Thursday 8 December 2016

Bird film failed to do neglected hero justice

RTE reporter should have explained why Tom Crean was lauded everywhere but in Ireland, writes Eddie Naughton

Published 24/04/2011 | 05:00

'Before it became fashionable to talk about Tom Crean, I read a book about him and he's fired my imagination ever since." Thus spoke Charlie Bird in his rather uneven documentary about the great man on RTE recently.

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Why Crean and his exploits were unfashionable until about a decade ago was barely dealt with, and we learned nothing about him that we didn't already know thanks to Michael Smith's great book Tom Crean, Unsung Hero, which was shamefully ignored and unacknowledged by Charlie Bird.

Bird's documentary, it seemed to me, was about 20 years too late. But once he decided to make it, then at the very least he could have told us why the outstanding exploits of Tom Crean and fellow Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton were recognised and lauded everywhere else in the world but were banished (until recently) from the history books in Ireland. He might also have explained why our school children down through the ages have never been dazzled by the derring-do exploits of Crean, Shackleton and their fellow explorers.

We already knew why Tom Crean himself could never openly talk in Kerry about his hair-raising heroics in the Antarctic, because being linked at that time to a British Naval expedition to the South Pole, however laudable, would have gotten him murdered, just as his brother Con was murdered because he was a member of the RIC.

But there was no questioning by Bird of why official Ireland, long after the British left, still ignored the heroics of these great Irishmen. Indeed, in Athy, the birth place of Shackleton, there isn't even a commemorative plaque on the house he was born in. Surely the cause of this neglect was worth exploring by Bird's documentary.

As stated above, the other great omission from Bird's programme was Englishman Michael Smith. It was Smith who brought the heroics of Crean and Shackleton to a wider Irish audience with his wonderful book, and there is a supreme irony at play here in the fact that before Smith's book was published, the young minds of republican Ireland were never sullied by the glorious deeds of Crean and Shackleton under the Union Jack flag.

Now, since its publication, this most gentle of Englishmen has been in schoolrooms the length and breath of the country regaling students about Irish heroes they'd never heard of!

By coincidence, at the same time as Bird's documentary, there were two others on television covering the same polar expeditions led by Scott and Shackleton. The one on BBC1, The Secrets of Scott's Hut, really should be looked at by Charlie Bird as a lesson in how to keep your subject the centre piece of the exercise. This fascinating documentary told of the still-preserved hut which housed the expedition members (including Tom Crean) and the thousands of preserved artifacts (food, jackets, jumpers etc) associated with their assault on the South Pole. It was also a light and shade study of Robert Falcon Scott as man and leader.

The other documentary (on the Discovery channel) was yet another examination of Ernest Shackleton as a leader of men. For just under an hour we were treated to examples of his outstanding qualities when tested under extreme conditions, without being told he was Irish. Indeed, the documentary was so far slanted in his favour it was almost a hagiography.

Few others on that impossible sea voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia, including Tom Crean and the truly outstanding navigator, Frank Worsley, were mentioned and it was clear that the British have claimed Shackleton as one of their own. Indeed, over the years a couple of statues have been erected in his honour in England. So, as Captain Scott's star has waned, Shackleton's has risen.

But worthy and all as Shackleton is of his honours, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that without Crean at his side Shackleton might not have succeeded in all that he undertook on that fateful voyage on the Endurance.

Nor do I think it fanciful to say that had Scott split his forces evenly and taken TomCrean with him instead of the weakening Oates and Wilson on the last leg of his ill-fated trek to the South Pole years earlier, they might all have survived.

Everything we know about this giant of a man from his (now legendary) exploits on that same trek tells us that they would have made up the distances lost each day by having sick men man travelling enormous distances. When the bodies of Scott's brave party were found, they were only 11 miles from the food depot that would have saved their lives. Bird's documentary should have made more of this.

I suppose it might be asking too much of our new Government in these straitened times to commission a memorial to these two great Irishmen, Crean and Shackleton, and erect it in the Phoenix Park or some such site. It would be recognition long, long overdue. Or is it always going to be the case that in Ireland one must give one's life or take someone else's in whatever cause before being honoured by the State?

Sunday Independent

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