Actor Aidan Dooley on recreating the polar adventures of a forgotten Irish hero.
Tom Crean was a forgotten Irish hero who participated in three of the four expeditions during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. Irish actor Aidan Dooley discovered his story by accident—and was so intrigued by a man who did extraordinary feats in Antarctica with Shackleton and Scott over a hundred years ago—that he converted Crean’s story into a 20 minute show. He expanded it, and rave reviews, including awards in Edinburgh and accolades from major media organisations the world over, followed. In town for the New Zealand Festival (plus several additional shows outside of the region), he sat down with me on a suitably Antarctic day in southerly-blasted Wellington.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why acting?
AIDAN DOOLEY: I was always acting in musicals in secondary school. My father was a professional musician and I learned the trumpet, but I didn’t have the courage when I was invited to join the family band when I was 18. There might have always been a performer within me, but I took the easier route. Anyone can stand and talk on a stage. Why acting? To be honest, it’s how I discovered how to express myself. It’s a dangerous question because you can get all self-indulgent, or self-important, and that’s the last thing I try to get into. Self-obsession is a very unlikable element of anyone’s personality. I did a lot of performance in secondary school and I went into the amateur scene in Ireland as I worked in a bank when I left school. I loved that so much I wanted to do more, so I found myself applying for drama schools in the UK, as there were no drama schools in Ireland at that time. There was no transition, no process where you could leave one job, do two or three years, and then come out and say “I’ve been taught a certain number of skills that I can expect people can come and pay me for talking on stage to them.”
BG: And then why Tom Crean?
AD: Tom, I just happened to stumble across. I had done an awful lot of theatre in museums, educational work, all through the ’90s. That’s how I kept a roof over the family head. And the Maritime Museum was doing a big exhibition on the journey to the south a hundred years ago, in 2001, when the Discovery went. The curator of this big exhibition happened to stumble across that there was this Irishman who had served with both Scott and Shackleton. And I had done a lot of work for that museum, educational work, and a lot of our characters were solo characters, as they wouldn’t pay for more than one actor. Therefore I was asked to put something, about 20 minutes, four times a day, based on the differences between Scott and Shackleton. Tom was the only character of note for me. That was why I got involved with Tom Crean. I had never heard of him before that. I had no idea who he was, had no idea that there had been an Irishman at the fulcrum of some of these stories from over a 100 years ago. No one in Ireland knew.
BG: He was obscure?
AD: He was a nobody. The only people who knew him when I was doing the museum work were people from his village. No one else in the country had heard of him. He came back to Ireland at a time when a new country had been born, and anyone who had served with British forces was treated as a traitor. That’s the world he came back to. He kept very quiet. He was very humble man and he didn’t write diaries (it’s one of the first things I say in the show), and my awareness of Tom Crean was heightened when I learned more about him and found to my horror, here was this exhibition and there was only one mention of Tom Crean in the whole thing. As the brief from the museum had been to tell the difference between Scott and Shackleton, I decided of my own volition, stuff them. I’m going to tell Tom Crean’s story, so I started to tell the stories of these expeditions through his eyes. That was the genesis of the show, from that injustice, and also from that educational project. I had no thought it’d be bigger than this educational project.
BG: Seems like a crazy life to condense into 20 minutes.
AD: I would have only taken the Discovery and Terra Nova. It never was 20 minutes, even when I started cobbling it together as an educational piece, it was still 45, 50 minutes. It was impossible to get it to 20 minutes. The only time I did it that short was when I forgot what I was saying and finished it up early.
BG: And given how obscure he was, does that make him a blank slate in terms of your performance?
AD: The museum work is a bit like street theatre. When you have a character that’s written by the author, you have a fourth wall and a pretend world, and you start to think, “I wonder how this character will drink this glass of wine.” What physical attributes will I bring to psychologically portray his inner soul? Those sorts of issues wouldn’t have been very high priority when I was having to hold people’s attention in a street theatre environment for 20-40 minutes. So I would inevitably bring a lot of my own physicality and my own sense of self and my own sense of humour to Tom Crean. When Tom Crean came back to Ireland, he was a very quiet man. He wouldn’t have spoken to anyone of his exploits, and there is a reality, which wouldn’t have been workable. I’d sit there and everybody would look at me for 20 minutes and I’d nod and not say anything. The way this works for me, the triangle, I’ll use my own personality, and I’d marry it with the character, and the audience would see the character through me, which is how any actor works, like a painter—the lily on the wall is through the artist. I’m really using my own sense of personality for the audience to like me and to feel Tom’s pain.
BG: With that, does that create pressure not to misrepresent Tom Crean?
AD: Oh god yeah. I’ve just come off a six week tour of Ireland and the first night was at the Presidential Palace. And I had invited 20 of his descendants to see the show again, probably for the fifth or sixth time. I’m always wary that one of them will think, “I didn’t like that bit, or how you portrayed him there.” I’m acutely sensitive of how his actual bloodlines view my representation of them. Thankfully to this day, they’ve never said anything negative, but I’m always aware and wary that they could. If they did, I’d have huge respect for their observations.
BG: Did he talk about it with his family? I read a story about how the Black and Tans were in his house and it was only when they saw the photo that they stopped.
AD: And saw his medals. He still has a living daughter, she’s 95, and when she was more aware, I asked her and talked to her at length—he never talked about it. He would say things like, “I was at the bottom of the world,” and they’d know that he had no feeling in his ears and the skin on his feet were discoloured from the damage. They knew he had certain physical consequences from his journeys to the bottom of the world but he never talked about them. Also with the girls, he was of that generation of “why would they want to know about it?” He used to tell stories to his god-son, who has now passed away, when he was eight, nine, ten. He remembered Tom very vividly and to me meeting people who had met him like that and knew him, I feel closer to the man as a result of that. I’m not a journalist who was telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I would have sensitivities to people’s memory of him, particularly family.
BG: What do you think attracted him to Antarctica and kept him going back?
AD: The first thing is that he was seconded to the New Zealand Navy and it was purely by chance. He was in Lyttelton when they were re-rigging the Discovery. One of Scott’s men, who had had some fracas on shore and knew he was going to be in trouble with Scott because Scott was a real disciplinarian, he went AWOL. His name was Baker. Scott was a man down and he noticed this big Irishman. He didn’t pick him out, he asked who’ll volunteer to take his place. Crean was one. That was purely random and by chance. Why he went back, nobody knows. I remember doing the show once for the most illustrious Antarctic grouping of people I’d ever performed it in front of—there was Shackleton’s grand-daughter, and the guy who runs Scott Polar Institute, and three or four Shackletons. There was a Q&A afterwards and I asked them the question, “why did he go back three times?” And one of them said, quite patronisingly, but understandably, “ah but Aidan, you’ve never been.” So I thought, “okay, you still didn’t answer my question,” but you can read all sorts about the silence, the spirituality about the place, the camaraderie you feel. They would have felt great camaraderie, more so than in our modern world. They live in these ships in very close quarters. The camaraderie and dependency was very heightened in those worlds, and that could have been an element. I really don’t know—maybe the money. He might have been after some extra bobs. He was a very cute man with his bobs when he came back. He bought property all over the place and he became an officer in the end, which was unusual, and he did that primarily to get a pension. He’s a blank canvas. I can make all sorts of suppositions, which cannot be disproved. Similarly, nothing is definitive either. It’s a strange paradox.
BG: He almost went back a fourth time, didn’t he?
AD: Yeah, he had that lovely phrase, “I have a long haired girl now.” Which was either his wife or his daughter; more likely the daughter.
BG: Given the success of the show, have you found that your story as an actor has been tied into Tom Crean?
AD: Yes. The last ten years of my life have totally been. I’ve already put down on paper my relationship with Tom. Without getting too transcendental about it, I feel like I’ve got to know him. I feel in the nicest possible way he’s guiding me through the last ten to twelve years in imparting to different people his story. Along with Michael Smith’s book and my show, we’ve awakened the Irish populous to this hero, who was apolitical. Apart from his involvement with the British, he’s not embroiled in the usual sectarianism that our history tends to have. Therefore the children of Ireland learn about him at the ages of 10 or 11. He’s in the Irish national curriculum and what’s lovely about that, they suddenly have an Irish character who existed on a world stage in a world scale event historically, and who isn’t in the IRA or isn’t a British hater or the usual sort of litany that these normal characters have. It’s a nice thing to know that you’re bringing that to the fore in Irish popular history.
BG: Have you found that that’s overshadowed your other work? Wou’ve got a lot of projects.
AD: Yes, and it’s also overshadowed my poor wife’s work. She’s also an actress. Tom in the ascendency in particular, 2004 to 2009, I was all over the place. One year I was out of the country so often, for over ten months, I didn’t have to pay any tax. I’ll never forget my daughter coming into our little office we have in the local arts centre, our theatre company. She saw a picture of Shackleton and said, “I hate Tom Crean. Why can’t my Daddy work in Asda?” (which is a supermarket chain). I was going an awful lot, and my wife’s work suffered because she couldn’t work because she couldn’t be available for work. Now the balance is shifting back, and she’s off on tour, and my daughter is being looked after by her aunt, and when I go back, I will not be doing Tom Crean for a year.
BG: How do you keep yourself excited about doing the project? I know that each time you perform you do it differently.
AD: Coming here and telling his story to a brand new populous is very exciting. My raison d’être for Tom—when I’m tired in the dressing room and I have pictures of him on my wall, there’s an energy because of my respect for him. I don’t want to let his story down. My relationship with his memory is I want everybody to walk out of the theatre imbued and inspired by his memory. I tend to think, if I’m tired, “What am I complaining about? He went through far worse. Come on Aidan, move on.” That injustice I felt in the museum is still there with me when I’m on the stage. I don’t want to let him down.
BG: Have you been surprised by the success?
AD: Oh yeah, I’m surprised by the success. People come back and see it four or five times. I’m thinking what’s wrong with them, [but] they see something different each time. There’s so much content. I’m not saying it’s a talk-fest, but there are so many layers that different people read into it. I get letters from people saying they’re terminally sick and fighting this and fighting that—I’m only telling the story, I’m only the little man in the middle, I’m responsible for the emotional content—and yet they read it [in ways] I’m not really in control of. I’m constantly bewildered by its success, by how much people see by the human endeavour and the inspiring stories. I’m within that whirlwind trying to tell the story as clearly, succinctly, and physically as I can.
And as you were saying before, it’s a key moment of Irish history and nationhood. I do talk about that in the end, which may bemuse people here. But it’s important to know what he went back to, why he was a quiet man, and why he was forgotten. Two or three people came over in the early 1920s to speak to Crean. Scott was a living god, a dead god, who represented so much of the British spirit. He tried but failed valiantly and he was enormously huge in their culture. Three people came over and Crean disappeared all three times. They talked to his wife. They came all the way over—it would have taken three days at least—and he just didn’t want to talk to them. He was afraid—his brother had been shot, he was a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, which was the police—so he wasn’t keen on singing out, especially in that area of Kerry, which was quite Republican. It wouldn’t have mattered to him if he was never remembered.
BG: Would he be embarrassed by all of the attention?
AD: Oh god yes. He would, bless him. He was a very humble man. Again the personality traits are very hard to tie down, but humility was a very big part of the perception of his personality if you were in his company.
BG: He was also a ‘big’ man. Is his physicality a hard thing to capture?
AD: Well, he was physically big in relation to the rest of them. I did a dinner in Kerry in honour of Crean. His daughters had seen my show twice, and they joked that they’d love to see their Dad in clean clothes—the stuff I put on is so dirty. So I decided to find an officer’s uniform from costume hire. I asked if they had a First World War warrant officer, and they said yes, but the largest was a 36 inch chest. That’s small. But they were real. And I thought that’s tiny. He was only five foot eleven. By our standards he wasn’t a giant, but by theirs, he was. He was very broad. They were on average 5’6, 5’7. Maybe even smaller. He was a big man relatively speaking. It also belies the knowledge we medically know. He should have been a prime candidate for scurvy. They couldn’t afford tea in West Kerry at the time, and he would have drank milk and eaten an awful lot of fish. Physiologically he was protected from his childhood and from his early diet.
BG: I’ve read that you have no interest in going to Antarctica.
AD: I have no interest in dragging a sledge 800 miles. I have been to Antarctica as a tourist and that was extraordinary. I went to Elephant Island—not on the spit, which is now inaccessible because of erosion. My communion with Tom in a sense, in that I walked five miles in the trip across South Georgia in costume, and spoke at Shackleton’s grave, aka as Tom Crean. I read a poem as if I was Tom. Going to those places was really exceptional to me. I’d love to see the huts. Scott’s Hut. That was the hut Tom Crean slept in. It’d blow me away. As for dragging 25 to 30 kilograms 800 miles to get to the South Pole, I wouldn’t be able to do it. I remember this Russian guy who had come to the exhibition show—he didn’t quite know that I was pretending to be 100 years old—who asked, “You want to ski with me? I’m going to somewhere in Northern Russia. In one month we’ll go.” I asked, “how far are you going?” They don’t talk in miles, they talk in degrees. “We do four degrees maybe.” “Is there a hotel?” I wasn’t being that facetious to his face, but he obviously knew that I wasn’t an explorer, that I wasn’t as hard a man as I was portraying. I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’m a pretender. I’m 51 and I’m a bit shattered after the journey to New Zealand, sitting on my fat arse on a posh plane.
BG: Navigating a boat to South Georgia…
AD: Exactly. I’m not a sailor. I wouldn’t know one end of a sail from another. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give the impression that you can. The reason why I didn’t go to the Antarctic for so long was that I was afraid that it would unbalance the whole play, because sometimes, if a humble individual does an extraordinary thing, they often don’t tell you. A lot is what they don’t say. I was worried I would go to Antarctica and want to tell you everything through Tom and therefore unbalance the very finely balanced (for want of a better word) thing I had very fortuitously found. [The New Zealand Festival publicist’s] father—he went kayaking to the Antarctic. A ship would drop them off and they’d tottle off in their kayaks. Of course, he would find the quietness of that that I would never experience because you’re always with the 99 people in the red jackets and the fur seals and the penguins. You never have that moment of the vastness.
BG: What’s next for you?
AD: What I’m musing at the moment: I have to write copy for a programme tonight, for a fifteen minute version of David Copperfield that I’m going to be producing in the Dickens Festival in Rochester in June. At the moment I’m thinking, “how do you write sixty to seventy words?” You have to imbue this with what will involve people rather than simply reducing David Copperfield down to fifteen minutes, There’s always something to do. Fortuitously, Tom has been so good to our family financially, there isn’t a compulsion to do something. I can sit there twiddling my thumbs. I’ve also got another one man show about an Irish hero, called O’Sullivan Beara, who was a bit farther back at the end of the Celtic chieftains, when Elizabeth more or less crushed Ireland and Ireland became administratively England’s. It hasn’t been as popular as Tom Crean but I’m working on it. And I’ve done three tours of that. I’m not a man who can sit down and write something. I did with O’Sullivan and it was very stodgy. Too many adjectives, and clause structures too long, and I thought I’ve got to re-work and re-work it on the road. I’m better doing something in front of people. When I’ve tried to type like a writer, it comes out really heavy. That’s what I have. I’ll take a little rest for a while and look after my 13 year old daughter who hates Tom Crean.