A few miles down the back road from The South Pole Inn pub in Annascaul, County Kerry, Ireland is Gortacurraun, the home where Patrick and Catherine Crean raised their large family of 11 children. Tom Crean was born here on February 16, 1877, at a time when opportunities were scarce in Ireland, where most were still falling on hard times after the famine years.
Helping raise a young family meant long, hard hours of cattle and field work just to save a family from starvation. The Crean family was no different and parents often called upon their children from an early age to help them earn a living.
When Tom was 12, he left school near Brackluin to work on the farm with his father. In 1893, after a series of petty arguments with his father, who for the last time found himself taking the blame for the cattle roaming his fields, young Tom Crean made an important decision. Like many young Irishmen of his day, Tom Crean decided to join the Navy. He was almost 16 and a half years old, not 15 as earlier accounts of his life have documented.
After a rigorous apprenticeship under a strict naval regime, one of Tom Crean's first naval assignments was the Pacific Station in South America. There during the service on boardHMS Royal Arthurhe got caught up in an international incident that threatened to escalate into a major conflict for a while. Fortunately, the incident in Corinto, Nicaragua ended peacefully. Tom Crean returned to England and continued to build up his arsenal of naval skills in shore training facilities.
It was later while stationed aboard in Australiamemory HMS24-year-old Crean's life would unexpectedly take a different turn, taking him to what could be considered his second home, Antarctica.
Robert F. Scott was a naval commander of great ambition, and the ship he commandedRRS discovery, would soon embark on a mission to explore the last great continent. The defection of one sailor led directly to the recruitment of another in the person of Tom Crean. The year was 1901 and a sailor, shortly after a sailor fled the ship after raising a non-commissioned officer's hand, prompted Scott to recruit Crean for his voyage south.
OdiscoveryThe expedition was famous for laying the groundwork for future attempts to break records for reaching the far south, but also for splitting the two leaders.
Shackleton was flown home by his commanding officer, Captain Scott, after falling ill while trying for the record. It was a decision Shackleton found difficult to make. His relationship with Scott soured from the moment he was sent home.
Frightened and discredited by his orders to return home, Shackleton decided to go it alone. After raising private funds, he returned to Antarctica aboardNimrod1907 to achieve the ultimate goal of reaching the South Pole. It was a goal that eluded him, but he achieved the coveted record of reaching the far south.
In this relentless pursuit of southern glory, the next attempt to reach the Pole fell to Scott, and the first person he trusted was Tom Crean. The Terra Nova Expedition sailed in 1910 and aboard the ship were several polar veterans, including Tom Crean and his friend Edgar Evans. Scott's second-in-command was Lieutenant Teddy Evans, and the name Evans became associated with Tom Crean for entirely different reasons.
ONew EarthThe expedition would be the first of three voyages by Tom Crean to Antarctica that would document his heroism. Returning from a mission to establish stores at One Ton Depot that would be crucial to Scott's attempt to reach the Pole, Crean's disregard for his own safety leads him to call for help from two colleagues who are trapped in a block of ice.
Crean was part of a team of three camped on the ice barrier for the night when, with no warning beyond the sounds of breaking ice, the three men became trapped in an isolated mound of ice. As the killer whales circled the ice floes and looked for their next meal, it was Crean who took the initiative, leaping from ice floe to ice floe and sailing to the frozen cliff to rescue his two colleagues.
His eventual heroics came at a time when Crean was weighing his chances of being among the pioneers negotiating their way to the South Pole.
Of the last eight men to reach the 170 miles of the Pole after an arduous trek through the unforgiving terrain of Antarctica, five were chosen to bask in the glory of being the first to reach the South Pole. Scott opted to let down his second-in-command, Lieutenant Evans, William Lashly, another hardy polar veteran, and a tearful Tom Crean. As Crean said goodbye to his colleagues, little did he know that it would be the last time he would see them alive.
At this point in history, news publications and history books naturally turn their attention to Scott's failed attempt to become the first person to raise a flag at the South Pole. However, it was an award that would go to Norwegian Roald Amundsen.
Another story of great heroism unfolded in the opposite direction when the three men from the returnees returned to Hut Point.
The hero of the play once again became Tom Crean and in a performance dubbed "the most heroic act of bravery in the history of polar exploration", Tom Crean undertook a solo march in deteriorating conditions to save the life of Lieutenant Teddy Evans. Evans had contacted Scurvy because there were about 100 miles left of his 800-mile journey.
Despite ordering his bearers to continue without him, Crean and Lashly, now loading their patient onto a sled, went ahead and disobeyed their commanders' orders to leave him behind. When Evans ordered the two men to move on and leave him to his fate, they refused and Crean told his dying commander:"If you leave, sir, we'll all leave together"
Thirty-five miles from the safety of the expedition's depot, Evan's condition deteriorated to the point where his porters believed he would not be able to survive the remainder of the journey unless he received urgent medical attention. It was decided that with a piece of chocolate and three biscuits as rations, Crean would undertake the task of getting to Hut Point by the quickest route possible - he did so on foot.
Within 18 hours and after an arduous trek in increasingly deteriorating conditions, an exhausted Tom Crean had summoned the help he needed to rescue his commander. His achievement was to earn him and his colleague Lashly, who stayed behind to care for the critical patient, the Albert Medal for outstanding bravery.
The safe return and recovery of one Evans was offset by the loss of another, his friend Taff Evans, who along with Scott and the rest of the Polar party lost their lives on the journey back from the pole. Edgar "Taff" Evans had already confided his ambitions to his friend Crean upon his return to the Gower Peninsula. He should buy an inn and call it the South Pole. Though undocumented, I believe Tom Crean's gesture boiled down to his good friend in the form of The South Pole Inn, which he himself opened in 1929, nine years after he retired from the Navy.
AfterNew EarthThe Crean Expedition sailed home and returned to naval service, but his days in Antarctica were not yet over, and in 1916, the continent he knew better than most men on the planet called to him again. This time, the request came from a former colleague atdiscoveryand Scott's rival Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton, unlike Scott, was a merchant marine, although he knew Crean's strengths from their naval years together.discovery expedition, he was now aware of Crean's remarkable accomplishments. It is clear that Shackleton valued Crean first among the crew he would recruit aboard for his last voyage.Resistancein an attempt to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent by land.
However, there was a rival for Crean's services. Joseph Foster Stackhouse is a name surprisingly absent from the polar books of the period, but he was supposed to lead the proposed British Antarctic expedition of 1914 which, had it gone ahead, would have clashed with Shackleton's shipboard expedition.Resistance. He was a leader who knew Crean's abilities very well and secured Crean's services before his plans were delayed. Stackhouse's expedition never took off and met a heroic end aboard the 1915Lusitania. It's another fascinating story that I documented in the book
Records, fame and adventure ran in Shackleton's blood, and although he and Crean shared the same birthplace, they came from opposite ends of the class spectrum. It didn't matter, however, and they enjoyed a close bond of mutual trust, loyalty and affection.
The expedition ran into trouble almost immediately when the ship got bogged down in thick continental ice. Despite the crew's best efforts to free her, plans had to be made to abandon her.Resistanceat a time when contact with the outside world was not an option in times of need.
Their mission has now inadvertently turned into a fight for survival with the crew of 28 towed provisions and 3 lifeboats in Antarctica. In its wake, theResistancesuccumbing to the grip of the ice and broken, she sank beneath her icy grave, which her crew witnessed from afar.
After an arduous and exhausting trek across shifting continental ice floes, failing in his journey to survive, the opportunity arose to man the lifeboats and head to the next destination, Elephant Island.
The three men commanding the three lifeboats were destined to go down in the history books for their unprecedented exploits through a failed expedition, in one of the greatest stories of survival and rescue ever documented. Shackleton piloted the largest of the three lifeboats, theJames Caird, War Captain of WorsleyDudley Dockerand the smallest of boats, therefore the most difficult to sail, theStancombe goWar Captain Tom Crean.
After a five-day voyage, the exhausted crew, exposed to the ravages of the unforgiving Antarctic landscape and drenched in freezing seawater, arrived exhausted at a small cove on remote and isolated Elephant Island.
With little chance of rescue, it was almost immediately decided that a self-rescue mission should be undertaken, and Shackleton chose Tom Crean from among his crew of six on the adapted.James CairdA lifeboat on an ambitious and seemingly impossible voyage across the notoriously dangerous southern seas to reach South Georgia, where civilization in the form of the whaling station at Grytviken lurks as the only hope of survival. The remainder of the crew would await rescue on Elephant Island, using the two remaining overturned lifeboats as their only shelter.
Through skilful navigation and after a journey of 14 days of unimaginable suffering, theJames Cairdand his crew of six miraculously reached South Georgia, but ended up at the opposite end of an island whose uncharted terrain had never been traversed. Their journey thus far has been unrivaled in the annals of human endurance, and the theme would continue as the only hope left was to take a route through the mountainous glaciers that make up the island's landscape.
The task fell to Shackleton, Worsley and Crean, and in a three-day trek through hostile mountainous terrain, with dangers around every corner and no navigation charts, the three men reached the sanctuary of the whaling station. Unrecognizable to the men who knew them, having left Stromness Bay some 18 months ago, they were met with disbelief at their exploits and tears at their ordeal.
The three main protagonists, Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean, exceeded what most thought was humanly possible with their determination to save lives, regardless of the potential danger to them. It was a trait not alien to Tom Crean, he had done it before and under different circumstances, his epic rescues would have put his name in the history books, but the Ireland he returned to was a changed country that absolutely wanted to break free of British rule.
Crean's retirement from the Navy in 1920 was forced after he was diagnosed with retinitis and his pension allowed him to set up business in licensed premises he and his wife operated from a house they owned in his home village of Annascaul. No doubt his friend Edgar Evans, Captain Scott and all his Antarctic colleagues were his thoughts when he later named his pub The South Pole Inn.
In retirement he led a uneventful life, running the pub with his wife while raising three daughters, of whom Kate died shortly before her fourth birthday. He also refrained from mentioning or talking about his life as an explorer, and many say this was because he served the British, the same power the hated Black and Tans used to assert their authority by brutally defending the people of Ireland. In fact, his reluctance to talk about his past was probably because very few people on the planet could understand what a person endured on a continent where extreme temperatures only left their mark on those who were there. Boasting was a quality so far removed from Tom Crean that it would be unthinkable for him to speak highly of his own accomplishments.
In 1938, Tom Crean died at the age of 61, and his funeral was the largest Annascaul had ever seen. He contracted peritonitis after being taken to Cork by ambulance when he was denied life-saving appendix surgery at Tralee Hospital, which is closest to where he lives, because there was no doctor on call to perform the operation when he was admitted.
Ironically, in his own hour of need, there was no one who could save him.
Tom Crean is buried a few miles from the South Pole Inn in a family tomb he built with his own hands and his memory is served opposite the pub where his statue, a privately funded bronze sculpture, the only acknowledgment is this brave irish in his native land.
My book,Crean - The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero, it has been as much a passion as it is a passion for me to see Tom Crean receive the recognition he deserves from the country he loved - an ambition that came to fruition on January 31, 2021, as a Crean research vessel was named RV Tom after a suggestion was made by one of the first signers of a petition I created in 2017.
The biography is an accurate, fully referenced volume that I consider the definitive account of Tom Crean's life and in 2020 I published an illustrated version for children ages 6-10.Tom the mighty exploreris a 132-page narrative written for children with 27 full-color illustrations, 4 maps and an interactive section, making it a fun and engaging way to learn the Tom Crean story.
For three and a half years, I researched some of the world's most respected archives to tell the story of Tom Crean, unearthing a considerable body of new information and addressing many untruths that have been written about this great man. All my research was submitted to the Royal Irish Academy in October 2020. They later responded to confirm that, given what I discovered, the article entry for Tom Crean in the internationally recognized Dictionary of Irish Biography should be revised. These changes will be made in March 2021 and hopefully will seep in and weed out previously written misinformation about Tom Crean over time. To determine the facts of Crean's story from the inaccuracies that have misinformed readers for many years,read the following post
I am very proud of what I transcribed, and the great feedback from those who have read the books confirms my belief that your story will inspire others as much as it has inspired me.
Click hereto learn more about the book and where to buy the different versions of the third edition.
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