What is adventure? For most of us it can be as simple as a change in career, a move to a new country or a trip around the world. We all dream about our own adventures and sometimes, with luck, we get to live some of those dreams. Our adventures stay with us and memories sustain us through routine periods. Over time they may even grow in our imagination to the degree of heroism!
Down through history there have been people who have pushed boundaries and created new frontiers through their adventures; be it expeditions or journeys of survival or perhaps quests for justice and equality. It is good to remember, celebrate and be inspired by such adventurers. Ireland has had no shortage of such people. Over the next number of weeks I’m going to share with you the story of four Irish adventurers. I hope you get some inspiration and entertainment from their stories.
Margaret Ann Bulkley
Margaret Ann Bulkley was born in Cork around 1789. Her life story is one that is truly fascinating. When Margaret was a young girl her father, Jeremiah Bulkley, ran a weigh house in Cork city. Due to financial difficulties and anti-Catholic sentiment against him, Jeremiah ran into trouble with the authorities, which resulted in him being sent to the debtor’s prison in Dublin. This left his family destitute and forced Margaret and her mother to move to London where they were supported by Margaret’s uncle, James Barry, a celebrated Irish painter living in London at the time.
In London Margaret was tutored privately with the intention that she would eventually become a tutor herself. She proved to be an eager student with an academic mind that was nurtured by her teacher. As she grew older she wished to continue her education and attend university to study medicine, but at that time women were not educated beyond a particular level and they certainly never attended university.
James Barry, her uncle who had financed her education, died in 1806, and it was his liberal friends who hatched a plan that allowed Margaret to pursue her dream. In 1809 Margaret dressed in men’s clothes and platform shoes, and with a distinctive high-pitched voice enrolled in Edinburgh University. She took her uncle’s name, James Barry, as her alias.
During her time in university her outward appearance was that of a prepubescent boy, and because of ‘his’ apparent young age the college authorities attempted to remove James Barry from the university, but Margaret persevered and successfully graduated from university. She then enrolled in the United Hospital of Guy’s and St Thomas’s where she passed the examination for the Royal College of Surgeons of England. The plan that she and her uncle’s liberal friends had initially made was that after Margaret qualified as a doctor she would travel to South America where women were free to practise medicine, but she found this option closed to her because of a change in political circumstances. So in 1813 Dr James Barry got a job as a hospital assistant in the British army. What she had achieved by then was extraordinary. Not only had she qualified as a doctor, but she had also enrolled in the British army, all the while disguised as a man. But this was only the start of a lifelong career in the British army for Dr James Barry.
Following military training Dr James Barry was stationed in Cape Town in South Africa. She proved to be an excellent doctor and an able leader, bringing about significant changes during her time in South Africa, including improvements to sanitation and water systems, improved conditions for enslaved people and provision of a sanctuary for the leper population. Dr James Barry carried out the first caesarean section on the continent of Africa and the first recorded caesarean section in the world where both the expectant mother and her newborn child survived (the child was christened James Barry Munnik in the doctor’s honour).
In South Africa Margaret had a loyal servant, John Joseph Danson. John remained with Margaret for the remainder of her career. He and a few of her closest allies most likely knew her secret, but none of them ever revealed it to the authorities. After South Africa Dr James Barry served all around the British Empire – Mauritius, Jamaica, Saint Helena, the West Indies, Malta, Corfu and her final posting, Canada.
During her career Dr James Barry rose to the rank of chief medical officer and deputy inspector general of hospitals. Everywhere she served she brought about improvements to sanitary conditions and the diet of both common soldiers and under-represented groups. She was outraged by unnecessary suffering and took a heavy-handed and sometimes tactless approach to demanding improvements for the poor and underprivileged. This sometimes got her in trouble. On one occasion Dr. James Barry was arrested and court-martialled on a charge of ‘conduct unbecoming of the character of an officer and a gentleman’. She was found not guilty and honourably acquitted. On another occasion Dr James Barry was accused of carrying on a homosexual relationship with her superior officer. If the rumour mill knew the truth, what gossip would have abounded?
Dr James Barry retired from the army at the age of seventy. Margaret Bulkley had successfully disguised herself as a man for a long and distinguished career as one of the highest-ranking medical officers in the British army. Her last wishes were to be buried in the clothes she died in without her body being washed, but when Margaret died from dysentery on 25 July 1865 her final wishes were not honoured. When the nurse undressed the body to prepare it for burial she discovered two things: female anatomy and telltale stretch marks from pregnancy. This news spread like wildfire across Victorian England with many exaggerated and fanciful versions of the story emerging, including one that Dr James Barry was a hermaphrodite.
The male-dominated society of the time did not celebrate her achievements and Margaret’s story faded away and has remained dormant in history, but her story is slowly re-emerging today and she is beginning to get the recognition she deserves.
The second Irish adventurer in our series is Tom Crean, a member of three major expeditions to Antarctica in the early twentieth century during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
Tom was born in 1877 – one of ten children, and grew up in poverty on a small farm in Annascaul, County Kerry. At the age of fifteen Crean lied about his age and joined the British navy where he quickly became known for his hard work and quiet demeanour and grew to be well respected. When the Discovery Expedition, the first major expedition to the Antarctic, was announced in 1901, Crean volunteered to go. After serving on the Discovery Expedition under Captain Robert Scott, he subsequently served on the Terra Nova Expedition from 1910 to 1913, again under Captain Scott, and from 1914 to 1916 he served on the Endurance Expedition under Sir Ernest Shackleton.
The accounts of the three expeditions were recorded by the educated, higher-ranking officers who kept detailed diaries. There was also an onboard photographer during the Endurance Expedition. Stories of the expeditions have been widely recorded and publicised and are well known to the public. Crean didn’t keep a diary during the expeditions, nor did he talk a lot about his endeavours after he returned to Ireland; perhaps because he returned to Ireland at a sensitive time – the War of Independence with the British was ending and Ireland was entering a divisive civil war. Tom Crean’s Antarctic exploits remained a side note in other people’s stories for a long time, and it was only through meticulous research of the diaries belonging to other members and accounts of the past expeditions that Tom’s story was pieced together. Much credit must be given to Michael Smith and his revealing book, An Unsung Hero. It shows in fantastic detail that through the three expeditions Tom truly was a hero. I have chosen two events that occurred during the expeditions that illustrate the type of man Tom Crean was.
The first event occurred during Scott’s, ultimately ill-fated, Terra Nova Expedition. When the ship arrived at the Antarctic, Crean and the crew worked hard for months moving tons of supplies hundreds of miles across the ice to establish a route for the attempt on the Pole. When the supply route was ready and the men were rested, Scott selected a group to accompany him in the attempt to be the first men to reach the South Pole. As Scott progressed closer to the South Pole, the members of his support team were gradually reduced. Crean was part of an eight-man team that moved towards the Pole, but eventually Scott chose a final five to make the final push to the South Pole, and Tom Crean, Bill Lashly and Lieutenant Teddy Evans were ordered back to base. Tom was justifiably disappointed that he wasn’t chosen as part of the team for the final push because he was one of the fittest and most capable of the group, but he had to obey the orders that were given. After bidding farewell to Scott and his team, Crean and his two colleagues began their 750-mile journey across the rugged Antarctic ice back to the ship after already spending nine tough weeks on the ice. Over a month into the return Evans contracted scurvy and grew weaker by the day. Eventually he was no longer able to walk and he ordered the other two men to leave him behind and save themselves. Crean and Lashly ignored his orders and instead hauled Evans on a sledge. With determination, serious effort and little food, they hauled the now dying Evans 350 miles across the ice to within thirty-five miles of Hut Point. The remaining distance was a four- or five-day march away at their current pace and the situation was bleak. Tom set off alone on the thirty-five mile march, leaving his sleeping bag as he did not intend stopping, taking only a few biscuits and a little chocolate to sustain him. He reached Hut Point in eighteen hours and got the help required to return and save Evans’s life.
By late October, when Scott and his team had failed to return, Tom Crean joined a search party that went back across the ice to find their comrades. It was Crean who noticed something unusual protruding through the snow, which turned out to be the top of a tent. Inside the men discovered the frozen bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers. The dead were buried in the tent and the survivors returned to their ship and made the lonely journey home.
The second event occurred while Tom served on the Endurance Expedition under Ernest Shackleton, who incidentally was Irish. During the expedition, as they sailed towards the Antarctic, their ship became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea. Eventually the ship was crushed and rendered useless by the ice. Shackleton and his crew could do nothing but look on from the ice as their ship sank. The crew of twenty-two were stranded on an ice sheet hundreds of miles from the sea.
Thanks to the leadership qualities and the ingenuity of Shackleton an escape plan was formulated. First off they tried to drag, push and haul their supplies and lifeboats across the ice to reach the open sea, but ultimately they needed to wait patiently for the ice to break up. When it did, they set their three lifeboats into the sea. They sailed the boats across the Southern Ocean in horrific conditions with only basic navigational equipment. After seven days they landed on the small uninhabited Elephant Island in April 1915.
From here, Crean was part of a six-man crew that was selected to sail 800 miles to South Georgia Island where they hoped to find help at a Norwegian whaling station.
They sailed for two weeks in stormy weather and violent seas, and when they neared South Georgia they were hit by a hurricane forcing them to spend a further two nights at sea as an attempt to land would have crushed their tiny boat. In fact, the same hurricane sank a 500-ton Argentinian ship, Argos, only ten miles away, with the loss of all on board.
On 10 May they eventually landed on the north side of the island, but regrettably the whaling station was on the other side of the island. The men were left with no option other than to cross the unexplored and uncharted interior of South Georgia. After resting, three of the most able men, Shackleton, Crean and Worsley, set off into the unknown. Roped together they faced peaks, glaciers, crevasses and freezing temperatures. They marched continuously for thirty-seven hours and miraculously they did reach the Stromness whaling station on the island’s eastern coast. They were relieved to find that the whaling station was manned and a rescue was quickly arranged for the three men stranded on the north side of the island. The sixteen men waiting on Elephant Island would have to wait another three months before being rescued.
They then intercepted a ship returning to England and the entire crew headed back to England. Their survival was because of their desire to live, having a capable leader like Shackleton and because of the stamina and bravery of the men involved. Men like Tom Crean.
Crean returned to the UK in 1916 to serve out the remaining time of World War l and was medically discharged in 1919. He married a local Irish girl and had three daughters. Crean and his wife then opened a pub called The South Pole Inn in Annascaul village, where he remained until his death in 1938.
There is a Guinness ad from the 1990s that romanticises Crean’s march to Hut Point and times in the pub with a pint. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXf93CEI4t0
Dr. Aidan Mac Carthy
Our next adventurer was a man of compassion and strength who was blessed with no small amount of luck. Aidan MacCarthy was born in Castletownbere in West Cork in 1913. He studied and graduated with a medical degree from University College Cork. In 1938 he moved to London in search of work. Almost on a whim, while on a night out with some friends, he joined the British army as a medical officer. During his career in the British army he encountered many life-threatening situations, and his survival is nearly unbelievable.
In 1940 he was posted to France – one of the thousands of Allied troops who retreated and were pinned in at Dunkirk. Here, while he was waiting for evacuation, he attended many wounded Allied soldiers. After three days in Dunkirk he boarded a rescue ship that was torpedoed and sank in the English Channel. MacCarthy was rescued from the sea and made it back to England.
He was soon promoted to flight lieutenant and in 1941, while stationed at RAF Honington, he witnessed a plane crash-landing at the airfield. Without concern for his own life, MacCarthy rushed to the plane and helped rescue the crew members from the burning wreckage. For this he was awarded the George Medal. A year later he was sent to Africa and then the Far East.
In Java, MacCarthy was captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. In prison he used his medical and diplomatic skills to keep many prisoners alive. He negotiated with the guards to get basic medicines for those nearing death. He also used his knowledge of nutrition to help keep the living healthy. As the war progressed and the Japanese retreated, MacCarthy was transported back to mainland Japan. During transportation the ship he was in was torpedoed and sunk by a US submarine. Most of the people onboard died but miraculously MacCarthy survived. The crew of a passing fishing boat pulled him out of the ocean and took him to Japan, where he was imprisoned in Nagasaki.
MacCarthy was in charge of a working party in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city on 9 August 1945, and he survived one of the most devastating attacks mankind has ever known. When the war ended and the prisoners were set free, some of the ex-prisoners attempted to kill their Japanese captors. MacCarthy, who was the senior Allied serviceman in Japan at the time of the Japanese surrender, didn’t want this to happen. Instead he locked the Japanese guards in cells for their own safety, saving their lives. Later, before leaving Japan, and as a thanks, one of the Japanese guards presented MacCarthy with his samurai sword, one of the highest marks of respect you can receive from a Japanese person.
For years after Dr MacCarthy worked as a doctor in northern England. He died in 1995 at the age of eighty-two. MacCarthy’s Bar is located in Castletownbere in West Cork and it is run by his daughters. If you visit the bar, you will see his medals and sword. There is a book and a television documentary available that tell his story, both are titled A Doctor’s Sword.
The last in our series of Irish adventurers is Mother Jones. Born as Mary Harris in 1837 in County Cork, Mother Jones holds an important position in American history because of her struggle to achieve equality and justice for the country’s industrial labourers. She is even included in The Guardian’s list of the world’s top ten revolutionaries: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2015/aug/28/10-best-revolutionaries-che-guevara-mahatma-gandhi-leon-trotsky
In the early 1850s, as a result of the Irish potato famine, Mary and her family, like a million other Irish people, were forced to leave Ireland in search of a better life elsewhere.
She and her family travelled across the Atlantic Ocean, in what became known as a famine ship, and settled in Toronto. Here, Mary attended school and university and qualified as a teacher. She later moved to the USA where she married and had a family.
In 1867, Mary’s husband and her four children died from yellow fever during the epidemic in Memphis. She moved to Chicago to start a new life as a dressmaker, but here she was again cursed when she lost everything in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Her past experiences cemented her resolve and her desire to fight for the survival and equality of others, and after the Chicago fire she became active in the labour movement. Her many quotes give us some insight into her spirit: ‘My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong’.
Through the 1880s she worked with the labour movement. Jones was involved in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 in Pittsburgh and the strikes that led to the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886. By the early 1890s, her reputation as a devoted labour leader was well established, and she had earned the name ‘Mother Jones’. She led organising efforts in striking mining communities and she was one of the organisers of Coxey’s Army, a group of unemployed men who marched on Washington in 1894 to demand a federal jobs programme. After this her reputation grew to a national scale. She worked tirelessly and spoke on behalf of the workers, and she raised money for strikes and explained their cause to those who were unfamiliar. When once asked about her humanitarian struggles, she replied saying ‘I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser’.
Jones was a major influence on Irish republican and socialist leader James Connolly, another entry in the world’s top ten revolutionaries. The pair met in the early twentieth century while they were both actively campaigning for labour rights in the US.
She was also an active proponent of legislation to prohibit child labour. She was one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party in 1898 and the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905. Her last important struggle was for the steel workers in 1919. Today, Mother Jones’ legacy lives on and she is remembered as a mother to millions of working men, women and children.
At a remarkable eighty-three years of age she was imprisoned and sentenced to twenty years in jail, for which she was eventually pardoned. In 1925, she released her own account of her experiences in the labour movement as The Autobiography of Mother Jones, and she died in 1930. You can find out more about Mother Jones here: https://motherjonescork.com/.
Perhaps the best way to remember Mother Jones is through one of her most famous quotes, ‘Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living’.