christmas dinner

Here's what Ernest Shackleton and his crew were having for dinner, inching through the ice 100 years ago today...

Jugged hare, anyone?

EVER WONDERED WHAT polar explorers eat?

These days — as you might imagine — it’s all calorie-dense freeze-dried meals, energy bars and oatmeal.

Back in Tom Crean‘s time, however, things were a little different: the standard dietary staple was something called ‘pemmicin’, a mixture of pounded dried beef and beef fat. This was mixed with crushed sledging biscuits and melted snow into a sort of stew known as ‘hoosh’ — not particularly tasty, but a pretty efficient way of getting a hot energy-high meal into a man so he could continue to lug a sleigh.

There was some variety of course: cocoa, sugar, seal meat — in a pinch, sometimes dog or horse. Where conditions permitted though, there were always a few delicacies stored away for Christmas. On a failed expedition to the South Pole with Captain Scott in 1902, Ernest Shackleton surprised his tent-mates, hundreds of miles out from their base, by producing a Christmas pudding that had been “hidden with his socks” (the other men were suffering from signs of frostbite and scurvy at this stage, so would no doubt have been glad of the treat, in spite of Shackleton’s not-entirely-hygienic choice of hiding place).


Tom Crean aboard the Endurance [By Permission: Shackleton Exhibition]

In December 1914 — Chief Petty Officer Crean, from Annascaul in Co Kerry, and expedition leader Shackleton, originally from Co Kildare, were together on board the Endurance as part the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Their aim — to cross the Antarctic from sea-to-sea. Some 2,900km or so (no big deal).

National Geographic Creative / YouTube

It didn’t quite go to plan: you’ve probably heard the story — the men were eventually forced to abandon their ship after it was crushed in the ice, and undertake a perilous open-boat trip to safety. They set up a makeshift camp on a rocky Antarctic outcrop, before Shackleton, Crean and four others set out across the open seas, hoping to seek help some 1,300km away on the remote island of South Georgia.

But that all lay ahead as the 28 men settled down to dinner on 25 December 2014.

Progress through the ice shelf was steady enough, and there was an air of anticipation as the crew tucked into the following:

Anchovies in Oil

Jugged Hare

Turtle Soup


Mince Pies

Christmas Pudding

Figs, Dates & Crystallised Fruit



Rum & Stout

Shackleton captured the atmosphere of the day years later in his book about the voyage ‘South’:

In the evening, everybody joined in a “sing-song”. Hussey had made a one-string violin on which, in the words of Worsley, he “discoursed quite painlessly”. The wind was increasing to a moderate south-easterly gale and no advance could be made, so we were able to settle down to the enjoyments of the evening.

Interested in finding out more? Check out Roland Huntford’s fantastic book about Shackleton or Michael Smith’s book about Crean. The Shackleton Endurance Exhibition also continues to run in Dun Laoighaire.

Read: Irish adventurers return from Arctic with stunning photos, mild sea-sickness

Read: Polar heroes: National Concert Hall to celebrate Irish explorers

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