Heroic Failure

There are lots of anniversaries during this month. I keep meaning to mark that of Jutland but here I am going to mark the death of one of my personal heroes. My wife accuses me of being a Protestant St. Jude and being unhealthily interested in lost causes. The hero I want to highlight is, however, one of the greatest examples of that very British (maybe Irish as well) concept the heroic failure.
George Mallory was the second child and only son of a CoE minister from Cheshire. He had a fairly typical minor aristocracy upbringing going to a prep school, then Winchester school and then Magdalene College, Cambridge to read history. He had become involved in climbing whilst at Winchester. After university he taught at Charterhouse school and got married and was an artillery officer during the First World War. He was involved in the first Everest expedition in 1921 and went again in 1924 believing it would be his last chance. After an initial failed attempt he and Sandy Irvine tried again (Irvine, a much younger man was the expert with the oxygen cylinders).

Exactly what happened on the fateful climb on 8th June 1924 is unclear. They were seen just after noon climbing strongly and then nothing was ever heard of until Mallory’s body was found on Everest in 1999. There has been debate for many years about whether or not Mallory and / or Irvine reached the summit. Irvine’s body may well never be found and Mallory’s camera which might definitively answer the question of whether or not they made it to the top is most unlikely to ever turn up. The respected Everest News web site’s view is here.

Whatever happened there is a certain sad charm in the idea of this pair in their tweed jackets and hob nailed boots trying to climb that vast mountain. That they failed makes it all the more romantic: though of course not for their families. It is also worth noting that even today people frequently die trying to climb Everest and the even more difficult K2.

Apologies to all for wasting your time: it is just a story I like. Now by all means draw analogies between my fondness for the story of Mallory and my support for the TUV.

  • Dewi

    Before I went under the fold I thought you were talking about Roger Casement.

  • Donnacha

    Turgon, not sure I can draw parallels with TUV, but I’ll try: TUV will bravely attempt the impossible, fail and 30 years later a much better and more accomplished person (party) will come along and knock the bastard off. And as for Mallory/Irving reaching teh top, what does it matter? To successfully climb a mountain, you have to make it back down…

  • Turgon

    Of course you are correct about coming back down and indeed I have the greatest admiration for Sir Edmund Hillary (whose death I blogged here) who actually achieved the summit and came back.

    I just find the whole Mallory story a tragic yet inspiring failure. I have no good reason to mention it except I thought it was an interesting story.

    Incidentally I do like your attempt to get an analogy with the TUV. Is Jim Allister Mallory? If so who does that make me?

  • Turgon

    You did ask,
    Yes that about sums be up (especially the nonentity bit).

  • Donnacha

    Yes, Turgon, I reckon Allister is Mallory. Have you any urge to enter politics yourself, Turgon? Or (in keeping with the Everest analogy) have you any beekeeping experience?

  • Donnacha

    And speaking of heroic failures, I suppose you’d be more of a Robert Scott man than a Roald Amundsen type? Personally I’m a bit of a Shackletonian myself…

  • Turgon

    Funny I was considering a blog on Shackleton. He seems a failure who succeeded in the more important issue of keeping his men alive and in such was an heroic success.

  • Donnacha

    Go for it. A fascinating man (for a Kildare man) and something of a bullheaded, stubborn toiler, rather than an idealistic and dashing adventurer. There is a quite a Shackleton industry down here in NZ.

  • Rory

    Cyd Charisse has just died and all you can come up with is a guy whose legs gave out on him.


  • Donnacha

    Tsk, I’ll never see Brigadoon again in the same light…

  • Greenflag


    ‘Funny I was considering a blog on Shackleton. He seems a failure who succeeded in the more important issue of keeping his men alive and in such was an heroic success. ‘

    Oddly enough I watch a DVD on Ernest Shackelton a few weeks back and although Scott was the more experienced Arctic explorer Shackleton valued the lives of his men above ‘glorification’

    The sad thing for Shackleton was on returning to the UK the country had an excess of ‘heros’ with hundreds of thousands dead in the trenches of Flanders . Some of Shackleton’s crew enlisted and IIRC a couple died in the trenches having survived the Antartic ordeal . Shackleton could not settle back to a ‘normal’ life and went back out again to revisit with some of his former colleagues and died out there in 1920 ? Shackleton still has ‘family ‘ in Dublin or maybe Kildare as one of his grand nephews was interviewed on the film . Well worth a look if you can find it –

    BTW it’s narrated by Liam Neeson who may be known to NI folk :).

  • I don’t want to be a pale imitator of the late, great Pope O’Mahony here, but I smell the faintest hint of an Irish connection, and a correction to the original post.

    Turgon the Wise says (and I trust him, up to a point) that:

    George Mallory was the second child and only son of a CoE minister from Cheshire.

    We may have caught out the great Turgon in this matter (see below).

    If this were the Mallorys of Mobberley, their ancestry comes via the Rev. George Mallory, who was the rector of Maynooth, County Kildare, who married Alicia Mallory (presumably a cousin) in 1691. That’s the Irish connection; but it gets better.

    The Mallorys were, effectively, Rectors of Mobberley by inheritance for the whole of the 18th and well into the 19th centuries.

    So, here comes the other intriguing thought. The subject in question’s full name was George Herbert Leigh Mallory (born in Mobberley, son of Herbert Leigh Mallory, who then hyphenated his surname). There was a younger brother. He was Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Air Chief Marshal, Fighter Command.

    Any further sightings (below 29,000 feet) welcome.

  • Turgon


    Thankyou: I cannot comment on the potential Irish connection as I do not know. I only know of Mallory through his climbing and indeed I was once in Cambridge for a meeting and saw the place in Magdalene where he stayed as a student.

  • Donnacha

    If we can just find a Kildare connection for Scott now we’ll have the trifecta…

  • Danny O’Connor

    Heroic failures,on a lighter note does anybody remember Eddie the eagle.

  • West Belfast

    Eddie the Eagle didnt have a patch on Eric the eel!

  • Jer

    focusing on the saintly aspect of the post rather than Mallory reminded me that June the 14th was the St. Anthony’s day who is the patron saint on Lisbon and also of lost causes. As thats the day the lisbon treaty was determined as rejected its an interesting coincidence.

    However he is the patron saint of a wide range of things:
    animals; barrenness; Brazil; Beaumont, Texas; elderly people; faith in the Blessed Sacrament; Ferrazzano, Italy; fishermen; Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land; harvests; horses; Lisbon; lost articles; lower animals; mail; mariners; American Indians; Masbate, Philippines; Cavite, Philippines; Sibulan, Negros Oriental, Philippines; oppressed people; Padua, Italy; poor people; Portugal; pregnant women; sailors; seekers of lost articles; shipwrecks; starvation; sterility; swineherds; Tigua Indians; travel hostesses; travellers; watermen

  • Rory

    I think that you will find that while St Anthony is patron saint of lost articles it is St Jude who is patron of lost causes (or hopeless cases). I have had occasion to call on both for succour in their respective specialities and I must say I have found both to be very diligent and efficient in answering my pleas for help.

    They do not seem to mind at all that I am a grizzled old anti-clerical Red. Indeed I like to think that it is because of that that they work all the harder in responding to my pleas.

  • Greagoir O Frainclin

    “Apologies to all for wasting your time: it is just a story I like. Now by all means draw analogies between my fondness for the story of Mallory and my support for the TUV.”

    This is a rediculous comparison.

  • Turgon how about eddie the eagle for an analogy with supporting the tuv? A good effort at trying, but failing to reach any heights?

  • fenian bastard


    there is a subtle, but important difference between the British ‘heroic failure’ and the Celtic ‘vainglorious defeat’.

    An example of the former might be Scott leaving the tent ‘for some time’

    The latter can be spied swinging at bouncers in Mumbles on a Saturday night

    One carries with it the air of a high morality though both are, essentially, losers.

  • Harry Flashman


    “An example of the former might be Scott leaving the tent ‘for some time’”

    I think you will find that was Captain Oates.


    Whilst I have never had need to call upon the assistance of Saint Jude I couldn’t agree more about the ability of Saint Anthony to find things, he’s a great fella altogether I sometimes don’t know what I would do without him.

  • Now, the heroic Captain Lawrence Edward Grace ‘Titus’ Oates does have Irish connections.

    There are three biographies, of which the recent biography is by Michael Smit, predictably entitled I Am Just Going Outside.

    Oates served in the South African Campaign, where he earned, but was not awarded a VC. Between 1902 and 1906, he served with the cavalry in Ireland, and was a successful rider at numerous race-meetings.

    For those with a voyeuristic interest in the secret life of Oates, which also has an Irish dimension, should go to John Ezard’s article, derived from Smit’s book.

  • Greenflag

    Jer ,

    ‘However he is the patron saint of a wide range of things:’

    A busy saint then 🙂 As I confess ignorance on some of the items on the list I wonder if you or someone else can help .

    Masbate ?

    Not a mispelling of masturbaters is it?

    Cavite ? Anything to do with marmite ?

    Sibulan ? Sybil ?

    Poor people ? Bad news for Father Jack then when/if he meets up with St Anthony on the far side eh ?

  • Dublin voter

    There are appears to be a total lack of sectarian whataboutery on this thread. Cut it out now!