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 was an Irish seaman and Antarctic explorer from Annascaul, Co Kerry. He was a member of three major expeditions to Antarctica during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. He joined the Royal Navy at 15 years of age. Served on ‘Discovery’ from 1901–1904 and ‘Terra Nova 1910–1913 under Captain Robert Scott. This saw the race to reach the South Pole lost to Roald Amundsen and ended in the deaths of Scott and his polar party. During this expedition, Crean’s 35 statute miles (56 km) solo walk across the Ross Ice Shelf to save the life of Edward Evans led to him receiving the Albert Medal for Lifesaving.
After his Terra Nova experience, Crean’s third and final Antarctic venture was as second officer on Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, on ‘Endurance’. After ‘Endurance’ became beset in the pack ice and sank, Crean and the ship’s company spent months drifting on the ice before a journey in boats to Elephant Island. He was a member of the crew which made an open boat journey of 800 nautical miles (1,500 km) from Elephant Island to South Georgia, to seek aid for the stranded party.
Crean’s contributions to these expeditions sealed his reputation as a polar explorer, and earned him a total of three Polar medals. After the Endurance expedition, he returned to the UK in 1916. On 5 September 1917, Crean married, Ellen Herlihy, of Annascaul. Crean was retired on medical grounds on 24 March 1920 and moved back to Co Kerry. In his home town of Annascaul, Crean and his wife Ellen opened a pub called the ‘South Pole Inn’. The couple had three daughters, Mary, Kate, and Eileen, although Kate died when she was four years old.
When Crean returned to Kerry, 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 Co 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.
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.
In 1938 Crean became ill with a burst appendix. He was taken to the nearest hospital in Tralee, but as no surgeon was available to operate, he was transferred to the Bon Secours Hospital in Co Cork where his appendix was removed. Because the operation had been delayed, an infection developed, and after a week in the hospital he died on 27 July 1938, shortly after his sixty-first birthday. He was buried in his family’s tomb at the cemetery in Ballynacourty.
Photo: Colourised by Pete Vass