Tom Crean (1877-1938) – an Irish hero
Tom Crean explored the Antarctic.
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 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 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’.
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.
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).