Friday 20 April 2018

Theatre: A keeper of the flame for unsung hero Tom Crean

Pole position: Aidan Dooley as Tom Crean, a role he has performed around 800 times
Pole position: Aidan Dooley as Tom Crean, a role he has performed around 800 times

Maggie Armstrong

What a strange and sad story is Tom Crean's (1877-1938). Aged just 15, he left his farm in Anascaul near Dingle to join the Royal Navy. He sailed to Antarctica with Scott and Shackleton, aboard Discovery, Terra Nova and Endurance. He was medalled for saving lives. As Scott lay dying on his doomed trek to the South Pole, Crean walked 35 miles alone in deadly snow drifts to seek help for their collapsed comrade.

He came home to Anascaul in 1920, opened a pub, and never talked about his expeditions again. He never wrote about them. He put his medals in a box. His silence had to do with the War of Independence that had menaced his hometown, a climate in which a decorated British naval man was considered a traitor. His older brother, an RIC sergeant, was shot dead by the IRA in Cork.

In 1938 Crean died aged 61 of a burst appendix. He wasn't alive to see the Guinness ad about him, or Tom Crean's lager, or his handsome face - grizzled and cliff-jawed, pipe between teeth - look out from the cover of Michael Smith's book, An Unsung Hero.

Fifteen years ago, amid this boozy collision of remembrance, Aidan Dooley picked up his story. Dooley, an actor, was asked by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to do some museum theatre. They wanted to introduce young people to the expeditions of Sir Ernest Shackleton and Captain Scott, to make learning fun. They thought Aidan could play Tom Crean, the Irishman who had been a coxswain on the ships. Crean could narrate the deeds of the great men, like a sort of minstrel. "They were only interested the leadership differences in Scott and Shackleton," says Aidan. "He was being used as a cipher, they weren't giving him historical importance."

But Aidan had found a nugget of gold in this remote and curious character. In the same year, 2000, An Unsung Hero was published. Aidan's one-man show grew in length and substance, its raw storytelling fleshed out with new research. It was now solely about Crean, called simply and with biographical faith, Tom Crean.

In 2002 he performed it for a small crowd in the Tralee Museum. Crean's daughters, Mary Crean O'Brien and Eileen Crean O'Brien, were present. If it weren't for their praise, Dooley says: "I would never have taken it further. I would have felt I wasn't being respectful to his memory in their eyes."

He booked out An Taibhdearc theatre in Galway, his mother selling two nights of tickets on his behalf.

"Everyone thought it was the best thing since sliced bread," he says. The show took off, from Kerry to Dublin to New York.

Catching breath during his latest Irish tour, Aidan reckons he has performed about 800 shows - in museum foyers to half a dozen bemused onlookers; in Tom Crean's pub, The South Pole Inn, without stage or lights; in Mary Crean O'Brien's nursing home; in the Olympia to packed houses of 1,200; in Boston, where a reviewer brought along a copy of An Unsung Hero and cross-checked the facts, declaring Dooley's Crean "too funny".

But the show has wooed most critics, and people return to see it again and again. Aidan's daughter Nancy, now 14, wasn't among the fans. "I remember her coming into the dressing room, and I was putting up a picture of Tom Crean. She said: 'I hate Tom Crean. I wish my daddy worked in Tesco.'"

She will come to see him next week in Dublin's Olympia, a Tom Crean prophet in his explorer's Burberry (imitation) and with his few props: a tarpaulin, his sleigh, a piece of fur, a battered biscuit tin and camping cooker.

Would Crean have been in favour of all this fuss? He left scant trace of his remarkable voyages but then, he named his own pub The South Pole Inn. Some part of him didn't want his life forgotten. And he was grateful to those who promoted him. In 1905 young Crean wrote to Captain Scott: "I am very glad to have the chance of becoming your Cox. Thanking you very much sir for all you have done for me".

Tom Crean is touring nationwide, playing in The Olympia, Dublin, May 11-16 (

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