Episode #19 – “Explorers & Folklore”

“Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.”

Frank Borman, astronaut

Date Published


Main Topic



1hr 20min

In this episode we look at exploration and folklore from the point of view of Ireland and a select group of Irish men and women that epitomize what we consider an explorer. Over the course of the episode, we highlight some historic figures like Tom Crean Antarctic explorer, Anne Bonny an Irish lady pirate, Colin O’ Brady athlete and climber and also a demigod figure from Irish mythology Cu Chulainn. 

In the case of Tom Crean the ‘Unsung Hero’ as he has been dubbed in literature describing his expeditions, Crean took part in three major Antarctic missions with famous explorers of the time Ernst Shakleton and Robert Scott. Creans heroic actions led to many lives saved over the three expeditions, and he lived to tell the tale across the counter in his pub The South Pole Inn in his hometown of Annascaul County Kerry. We touch upon the characteristics or qualities that one might associate with a hero or heroin, even in your own life and experiences. Other heroic journeys made by athlete Colin O’ Brady and his successful trek across the whole Antarctic continent, something that the old timers like Shakleton and Scott couldn’t accomplish, an expedition accomplished on his own in an adventure that he took on to satiate his desire for exploration and discovery of his own physical and mental capacities.

The dramatic history of an historic female pirate Anne Bonny from the shores of Ireland are recounted, with a reflection on the golden age of piracy in the world at the time and the tales that unfolded when pirate women sailed alongside men in the Carribean. Where fairytales literally came from. Irish folklore too much like any mythology and fables told across the world, commonly weave stories of good and evil, temptation, greed and disguise. Cu Chulainn in Irish lore was a warrior and champion but as always in these fables possess weaknesses along with mighty strengths. The lessons learned through storytelling in mythology can be very valuable to one’s life, and we touch on the interesting fact that some of these lessons really only reveal their true value and meaning once read again in adulthood, but are very true to human experience. As with all episodes here on Druids Exchange, we will append details on the topics discussed above and true to form as we explore these subjects, the more is revealed and the more we wish to revisit interesting ideas that deserve a closer look inside. 

Enjoy the episode, a chairde!! 

Main Topic Of This Episode​​

The main topic of this episode is ‘exploration’ and how it seems to be a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Pick any point throughout human history and you will see people exploring. Whether it is brave men and women sailing across the seas to lands unknown, or exploring new ideas or into the depths of your mind, the desire to explore is an essential ingredient to human happiness and contentment.

Check Out Some Further Reading​

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Tom Crean was an Irish seaman and Antarctic explorer who was awarded the Albert Medal for Lifesaving.

Crean was a member of three major expeditions to Antarctica during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, including Robert Falcon Scott’s 1911–1913 Terra Nova Expedition. This saw the race to reach the South Pole lost to Roald Amundsen and ended in the deaths of Scott and his party. During the expedition, Crean’s 56 km solo walk across the Ross Ice Shelf to save the life of Edward Evans led to him receiving the Albert Medal.

Crean left the family farm near Annascaul, in County Kerry, to enlist in the Royal Navy at age 15 but lied about his own age, as he had to be 16 to enlist. In 1901, while serving on Ringarooma in New Zealand, he volunteered to join Scott’s 1901–1904 Discovery Expedition to Antarctica, thus beginning his exploring career.

After his experience on the Terra Nova, Crean’s third and final Antarctic venture was as second officer on Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. After the ship Endurance became beset in the pack ice and sank, Crean and the ship’s company spent 492 days drifting on the ice before undertaking a journey in the ship’s lifeboats to Elephant Island. He was a member of the crew which made a small-boat journey of 1,500 kms from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island to seek aid for the stranded party.

Cream will be immortalized when Ireland’s new marine research vessel will be named the “RV Tom Crean”, which is due to be completed in summer 2022.

Anne Bonny (8 March 1697 – possibly 29 December 1733) was an Irish pirate operating in the Caribbean, and one of a few female pirates in recorded history. The little that is known of her life comes largely from Captain Charles Johnson’s ‘A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates’, which is a 1724 book published in Britain containing biographies of contemporary pirates, which was influential in shaping popular conceptions of pirates.

Bonny was born in Ireland around 1700 and moved to London and then to the Province of Carolina when she was about 10 years old. She then married around 1715 and moved to Nassau in the Bahamas, a sanctuary for pirates. It was there that she met Calico Jack Rackham and became his pirate partner and lover. She was captured alongside Rackham and Mary Read in October 1720. All three were sentenced to death, but Bonny and Read had their executions stayed because both of them were pregnant. Read died of a fever in jail in April 1721, but Bonny’s fate is unknown.

The legend of Cú Chulainn is one of the greatest in Irish mythology. He is noted in Irish mythical sagas for his superhuman strength and amazing deeds on the battlefield. His story was originally passed down by word of mouth, like the Gaelic language until it was written down more than 800 years ago in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). The story is so powerful that it is still taught in schools and written about today.

Cú Chulainn was an ancient Gaelic hero warrior who was gifted with superhuman strength, speed and skill.  He would hit the sliotar with the hurley, leap forward and hit it a second time before it touched the ground, toss the javelin ahead and then the spear, run after them all, catch the ball and javelin with one hand and the spear with the other. Cú Chulainn achieved his name at the age of seven when he killed the watchdog of a blacksmith named Culann, he hurled his sliotar down the hound’s throat and killed him.

Táin Bó Cúailnge is available to buy for interested readers, or excerpts can be read online. Have a listen to the great Ronnie Drew telling the story of Cu Chulainn.

In the classical sense, a hero is considered to be a “warrior who lives and dies in the pursuit of honor” and asserts their greatness by “the brilliancy and efficiency with which they kill”. Classical heroes are commonly semi-divine and extraordinarily gifted, such as Achilles, evolving into heroic characters through their perilous circumstances. While these heroes are incredibly resourceful and skilled, they are often foolhardy, court disaster, risk their followers’ lives for trivial matters, and behave arrogantly in a childlike manner. 

In more modern times, the idea of a hero is someone who, in the face of danger, combats adversity through feats of ingenuity, courage or strength. The traits of a ‘modern’ hero are more humble and modest, where character and values take centre stage.

In this episode, we take on a slightly different slant to the idea of a hero. We discuss the idea of heroic acts big and small, with one example being that of a parent working two jobs to provide for their child and to ensure they enjoy a better life than themselves. We are reminded to ‘be careful of your actions as you may be the hero in someone else’s life’.

In 2015, American athlete Colin O’Brady and his then-fiancée Jenna Besaw created ‘Beyond 7/2’, a not-for-profit world record journey to inspire kids and communities to live active, healthy lives. O’Brady aimed to conquer the Explorers Grand Slam (Last Degree), an adventurer’s challenge to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents and complete expeditions to both the North and South Poles in world record time. O’Brady and Besaw financed the Grand Slam attempt through sponsorships from Gelber Group, Nike, Columbia Sportswear, and Mountain Hardwear, among others. The project raised funds and awareness to benefit the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a non-profit organization that aims to combat childhood obesity.

In 2018, O’Brady completed a solo and unsupported crossing of parts of Antarctica from the Messner start to the beginning of the Ross Ice Shelf. He completed the near 1500kms journey in 54 days, finishing ahead of explorer Louis Rudd who was also attempting the feat. He covered the final 125kms in one final sleepless, 32-hour burst – “I don’t know, something overcame me,” O’Brady said in an interview. “I just felt locked in for the last 32 hours, like a deep flow state. I didn’t listen to any music — just locked in, like I’m going until I’m done. It was profound, it was beautiful, and it was an amazing way to finish up the project.”

Check out more from his story here

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