episcopacy, they refused to pay the church tithes and did not swear oaths or use linguistic courtesies (‘thee’ or ‘thou’, preferring the simple ‘you’ form).

Established by John Barcroft and Abel Strettel in the 1690s, Ballitore, Co. Kildare, was one of the first Quaker settlements in Ireland. A meeting house was built in the village in 1708. Although most of the other Quakers made a living from agriculture, Abraham was of a frail constitution and was encouraged to establish a school atBallitore. He opened his school on 1 March 1726. There were thirty-eight pupils for the first year, but in two years numbers had grown to sixty-three. The school attract pupils from wealthy families who were destined for careers in commerce or trade and the staple subject was Latin. Abraham’s school grew in prestige and drew pupils from  England, Scotland, Jamaica, Norway, and France.

In a testimony published after his death, the following was written:

‘In this arduous and honourable occupation he laboured with conscientious pains and faithful industry for many years, as the Apostle says, with Good-will, doing the service as to the Lord, and not to men. The consequence of which assiduous attention, under the Sanction of the Divine Blessing, was an increase of his Business and Reputation far beyond the Expectation of his humble heart: So that not only those of our own Society, but many people of considerable Quality in the world, of various denominations, placed their children under his charge, several of whom fill conspicuous stations in life; and many retain not only a very grateful and affectionate Respect for the memory of their Preceptor, but Good-will and Regard for the Society on his account, remembering his extraordinary diligence and care in his Tuition and oversight of them; and also the living lesson of Uprightness, Temperance, Gravity and Humility, which he taught them by his Example.’

Abraham remained as master of the school until 1756. He remained active in Quaker meetings locally and nationwide well into his late years. Despite his physical weaknesses, ‘his Zeal and spiritual Abilities witnessed no decay’ and he was commended for his ability to ‘weightily express himself among his Brethren’. Abraham Shackleton died 24 June 1771, aged seventy-four.

Richard, Abraham’s son, took over as master in 1756. He attended Trinity College Dublin, the first Quaker to do so. It was forbidden for Quakers to take degrees so Richard learned as much (Hebrew and other subjects) as he needed to teach and returned to a more austere life in Ballitore. During his childhood and his time at TCD, he was a companion of Edmund Burke, one of the notable past pupils of Ballitore school (others include revolutionary Napper Tandy and Cardinal Paul Cullen, Archbishop of Dublin). Richard and Burke kept a keen correspondence and met frequently when Richard was in London for annual Quaker meetings. Richard widened the curriculum at Ballitore and also introduced a more stringent regime over the pupils. Richard remained master of the school until 1779 and, like his father, used his retirement to engage in church work. He died en route to visit a Quaker school in Mountmellick 28 August 1792.

Richard’s son from his first marriage to Elizabeth fuller (1726-1754), Abraham, took control of the school in 1779. Where his father had broadened the curriculum and diversified the pupils attending the school, Abraham narrowed the academic focus of the school and limited admittance to Quakers only. Despite his changes, the consequences were not seen as the running of the school (and much more besides) was interrupted by the rebellion of 1798. Fearing for their children in times of war and uncertainty, the numbers attending the school dropped and, although he struggled on until 1801, Abraham closed the school.

We have Abraham’s half-sister, Mary, to thank for the wonderful source of her diaries, letters and the gossip pieces collected in The Annals of Ballitore. She was educated, at the request of her father, as well as any young boy of the time. She showed skills as a writer from a young age and throughout her life engaged in a variety of styles, including classical translation, poetry, diary and journal, narrative sketch and tale, improvement literature, children’s literature, historical chronicle and annals, letters, biography, and autobiography. As well as her activities as a writer, village healer and bonnet-maker, she had six children with her husband William Leadbeater(1763-1827).

In 1806 Abraham’s son-in-law, James White, opened the school again following the resumption of relative peace in Ireland. Abraham, however, was not involved and diversified the family’s interests by running a mill in Ballitore. Ebenezer Shackleton, son of Abraham and Lydia Mellor, continued the milling business near Ballitore

Despite his upbringing in the Quaker tradition, Ebenezer questioned the faith and felt that the movement in Ireland had strayed from its founding ideals. He converted to the Church of Ireland (Anglican/ Episcopalian) and brought his children up in that faith.

Ernest Shackleton’s grandfather, Ebenezer, took the family to the official state church, the Church of Ireland. However, by the time of Ernest’s birth the privilege of the so-called Protestant Ascendancy had been receding with the progress of reform as represented by Catholic Emancipation (1829), the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (1871) and the Land acts of the 1880s onwards. Henry Shackleton, Ernest’s father, emphasised the values of a typical Victorian household which often overlapped with those of his Quaker ancestors. The Bible was often read aloud in the house, he disapproved of excess and railed against the consumption of alcohol. His children joined the Band of Hope, a youth temperance movement, and they sang solemn songs outside the pubs of Sydenham, their London suburb, about the wickedness of drinking.

Next week’s post will detail Queen Alexandra’s gift to Shackleton of a Bible, with a personal inscription from Her Majesty, before the Nimrod expedition. Also, more on Shackleton’s use of God in his writings and letters. Please let us know if you think anything could/ should be included.

Enjoy the bank holiday and good weather!

Sources cited 

  1. Dandelion, The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2008), chapters 1 & 2.

A Testimony Concerning that Worthy Elder Abraham Shackleton…. Dublin, 1774.

  1. Alexandra, The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition. New York, 1999.
  1. MacKenna & J. Shackleton, Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica (Dublin, 2002), chapter 1.
  1. Smith, Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer (Wilton, 2014), pp. 7-16.
  1. S. Harrison, ”As a Garden Enclosed’: The Emergence of Irish Quakers, 1650-1750,’ The Irish Dissenting Tradition 1650-1750, edited by K. Herlihy (Dublin, 1995), pp. 81-95.

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