Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer

Aidan Dooley’s Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer
Thursday 27 March 2014, Christchurch

When Ireland and Antarctica converged in Christchurch in late March, one man stole the night: Tom Crean, as played by Aidan Dooley. The three polar pyramid tents outside the Heaton School auditorium set the scene for an icy adventure, but belied the body heat generated by a sell out crowd.  We were going on a journey to Antarctica, but parkas were best left at he door.

The play, which premiered at the Medway Fuse Festival in 2003, tells the tale of Tom Crean, a lad from Kerry who served on three Antarctic expeditions under both Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton. Crean is one of the many men from the Heroic Era who simply did his job and then faded into history, eclipsed by the Heroes that gave the age its name.  Thanks to Dooley, there has been renewed interest in Crean in recent years. His little known story is now one of the most famous adventure tales in Ireland, where the play has gained something of a cult following. Sell out crowds are usual, while the first question many Irish nationals have following any lecture on Shackleton’s Endurance expedition is ‘what about Tom Crean?’

If anyone in Thursday’s audience was wondering the same thing, they were in the right place.  Dooley spins a yarn that takes the audience to the ends of the earth, transporting us back to the sepia days of Antarctic Exploration. Act One sees us following him South on the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions, recounting his disappointment at being sent back home as Scott and four others pushed on to the Pole. Through a combination of pub-style storytelling and exhausting reenactments of the slog, we learn of the hardship encountered, the sledding used to descend from great heights down a glacier, and Crean’s astonishment at finally making it back to the hut alive. Dooley has a way of getting under the skin of his characters and really capturing what makes them tick. He seamlessly weaves elements of the older Crean, who was publican of ‘The South Pole,’ with flashbacks of his younger self, and peppers his performance with local Irish references and questions for the crowd. This is no ‘sit back and relax’ tale, but a raucous performance full of energy and banter.

Act Two sees Crean return to Antarctica on board the Endurance, under Ernest Shackleton. We hear the story of the ship becoming trapped in the ice and slowly sinking, but it is the details that make this version come alive – the way the lights in the ship flashed on and off, on and off as she slipped below the water, as if to wave farewell. Dooley’s first person account of the boat trip from Elephant Island to South Georgia also brings home the human side of the famous feat of endurance: a particularly lively impression of Worsley attempting to take a sighting of the sun in the midst of heaving seas has the audience clinging to their seats for dear life.

Dooley was first drawn to Crean’s story when he learnt the explorer had been awarded the Albert medal for bravery following Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, and the play grew from there. These days it is a full-blown theatrical sensation. The play may be called Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer, but it is written and performed by Aidan Dooley, Master Storyteller: he deserved every one of the ovations he received at the close of the show. It was a warm night, but with images of the Ross Ice Shelf and Patience Camp in mind, the polar pyramid tents outsides elicited a shiver as we passed them on our way back home.

  •       The Christchurch performance of Tom Crean: Antarctic Explorer was hosted by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.





What Lies Beneath

Whispers of whale oil
And promises of 28 minute self serve dry cleaning
Adorn brick walls
Proudly proclaiming the wares of history
And urging the audience to
‘Protect your investment’
With a lick of paint.

This paint’s long dry,
Buried behind designer developments
And the promise of a brighter future
The signs decay
Until one day
They are awoken from their slumber
As walls tumble
With an almighty crash…

Come September,
They find a different world
With cents, not pence
Where nothing makes sense

Filling The Gaps

Christchurch, aka ‘Shaky Town’, has not been getting the best press lately. Often all that makes it into the news is doom and gloom to do with EQC and earthquake damage, but there are all sorts of creative seeds being sown all over the city, often where you’d least expect to find them. Gapfiller is a community project that aims to ‘temporarily activate vacant sites within Christchurch with creative projects, to make for a more interesting, dynamic and vibrant city’ and has seen artists and innovators take to the streets in an effort to turn empty sites into sights and experiences for the local community.

The first I knew of this project was when a whole lot of milk bottle flowers started decorating the mesh fences around vacant sites. Then there was the cycle powered cinema, which took the site of a demolished bike shop and put the power back in the legs of the people, quite literally. The public was invited to bring a bicycle and pedal on a specially built stand to power a dyno and project cycle related movies onto the wall of an adjacent building. With a very limited season, people were queuing up to have a spin, and the picnic blankets invited those who just wanted to watch to do so, enjoying the spectacle with people from their local community.

Participation has been a big thing with many of the Gapfiller projects, and the way they are set up encourages interaction with others. The Dance-O-Mat is a case in point – insert $2 into an old converted washing machine, plug in your music device and voila, 30 minutes of DJ-ing on the purpose built dance floor ensues. While most people may be inclined to decline the offer of joining in at 2pm on a weekday, the installation was open 24/7, and there are always people who can’t resist a good boogey on their way past. For those who simply don’t dance, the mini golf hole next door provided a welcome alternative.

At the centre of the Gapfiller project is the Pallet Pavilion, a venue built entirely out of blue packing pallets. Over the past summer it’s played host to performances for the busking festival, music jams, vintage markets, scrabble nights and much more. This weekend I was very excited to hear that the pavilion has secured funding for another season, thanks to the generosity of the very people who use it and appreciate what it stands for. That’s right, $82,000 in crowd funding is not bad, and it also shows how much impact a grass roots project can have on a community. I’m proud to be able to say that my name’s on one of those pallets, and that 879 other people felt the same way as me about the importance of this creative hub in the midst of a transitional city.

Gapfiller makes that transition into a positive, celebratory experience. As well as the interactive activities, there are the poems, the interactive chalkboard projects and the transient murals that pop up to make an empty lot into an attraction and help to replace the lost landmarks of the city. These just-round-the-corner surprises are like little gifts to each day, and little by little they are creating a new layer of myths and cultural heritage for places that now only exist in memory. For someone who moved to Canterbury after the earthquakes and doesn’t share those memories or the ghost map of the city, this is a very exciting way to orientate myself, focusing in on the flowers amongst the rubble. The seeds have been planted, and the projects that have bloomed over the past two summers are sure to make the ground more fertile for even bigger dreams to take root come next spring.

For a map of the current Gapfiller projects and to find out more, visit