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Revealed at last: the Tom Crean story

At the outset of Charlie Bird on the Trail of Tom Crean (RTé1), our intrepid reporter revealed that he'd been fascinated with the "indestructible Kerryman" for more than two decades. Indeed, he had wanted to make a film about him "years before Shackleton and his comrades came to public attention".

Obviously Charlie's a good deal older than I thought, given that Shackleton came to public attention with his 1911 book Heart of the Antarctic and that there have been numerous biographies of him in the last nine decades, the first of them published in 1923.

As for Tom Crean, Charlie was of the opinion that the "quiet Irishman" did "remarkable things that people are not aware of". Charlie himself mustn't be aware of all the books and articles written about Crean or about the fact that, when you type the word "Tom" into the Google search bar, "Crean" immediately comes up ahead of Cruise, Hilfiger, Bowe, Hanks, Waits and Selleck.

Yet despite the fact that Google provides 414,000 search results for Crean, Charlie was on his own inimitable journey to Antarctica, a voyage undertaken so that he could "honour" the exploits of his "unsung hero". Predictably, though, the hero of the piece turned out to be Charlie himself, a valiant solitary adventurer trudging through tundras of snow, with only a camera crew on hand to record both his sense of wonder ("I can't believe it! I'm pinching myself!") and the physical ordeal he was enduring.

Towards the end it all got too much for him. "I've an absolutely splitting headache, I've also got a head cold and I generally feel miserable," he whimpered. And as if that wasn't punishment enough, "I'm just totally flattened, honest to God, I'm genuinely exhausted, flattened." Clearly by this stage he was almost as knackered as the viewer, who's being asked to suffer a further hour of this next week.

For those who fell foul of the clergy, our own little island could be chillier than the Antarctic, as two of the week's programmes demonstrated. Scannal! (RTé1) focused on the unholy row that erupted when, in 1951, Health Minister Noel Browne attempted to introduce a mother and child scheme, aimed at providing free healthcare for both.

This was immediately opposed by the Irish Medical Association and by Dublin Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, both of whom saw their stranglehold on the established order being threatened by this bid to bring in "socialist" medicine. The upshot was that Browne, who had previously been praised for his role in combating tuberculosis, was forced to step down.

Michael D Higgins, David Norris and Des Geraghty were among those paying tribute to him, while political correspondent David McCullagh, biographer of then-Taoiseach John A Costello, provided historical context and insights. The result was a rewarding summary of a depressing episode in Irish life when politicians kowtowed obsequiously to their repressive clerical masters.

The clergy could be just as brutal to mavericks of the same cloth, as Mother Teresa discovered when she chose to minister to the poor of Belfast in the early 1970s. I had forgotten about the 18 months she and four other Sisters of Charity spent in Ballymurphy, which made Mother Teresa: 123 Springhill Avenue (BBC1) all the more intriguing.

The hospitality extended to the nuns by those in the local community wasn't forthcoming from the clergy, whose attitude, according to Fr Des Wilson, was along the lines of: We send missionaries abroad; they don't send missionaries to us.

The film's particular villain was the local parish priest, Canon Padraig Murphy. "He walked over people," one parishioner recalled. "He was very rude," said another, while a third observed that "he didn't appreciate a wee foreigner trying to tell him what to do."

The upshot was that, without locals being told why, the nuns suddenly packed up and left. It was their own decision, a clerical colleague of Canon Murphy insisted, but Des Wilson saw it as "a decision that had come about because they'd no alternative".

People in the area are still angry about the way the nuns were treated, with one parishioner insisting that an apology should come from the Pope. The film told the story very well and featured a terrific soundtrack from the pop music of the time.

On the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight, BBC4 offered Around the World in 60 Minutes. In fact, the international space station, from which much of the footage came, orbits the earth every 90 minutes, during which time there are 1,800 storms across the planet, 40,000 tonnes of plastic are produced, 82 trillion litres of rain fall from the sky, 23,019 babies are born and governments spend $257m on wars and weapons.

The film was full of such startling facts, but it never got round to mentioning Charlie Bird's Antarctic ordeal.


Indo Review