Aidan reflects on his long journey with Tom

Fergus Dennehy talks to the acting legend that is Aidan Dooley this week about his upcoming award winning Tom Crean one man show in Siamsa Tíre, how he first heard the story of the great man from Annascaul and how after 15 years and hundreds of shows, he still has to lie down on his bed and close his eyes to help get into character for the show

Aidan Dooley
Aidan Dooley

As someone who has lived and breathed the story of one of, if not the most famous explorer from the age of polar exploration, Tom Crean, for the past number of years, (even taking the chance to visit the great mans grave in Annascaul last Summer) the chance to interview the definitive Tom Crean actor in the form of Aidan Dooley, about his upcoming show in Siamsa Tire was one that I certainly couldn't afford to miss out on.

The softly spoken 54-year old actor has been performing in the role of Tom Crean for nigh on 15 year and he admits that even now, after all these years, over 1,000 shows and multiple awards for his portrayal as the heroic man from Annascaul, it is a role that he still relishes sinking his teeth into each time; clearly his hunger for theatre that was evident even from his early years of performing has been left unsatiated even now.

"I used to do school plays and school musicals way back when I was in secondary school which I really enjoyed and I then got a job in Allied Irish Bank and about two or three years into the job, I ended up joining the drama society of the bank and after this I ended up in an amateur drama society in Dublin; from here I realised how much I was enjoying it and how I wanted to make something more of it," said Aidan, talking to The Kerryman on Friday.

"In Ireland at that time, you're talking about 1983 or 1984, there was very little opportunity for you to be trained as a performer and so I actually managed to convince the bank that they needed me over in England and so they actually sent me over there!"

"From there then, I started to go to part-time drama colleges and I realised that I was actually as good as all these English guys and that I should really make a go of this as a career; it was quite a huge decision in 1987, when most were just lucky to have a job, so I chucked in the bank and started taking a drama course in Guildford in London."

"My journey with Tom Crean and his story started in a museum in England; it was in the year 2000 and I was working in the educational world doing plays about science, electricity and characters from history, museums were my bread and butter work at the time," he continued.

"I had never heard of him up to then, 99% of people in Ireland hadn't heard of him up to then, this was before Michael Smith's book, which of course really popularised Tom's story; So I was just sitting there looking at these museum guys saying 'I've never heard of this fella...wait, he did what? He went where? Oh Jesus, this guy might be worth a look so!" he laughed.

Little did Aidan know back then that this seemingly innocuous meeting about a little known explorer from the West of Ireland with his then employers in the National Martime Museum would change the course of both his acting career and life dramtically.

"What they [the museum] wanted was for me to use a character that was historically correct but who was more of a sidekick in a sense to the major characters; when I first read Michaels book however, I just thought 'this is outrageous, here's this poor Irish guy who's hardly even mentioned in this bloody exhibition of theirs' so I decided then and there that I was going to throw out the museums brief and I was going to tell the story of Scott through the eyes of this fella, Crean," he continued.

"At the time, I suppose I wanted to address the historical unfairness that existed and to an extent, still existed in relation to Tom Crean and his memory; that was drive, my burning desire. I had this tight knot of unfairness in my stomach that this man's amazing story had been overlooked for so long; this was the start of my journey to developing the play that people see today."

From this original decision to flesh out the little known story of Crean, things began to develop very quickly for a young Aidan and his work, as word spread far and wide of the amazing performances that he was putting on in a small room in a English museum.

"The marketing department for the museum exhibition where I was doing my short 15-20 minute bit, began to get letters from people who had seen my performance and they were saying that what I was doing with this character of Crean was extraordinary; what this led to then was members of the media and the marketing department from the museum coming over from England with me to do a performance of my show in Tom Crean's homeplace of Kerry."

"I was originally just supposed to perform my piece in the foyer of Siamsa Tíre, this kind of informal setting you know; but when I arrived at the theatre in Tralee, the manger of Siamsa at the time, I can't remember his name but he was a lovely man, he said to me: 'what in the name of god are you doing your show out here for when we have a beautiful theatre inside? Get in there, you can pretend to sit on a rock and do your thing."

"There was a great tech guy working there at the time called Jimmy and he just said ' I can throw some lights' on you on stage aswell; suddenly I went from preparing to do my piece in the informality of the foyer to maybe about 30 people to being on stage in a theatre in something that resembled an actual production."

Quite the baptism of fire so for the actor at time, and after finding out that Crean's own daughters, Mary and Eileen were to be sitting in the front row watching his performance, Aidan freely admits that his nerves were all over the place.

"You have to remember that this was the first time that there had been a theatre production on stage of what I had been doing in this little room in a museum in England; well, I was terrified! Honest to god, terrified. Here I was being flown over from England, put into this big costume on stage with lights and everything and top it all off, the man who I was doing a performance off, Tom Crean, his two daughters were sitting right there in front of me," he chuckled at the memory.

"All I remember thinking was 'Jesus Christ, his two daughters and his grandchildren are sitting there and they might think that what I was doing was a pile of crap!' Were they going to turn around to me and say 'e, you don't even sound or look like our dad' and 'why did you do this and why did you do that?'"

"Obviously now though, they didn't think this and I'll always remember that Mary, Tom's daughter, said something wonderful to me and I'll always remember it, she said: 'Jaysus, you even look like him!'"

"They were just delighted that the memory of their father was being celebrated. Michael's book had been published at this point and here was now, in my play, was another medium where the story of their father was being told; they were very positive, they really enjoyed it, thank god!" he continued.

Ahead of his show in Siamsa on the night of Thursday Mach 30, Aidan says that he can't wait to get back to what he describes as a 'wonderful, wonderful theatre to perform in' and he says that those attending on the night can expect a dynamic and energetic performance.

"My priority with my performance is that people fall in love with Tom and that through me, they can feel his pain, they want to be inspired by his exploits, he finished.

Aidan's show will kick off in Siamsa on March 30 at 8pm with tickets set to cost just €18/ €16.


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