Dan Buckley speaks to the man who has raised the ghost of forgotten hero Tom Crean
The story of the Irish Antarctic explorer Tom Crean would make a great opera. It is certainly an epic tale - full of drama, adventure, danger and heroism.
Act 1 sees him go where few Irishmen had ventured before. As a 15 year old, he takes a hike from his family farm in Annascaul on the Dingle peninsula, borrows the train fare to Cobh in Cork and joins the Royal Navy to see the world.
Relentlessly restless, Act 11 sees Crean sign up with Captain Robert Falcon Scott, a Royal Navy officer, for a voyage to the South Pole. On board Scott’s ship Discovery, he meets fellow adventurer and Irishman Ernest Shackleton.
The first, unsuccessful, expedition begets another, reaching Antartica in January 1911 and this is where the drama deserves a full-blown aria.
The expedition is a disaster in more ways than one. Despatching Crean and two other crew members 750 miles back to base camp, Scott reaches the pole with four others, only to find that a Norwegian team has beaten him to the prize.
In the meantime, Crean and his two companions are within 35 miles of the camp but only he has the strength to carry on. With barely a sliver of chocolate and a few broken biscuits to sustain him, he completes an impossible solo run to find a rescue team to bring them to safety, an heroic feat that earns him a medal from King George V.
Scott and his friends perish on the return journey, with Crean encountering them, frozen in defeat, and burying them in the icy waste of Antarctica.
In Act III Crean joins Shackleton on the Endurance Expedition, an attempt to make the first crossing of the Antarctic from sea to sea via the pole.
He had been unable to resist Shackleton’s seductive advertisement in a London newspaper: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
It was another defeat but an epic feat of fortitude that galvanised Crean once again to make heroic efforts to rescue his friends when the ship, Endurance, was crushed by pack ice. In order to secure rescue, Crean, Shackleton and four companions begin an 800 mile voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia in an open lifeboats. This is followed by the first ever crossing of South Georgia’s frozen mountains to reach the safety of a whaling station and safety.
Crean eventually settles for a quiet life back in Annascaul, but during his lifetime – and far beyond – neither his daring nor his exploits were recognised there.
His early heroism was followed by decades of slow decay, his extraordinary feats all but ignored, his legacy unsung in his own homeland.
I should have asked Aidan Dooley, the man who has single-handedly raised the ghost of the forgotten hero, whether he would be up for singing tenor or bass in an opera version of Tom Crean’s life.
But, perhaps, it doesn’t matter. His portrayal of the man known in his lifetime as the Irish Giant is musical enough, as he exploits the seanachaí style of story-telling to bring Crean back to life with humour and pathos and dramatic invention.
Tom’s story seems to match that style,” says Dooley.
“Telling a story like that is what people find endearing. Audiences love to hear it, not just in Ireland but all over the world. Telling stories is in our bloodstream, probably from the Stone Age.
“It is a genuinely epic story. What he managed to achieve was a bit like the heroes of Greek mythology and then he came home to a quiet life in Kerry until his death in 1938.”
Although he has now played the part for 14 years, the actor retains an indignity at how Crean was treated on his return to Ireland, an injustice that galvanised him to put the story together in 2001.
“It is hard to imagine the world he came back to in Annascaul,” says Dooley. “I had a letter from an elderly lady whose father had been a bank manger in Dingle. He opened an account for Tom in the Royal Bank there, as no other bank would do so, presumably because he had been in the British military.
“He rarely spoke about his adventures back home. He was a quiet man and even his daughters didn’t know a lot about what happened to him.”
After years of acting the part of Crean, Dooley felt compelled to experience for himself some of what the Irish hero endured, sailing to South Georgia and landing there in 2011.
“It was difficult as the land had eroded greatly in the past 100 years. The ship’s captain said he could land me there but wasn’t sure if he could get me off so he put me in an inflatable dinghy and set me down within 100 yards of where Tom and his companions had survived for four months.”
This close encounter with the ferocity of the region gave Dooley a personal insight into what Crean and Shackleton had encountered. The ship then skirted Antarctica with him donning his theatrical costume to play the part on board the ship and on the peninsula.
“When on South Georgia, I made a toast to Shackleton as if I was Tom. That was very special. The whole experience meant I could picture more clearly what they went through and that has enriched my telling of Tom’s story.”
Aidan Dooley plays Tom Crean The Explorer at the Everyman Palace in Cork from tomorrow, Tuesday, to Saturday next. It will also be performed at Baltimore Castle in West Cork on Monday, May 25, Galway Town Hall Theatre from Thursday, May 28 to Saturday, May 30 and at the Áras Eanna Arts Centre on Inis Oirr on the Aran Islands on Sunday, May 31.
The tour continues until June 13. For full tour dates go online to www.tomcreanshow.com/tour-dates.
A facebook group has been formed for the purpose of getting Kerry Airport named after Tom Crean. It can be visited at www.facebook.com/groups/tomcreanairport/
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