INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, DAVID MURPHY
RP: What first drew you to writing a biography of McClintock?
DM: I first came across McClintock when writing his entry for the Royal Irish Academy's Dictionary of Irish Biography. It was only a short piece but I came away thinking that he was a fascinating character who deserved a fuller treatment. While he was mentioned frequently in various sources, it was usually only in passing and there was no modern biography. Clements Markham's 1909 biography of McClintock was quite uncritical and I wanted to carry out more research into his varied career.
RP: You set forth a comprehensive sketch of McClintock's abilities as a seaman, a sledge-pilot, and a surveyor, and yet his essential personality remains somewhat of a mystery. Was this a matter of his own personal reserve, or of a dearth of sources? In his own writing, there seems to be a plain-spokenness about McClintock, what Joseph Conrad called a "manly simplicity"; do you see that in his character?
DM: I think that McClintock was a fairly plain-spoken kind of character and that he was not given to outbursts of emotion or sentimentality, either in his actions, speeches or writings. A fair amount of his letters and journals have survived and are held in various archives in England and Ireland. As I remarked recently to a colleague, it is interesting how little of himself actually appears in any of his writings. So, I think his pragmatic approach to life was tempered by a natural reserve.
RP: Do you feel that McClintock would be -- or ought to be -- as well remembered for his numerous accomplishments as an explorer had he not discovered the last traces of the Franklin expedition?
DM: I suspect not. While it was later acknowledged that he had made contributions in other areas, it was really the Franklin connection that placed him in the public eye. Even with this connection he has often been regulated to a footnote in polar histories. Without the Franklin association, he may well have disappeared altogether.
RP: It seems to me refreshing the way in which you avoid the sentimental view which sees Franklin as a great hero despite the terrible record of his first land expedition, as well as his final one. Do you feel this has to do with a certain cultural difference, something specific to the British attitude about such "noble failures"? As a follow-up, do you see anything you might characterize as a general attitude among Irish commanders in the Arctic field?
DM: Irish writers are perhaps less enamoured with the idea of these "heroic failures". Due to the fact that so many Irishmen served in the British navy and army during this period, it was often the Irish who provided the cannon-fodder, so to speak, in these ventures. I think, however, that there has also been a swing in British opinion over the last few years. Modern British writers seem far more keen to question the "heroic" aspect of figures such as Franklin and Scott. As for a general attitude of the Irish commanders such as McClintock, McClure and Kellett - I think that they approached Arctic work with a certain pride in their professional abilities and with a determination to "get the job done." Alongside this, polar exploration offered them a chance to further their careers and in this respect they seem to have had a keen eye for an opportunity for advancement.
RP: I was interested to see that, in political matters, McClintock was a vocal opponent of Home Rule. Do you think this undercuts to any degree the extent to which he might be championed today as a specifically Irish hero? Do you think his political views were in any way responsible for his being less admired, or less well-known, in Ireland then or now?
DM: There is long list of subjects and personalities that have remained taboo subjects in Irish history since the founding of the Irish Free State in 1922. During the 20th century Irish historians promoted certain events and historical figures and strung them together to form a rather shaky canon of Irish history. Sometimes this was to the exclusion of both important events and personalities. McClintock, as a British naval officer with "dubious" political ideas, would simply not have been considered as being worthy of study. While this situation has begun to change over the last ten years or so, there are still vast areas of Irish history that remain unresearched.
RP: What was the most surprising thing you learned about McClintock in the process of researching and writing your book?
DM: I was surprised by the lengths that he went to self-educate himself, reading vast numbers of scientific books despite the fact that his childhood education was so poor. It was also interesting to see how he embraced new technology, endeavoring to learn more about steam machinery and also dabbling in photography.
RP: The letters you quote from the McClintock/Rae debate are quite striking in the way they show two ostensibly modest men quarreling about the precise nature of their respective achievements. I was struck, though, to see that Rae felt his translator (Ouligbuck) was far more competent than McClintock's (Petersen). Many Franklin searchers and researchers today tend to agree with Rae; did you find anything else in this correspondence which touched on this issue?
DM: The McClintock- Rae correspondence went on for some time; Ken McGoogan covers this well in his recent biography of Rae, Fatal Passage. The issue of Petersen's competence has been raised in various sources but it is clear in McClintock's own writings that he never doubted Petersen's ability. I am sure that the whole Rae-McClintock debate still has its champions, and I should emphasize that I have the most profound respect for Rae.
RP: I was especially impressed to learn of McClintock's many achievements after his return from his last Franklin search in 1859. Yet I find myself wondering: did the sobriquet "discoverer of the fate of Franklin" stick too close to him, or was he, over time -- at least among his peers -- more regarded for other accomplishments or abilities? In either case, was he comfortable with it?
DM: By the 1870s, it would seem that McClintock's peers recognized that he had also made contributions in the area of polar sledge travel. It is for this reason that he was asked to advise on the Nares Expedition and later Scott's Discovery Expedition. It is hard to judge if he became uncomfortable with the Franklin association. I am pretty sure that he enjoyed receiving royalties from his Voyage of the Fox, which was still being reprinted in the early twentieth century!
RP: I see from the jacket copy that your previous book covered the era of the Crimean War, a period which was a sort of forced interval for the Franklin search. Are you considering further projects in this era, especially any of Arctic interest?
DM: My two main research interests are military/naval history and polar history. There is a level of overlap here as so many explorers of the nineteenth century were either naval or military men. I am currently compiling a gazetteer of the Irish regiments and may well work on an Arctic subject after that - perhaps McClure's Investigator Expedition?