Published in18-19 - history of the century,20th century / contemporary history,Characteristics,Issue 2 (Summer 2003),Band 11
Tom Crean 1915 on board the Endurance, frozen in the Weddelmeer. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)
Few periods in history have produced such a wealth of remarkable stories as the heroic era of Antarctic expeditions some 100 years ago. A little over two decades of exploration have created a series of powerful dramas that capture the essence of discovery - endurance, courage and tragedy. Right in the middle was Tom Crean, a humble Kerryman whose extraordinary exploits made him almost as indestructible as human beings can be. But his incredible life remained shrouded in mystery for over 80 years, known only to a few polar enthusiasts or groups of dedicated supporters in Kerry. However, it would be impossible to write a history of Antarctic exploration without recognizing and celebrating the tremendous contribution he made.
Spent more time in Antarctica than either Scott or Shackleton
Tom Crean featured prominently in three of the four great British expeditions to Antarctica a century ago and has spent more time on ice and snow than any of the more famous and instantly recognizable figures from Sir Ernest Shackleton or Captain Robert Scott. And he survived both.
Crean first went south in 1901 with Scott's groundbreaking Discovery Expedition, where he served as a polar apprentice and learned the skills to survive in the most inhospitable place on earth. He returned a decade later when Scott made his ill-fated attempt to reach the South Pole in 1911. Crean was a key figure in the expedition, pulling a sled as far as 150 miles from 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 target, and just months later he returned to the ice to bury Scott's frozen body.
During the return to base camp, Crean performed the greatest act of bravery in the history of Antarctic exploration. When one of his companions, Lieutenant Evans, collapsed 35 miles from safety, the brave Crean volunteered to call for help. It was a perilous journey through treacherous terrain in sub-zero temperatures, and his only sustenance was two chocolate bars and three biscuits. He had neither a sleeping bag nor a tent and was physically exhausted after three months of walking and nearly 1,500 miles. His lonely journey lasted eighteen hours and earned him the Albert Medal, then the highest award for bravery.
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 navigate little James Caird through the Southern Ocean, the wildest seas on earth. He then walked 40 miles through the mountains and glaciers of South Georgia to bring rescuers to 22 comrades stranded on Elephant Island.
The recognition failed him
Tom Crean had accumulated more excitement and danger in a few years than most people manage in a lifetime. But recognition eluded him, and he fell into somewhat forgotten obscurity for most of the next 80 years. The reasons why history was cruel to Crean are twofold: first, post-independence Ireland politics; and second, what George Bernard Shaw described as the greatest evil and the worst of all crimes - poverty.
Tom Crean's poverty is more manageable than the complexities of political and social life in Ireland in the 1920s and 1930s. Crean was one of ten children of impoverished farmers in the hills outside the small Kerry village of Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula. Education was rudimentary and young men like Crean were worth more 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 add to his later profile.
Most of the men who traveled on the early polar expeditions were middle class, attended public schools and universities, or were products of officer school. Shackleton, for example, attended the prestigious Dulwich College in London, while Scott entered naval academy at thirteen and spent his life in uniform. Writing was second nature to the middle classes of the time, and these men left 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)
Crean prepares to travel 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's a rich legacy that has ensured that historians have been able to write a bookshelf full of books about figures like Scott and Shackleton. Shackleton alone has produced four major biographies and numerous related books, while there is an even larger work on Scott.
However, it would be absurd to think that these expeditions, each lasting at least two years, were one-man shows, the reserves of the Scotts and the Shackletons. The reality is that these journeys would not have been possible without the significant influence and contribution of characters like Tom Crean. In contrast to the documents available to executives, the archival material on Tom Crean is minimal. Poorly brought up, Crean wrote very little and left even less. Inevitably, its importance is constantly overlooked. For example, a recent documentary on the epic 1916 South Georgia crossing shamefully reported that the voyage was made by Shackleton, Worsley and "another man". That other man was Tom Crean.
Career in the Royal Navy
Crean was fifteen in 1893 when he was confronted with the harsh reality of life on a Kerry farm. Like countless young Irish and Irish people, he chose to leave to seek a better life elsewhere. One obvious route was the British Army or Navy, a regular haunt for generations of young Irishmen eager to escape the hardships of their homeland. Crean was so desperate to escape that he lied about his age to enlist in the Royal Navy and rarely returned to Ireland for the next three decades.
After the Endurance sank, the explorers had to tow their lifeboat, the James Caird, across the ice and out to sea. (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)
Crean enjoyed a distinguished career in the Royal Navy, rising through the ranks from the lowest level of Boy 2nd Class to Chief Petty Officer and finally Warrant Officer. He spent eight years as the "blue jacket" in the ordinary Navy before volunteering for Scott's Discovery Expedition in 1901 and becoming an explorer. Traditionally, much of British exploration - particularly in the Arctic and Antarctic - was carried out either directly or indirectly under the auspices of the Royal Navy. Discovery was predominantly a Royal Navy operation, acidified by a few scientists and a civilian cook. Even private expeditions like Shackleton's Endurance Voyages were maritime ventures, which sailors like Crean were given special permission to participate in during that time.
Pub Crean, South Pole Inn, Annascaul, County Kerry. (Michael Smith)
Crean remained in the Royal Navy for 27 years until he retired in 1920. But from 1901 onward he spent more than half his time on three different expeditions to Antarctica—first Discovery (1901–4), then Scott's tragic Newfoundland Expedition (1910–13) to the South Pole, and finally Shackleton's disastrous Endurance adventure (1914 -16). He may have gone south a fourth time, but he declined Shackleton's requests to join him in the quest in 1921.
Circumstances changed in Kerry in 1920
Tom Crean left the Navy and returned to Kerry in March 1920, at a time and place when the Irish War of Independence was at its height. He discovered a very different political environment from that 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 heart of hard-republican Kerry. Just a month after returning home, Crean received a direct example of the depth of feeling. Cornelius Crean, his brother and Sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, was ambushed and shot in Cork. Crean, a pragmatic man with a genius for surviving in the most hostile of environments, dodged. In the difficult circumstances, he wisely chose to keep a low profile and chose not to speak to Scott and Shackleton about his past life and exploits in Antarctica.
It was a solid discipline that Crean maintained for the rest of his life. While today a famous polar explorer might hire a well-spoken PR executive to boost his image or raise his profile, Crean has remained secretive and told no one about his life. In 1927 he opened a pub in Annascaul. Apparently he felt the passion for war had subsided by then and felt able to call it the South Pole Inn. But when visitors came to see it, the famous explorer Crean politely apologized and left. Tom Crean lived in Annascaul until his death in 1938, and all those alive today who remember him share a common memory - that he never spoke about his life as an explorer. Tom Crean has never given an interview to a journalist or author. Even her two surviving daughters have heard very little of her adventures.
Crean's personal politics on his return to Ireland are a little more difficult to pin down, which is not surprising given the sensitivities of the time and their understandable reluctance to stick their heads over the parapet. What is known is that Crean was undeniably proud of his Irish roots, although he was not politically active. His credentials were aptly demonstrated in 1902 on the first voyage to Antarctica as part of the Discovery Expedition. A British naval officer, Lieutenant Michel Barne, reported that Crean's sleigh carried an Irish ensign - consisting of a 'green flag with a monkey in the corner and a gold harp in the centre'.
Crean was a family man in the late 1920s with his wife Nell and daughters Mary (left) and Eileen. (create family)
Those who remember him in Annascaul say he was a fan of Eamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil. Another indication of his loyalty is his connection to the martyr Thomas Ashe, whose family were neighbors of the Creans on the Dingle Peninsula. Crean escaped to the Navy with a member of the Ashe family in 1893 and became implicated in the aftermath of Thomas Ashe's death 25 years later. Crean's wife, Nell, attended a demonstration in support of Ashe, and troops stormed her home in retaliation. It has been suggested that Crean was once lined up against a wall to be shot when troops found a British flag on the house, a reminder of Crean's naval service. He was released immediately. Crean also played an important role in saving the life of a local man accused of involvement in an IRA ambush. Crean told police he saw the man working in the opposite field at the time of the raid, and the prisoner was released. Apparently, Crean's naval background carried crucial additional weight with the RIC.
Despite his British associations, Crean was able to come to terms with the changing political environment. He was a practical and sensitive man who seemed able to push through the political sensitivities of the time while maintaining his own confidence. The fact that his pub was called the South Pole Inn shows that Crean was proud of his past but comfortable with the realities of daily Kerry life. He integrated into the community and was apparently a popular figure in the village of Annascaul, where he was affectionately known as 'Tom the Pole'. His funeral was a grand affair 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 a quiet life, never coming to the fore or speaking publicly about his extraordinary life.
Today, more than 80 years after his homecoming, it is possible to put Crean into context and honor a great Irishman. My biography of him was a bestseller; the legendary Sir Edmund Hillary traveled from New Zealand to open the beautiful Crean public exhibition at Tralee; Radio and television programs celebrated their achievements; an individual play was performed; and later this year a statue of Tom Crean will be unveiled outside the village of Annascaul. A different kind of recognition came through the Guinness TV commercial, which was built around the explorer publican. Ireland, it seems, has finally discovered Tom Crean.
Michael Smith is a writer specializing in polar research.
R.T. Dwyer, Tans, Terror and Troubles: The True Story of Kerry's Struggle, 1913-1923 (Cork, 2001).
M. Smith, A Hero Unsung - Tom Crean (Dublin, 2000).