Tom Crean (1877-1938) – an Irish hero

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 2 (Summer 2003), Volume 11

Tom Crean in 1915 on board Endurance, ice-bound in the Weddel Sea. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

Tom Crean in 1915 on board Endurance, ice-bound in the Weddel Sea. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

Few periods of history have produced such a wealth of remarkable stories as the heroic age of expeditions to the Antarctic about 100 years ago. Little more than two decades of exploration threw up a series of powerful dramas that encapsulated the very essence of discovery—endurance, courage and tragedy. In the thick of it all was Tom Crean, an unassuming Kerryman whose extraordinary exploits made him appear as nearly indestructible as any human can be. But his amazing life remained shrouded in obscurity for over 80 years, known only to a few polar aficionados or bands of devoted supporters in Kerry. Yet it would be impossible to compose a history of Antarctic exploration without recognising and saluting the massive contribution he made.

Spent more time in the Antarctic than Scott or Shackleton

Tom Crean figured prominently in three of the four major British expeditions to the Antarctic a century ago and spent more time in the ice and snow than either of the more celebrated and instantly recognisable figures of Sir Ernest Shackleton or Captain Robert Scott. And he outlived them both.
Crean first went south in 1901 with Scott’s ground-breaking Discovery expedition, on which he served his polar apprenticeship and learned the skills to survive in the most inhospitable place on earth. He returned a decade later when Scott made his ill-fated bid to reach the South Pole in 1911. Crean was a key figure on the expedition, dragging a sledge to within 150 miles of the South Pole before being ordered to return to base camp. He was among the last three men to see Scott alive within reach of his goal, and only a few months later he went back to the ice to bury Scott’s frozen body.

It was during the return to base camp that Crean performed the greatest single-handed act of bravery in the history of Antarctic exploration. When one of his companions, Lt Evans, collapsed 35 miles from safety, the courageous Crean volunteered to go for help. It was a hazardous journey across treacherous terrain in sub-zero temperatures, and his only food consisted of two sticks of chocolate and three biscuits. He had no sleeping bag or tent and was already physically exhausted, having been on the march for three months and having covered around 1,500 miles. His solitary trek lasted eighteen hours and earned him the Albert Medal, then the highest award for gallantry.

Soon after, Crean played a central role in the dramatic Endurance expedition with Shackleton. When the ship was crushed in the ice of the Weddell Sea, Crean helped to sail the tiny James Caird across the Southern Ocean, the wildest seas on earth. He then walked 40 miles across the forbidding mountains and glaciers of South Georgia to bring rescuers to 22 comrades left stranded on Elephant Island.

Recognition eluded him

Tom Crean had crammed more excitement and danger into a few years than most people could manage in a lifetime. But recognition eluded him and he drifted half-forgotten into obscurity for most of the following 80 years. The reasons why history has been unkind to Crean are twofold: first, the politics of post-independence Ireland; and second, what George Bernard Shaw described as the greatest of evils and worst of crimes—poverty.
Tom Crean’s penury is more easily dealt with than the complexities of political and social life in Ireland during the 1920s and 1930s. Crean was one of ten children born to impoverished hill farmers outside the small Kerry village of Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula. Education was rudimentary, and youngsters like Crean were of more value to the family working in the fields than studying mathematics or writing essays. Crean left school with little more than the ability to read and write, a significant fact that would contribute to his later profile.
Most of the men who travelled on the early polar expeditions were from the middle classes, went to public schools and universities or were products of officer training school. Shackleton, for example, went to London’s prestigious Dulwich College, while Scott entered the naval training college at the age of thirteen and spent his entire life in uniform. Writing came naturally to the middle classes of the time, and these men left behind a seemingly endless supply of diaries, letters, paintings and photographs for the archives.

With his pony, ‘Bones', on the same expedition. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

With his pony, ‘Bones’, on the same expedition. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

Crean prepares for the trek to the South Pole with Captain Scott in 1911. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

Crean prepares for the trek to the South Pole with Captain Scott in 1911. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

 

Many, like Shackleton, even wrote books about their exploits and became celebrities. It is a bountiful legacy that ensured that historians were able to write a shelfload of books about a few figures like Scott and Shackleton. Shackleton alone has generated four major biographies and countless related books, while there is an even larger body of works about Scott.
However, it would be absurd to believe that these expeditions, which each lasted at least two years, were one-man shows, the preserves of the Scotts and the Shackletons. The reality is that these voyages would not have been possible without the substantial influence and contribution of characters from the ranks like Tom Crean. In contrast to the volume of documents available for the leaders, the archive material on Tom Crean is minimal. The poorly educated Crean wrote very little and left even less behind. Inevitably, his significance is constantly overlooked. For example, a recent film documentary on the epic crossing of South Georgia in 1916 shamefully reported that the journey was made by Shackleton, Worsley and ‘another man’. That other man was Tom Crean.

Career in the Royal Navy

Crean was fifteen years old in 1893 when he confronted the stark reality of life on a Kerry farm. Like countless young Irishmen and women, he chose to leave to seek a better life elsewhere. One obvious route was the British army or navy, a regular bolthole for generations of young Irish lads eager to escape the hardship of home. Crean was so desperate to escape that he lied about his age to sign up for the Royal Navy and only rarely returned to Ireland over the next three decades.

After Endurance sank, the explorers had to drag their lifeboat, James Caird, across the ice to the open sea. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

After Endurance sank, the explorers had to drag their lifeboat, James Caird, across the ice to the open sea. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

Crean enjoyed a distinguished career in the Royal Navy, climbing the ranks from the lowest level of Boy 2nd Class to Chief Petty Officer and finally to Warrant Officer. He spent eight years as a common naval ‘bluejacket’ before volunteering for Scott’s Discovery expedition in 1901 and becoming an explorer. By tradition, much British exploration—particularly to the Arctic and the Antarctic—was carried out under the auspices of the Royal Navy, either directly or indirectly. Discovery was overwhelmingly a Royal Navy operation, leavened with a few scientists and a civilian cook. Even private expeditions, like Shackleton’s Endurance voyages, were sea-faring enterprises, with naval men like Crean given special permission to join up for the duration.

Crean's pub, the South Pole Inn, Annascaul, County Kerry. (Michael Smith)

Crean’s pub, the South Pole Inn, Annascaul, County Kerry. (Michael Smith)

Crean remained in the Royal Navy for 27 years, until his retirement in 1920. But from 1901 onwards he spent more than half his time engaged on three different expeditions to the Antarctic—first with Discovery (1901–4), then Scott’s tragic Terra Nova expedition (1910–13) to the South Pole, and finally Shackleton’s disastrous Endurance venture (1914–16). He might have gone south a fourth time, but turned down Shackleton’s pleas to join him on the Quest in 1921.

Changed circumstances in 1920s Kerry

Tom Crean left the navy and returned to Kerry in March 1920, at a time and in the very place where the Irish War of Independence was at its height. He discovered a totally different political environment to that which he had known when he left Ireland as a teenager in 1893. Now any association with the British was more unpopular than ever, especially in the heartlands of staunchly republican Kerry. Only a month after coming home Crean was given a stark first-hand example of the depth of feeling. Cornelius Crean, his brother and a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, was ambushed and shot dead in Cork. Crean, a pragmatic man with a genius for survival in the most hostile environments, took evasive action. In the difficult circumstances, he sensibly chose to keep a low profile and decided not to speak about his past life and exploits in the Antarctic with Scott and Shackleton.
It was a firm discipline that Crean maintained for the rest of his life. While today a famous polar explorer might employ a smooth-talking public relations executive to promote his image or generally raise his profile, Crean remained tight-lipped and spoke to no one about his life. In 1927 he opened a pub in Annascaul. Obviously feeling that the passions of the war had cooled by then, he felt able to call it the South Pole Inn. But when visitors dropped in to see the renowned explorer Crean would politely make his excuses and leave. Tom Crean lived in Annascaul until his death in 1938, and all those alive today who remember him share one common memory—that he never spoke about his life as an explorer. Never once did Tom Crean give an interview to a journalist or an author. Even his two surviving daughters were told precious little about his adventures.

Crean’s politics

Crean’s personal politics on his return to Ireland are a little more difficult to pin down, which is hardly surprising given the sensitivity of the times and his understandable reluctance to stick his head above the parapet. What is known is that Crean was undoubtedly proud of his Irish roots, although he was not politically active. His credentials were aptly demonstrated on the first trip to the Antarctic on the Discovery expedition in 1902. A British naval officer, Lt Michel Barne, recorded that Crean’s sledge flew ‘an Irish ensign—consisting of a green flag with a jack in the corner and a gold harp in the centre’.

Crean the family man in the late 1920s, with wife Nell and daughters Mary (left) and Eileen. (Crean Family)

Crean the family man in the late 1920s, with wife Nell and daughters Mary (left) and Eileen. (Crean Family)

Those who remember him in Annascaul say that he was a supporter of Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil. A further indication of his loyalties is the connection with the martyr Thomas Ashe, whose family were near neighbours of the Creans on the Dingle Peninsula. Crean had run off to the navy with a member of the Ashe family in 1893, and 25 years later became embroiled in the fall-out from Thomas Ashe’s death. Crean’s wife, Nell, attended a demonstration in support of Ashe and the troops raided their home in retaliation. It was suggested that at one point Crean was lined up against a wall to be shot when troops found a British flag in the house, a souvenir from Crean’s naval service. He was immediately released. Crean also played a vital role in saving the life of a local man who was accused of involvement in an IRA ambush. Crean told police that he had seen the man working in the field opposite at the time of the raid and the prisoner was released. Obviously Crean’s naval background carried some crucial extra weight with the RIC.
Despite his British associations, Crean managed to come to terms with the changed political environment. He was a practical, sharp-witted man who was apparently capable of steering his way through the political sensitivities of the time while retaining his own powerful sense of identity. The fact that his pub was called the South Pole Inn demonstrates that Crean was justly proud of his past, yet he was comfortable with the realities of day-to-day life in Kerry. He integrated into the community and was by all accounts a popular figure in the village of Annascaul, where he was affectionately known as ‘Tom the Pole’. His funeral was a major event and friends carried his coffin on their shoulders through the village to his final resting-place. But the price of peace was silence. Tom Crean lived quietly, never once raising his profile or speaking publicly about his extraordinary life.
Today, more than 80 years after his homecoming, it is possible to put Crean into the correct context and to celebrate a great Irishman. My biography of him was a best-seller; the legendary Sir Edmund Hillary travelled from New Zealand to open the fine public exhibition about Crean in Tralee; television and radio programmes have celebrated his feats; a one-man play has been staged; and later this year a statue of Tom Crean will be unveiled outside the village of Annascaul. Recognition of a different sort has come through the Guinness television advertisement built around the explorer-publican. Ireland, it seems, has finally discovered Tom Crean.

Michael Smith is a specialist writer on polar exploration.

Further reading:
R.T. Dwyer, Tans, terror and troubles: Kerry’s real fighting story, 1913–1923 (Cork, 2001).
M. Smith, An unsung hero—Tom Crean (Dublin, 2000).

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