TOM Crean is a name that has worked its way into people’s consciousness over the last 15 years.
The Kerry explorer’s story is fairly well known now, in part because of Aidan Dooley, who has brought his one-man show, Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer, around the country for the last 10 years.
A Galway man, Aidan has lived in England for years and it was there that he discovered the Crean story.
“I came across Crean for the first time when I was asked to perform a museum theatre piece in England in about 2001. I had never heard of him before that. I did an awful lot of research on the expeditions themselves because there was very little written about him. This was before Michael Smith’s book, Unsung Hero, was published. He was in the process of writing the book while I was in the process of finding out more about Tom Crean from a theatrical perspective and that’s what started the whole thing off. Then I realised how little he was even being celebrated in the exhibition that my show was part of. It gave me a raison d’être for doing the show, which is to try and tell as many people as possible the story of his extraordinary life.”
Crean served with both Scott and Shackleton and survived three famous expeditions, Discovery (1901-04), Terra Nova (1910-13) and Endurance (1914-16). His 36-mile solitary trek to base camp during the second expedition was described by one Antarctic historian as “the finest feat of individual heroism from the entire age of exploration”.
Aidan says the story of bravery and endurance gives a lift to audiences.
“I think it’s a story that lifts people’s spirits. People seem to get a great reward from hearing his story and what he managed to survive. It kind of reflects back on our lives and maybe give us a positivity to maybe look at our own lives in a better way.”
There are few of us who don’t ever feel like complaining about some of our daily challenges but Aidan says when that mood comes on him, he thinks about Crean. When he does that, he isn’t too long realising that performing a play about the explorer’s endurance is quite a bit easier than going through it was.
“I’m doing one-night shows at the minute and that can be quite tiring, driving from one place to another, doing all the lights, finding your B&B and then going into the theatre and doing a two-hour show. That’s pretty full on, with lots of sweating and everything. Every now and again, I kind of get a bit sorry for myself and I look at his picture. I bring it everywhere and I say what am I complaining about, look at what you did, boss? It is very uplifting.”
Crean’s achievements and endurance are obviously the main theme of the show but, in a minor way, it also touches on his return to this country.
“There’s a little bit about the rest of his life but I believe that his heroism and his memories exist in the extraordinary extremities of the Antarctic. His life here was interesting. When he came back, he was very much a quiet man and with the politics of the time, he didn’t exactly talk about his time in the British Navy. That’s interesting academically but maybe not to everyone in the audience and people would have a different take on that. It’s not my job to ram politics down people’s gobs. I refer to it a little bit but I think it’s up to people who really get interested in the story to find out what happened to him back in Ireland.”
The growing knowledge of the Crean story is down in part to a fuller acknowledgement of the part played by Irish men in the British forces.
“I think part of it is that maybe there is more political maturity in our own country, looking forward now, not always looking back. I don’t know, maybe he represents a little bit of us releasing ourselves from too much looking back. Now, if we look back, we can say that some of our people were involved in the British imperial world and were part of the great iconic stories of that imperialism that those journeys to the Antarctic represent. We had a man who was part and parcel of that.”
Obviously Crean’s story won’t change much but his own telling of it is a little different from night to night.
“It moves all the time, it’s a bit like a seanachaí. I tell a story and slightly alter it every now and again. I don’t even realise I’m doing it. Maybe I’ll leave something out and I wouldn’t even realise I had it in. That also allows me a bit of flexibility and I don’t feel as if I’m trotting out the same thing night after night,” he concludes.
Aidan will perform Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer at Glór, Ennis, on Wednesday, February 19 at 8pm.