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.
While serving aboard the Fox, in April 1919, Crean had suffered a serious fall, causing a bad head injury, which would have lasting effects on his eyesight. Almost a year later, whilst serving on the Hecla, Tom Crean was declared medically unfit to serve, because of his defective vision, and the giant Irishman retired on medical grounds.
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.
In July 2003, a bronze statue of Crean was unveiled across from his pub in Annascaul. It depicts him leaning against a crate whilst holding a pair of hiking poles in one hand and two of his beloved sled dog pups in the other.