Tom Crean, County Kerry’s Polar Hero

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Tom Crean is County Kerry’s polar hero. Tom Crean was a key member of several early Antarctic exhibitions. Tom Crean (1877-1938)

Crean crammed more drama and excitement into his time in the Antarctic wilderness 100-years-ago, than most manage in a lifetime. As a work of fiction his life would be dismissed as too farfetched.

He ran away from home at 15 and served on three epic voyages of discovery with Captain Robert Scott and Sir Ernest. Shackleton. The indestructible Crean spent longer on the ice and snow than both Scott and Shackleton.

Crean came from Anascaul on the Dingle Peninsula. At the age of 15 he signed up for the British Navy and in later life was a member of three of the four British Antarctic expeditions in the vessels Discovery (1901-04), Terra Nova (1910-13) and Endurance (1914-16).

Both Scott and Shackleton saw Tom Crean as a crucial member of their expeditions and Shackleton saw Tom Crean as a personal friend, Shackleton`s letters to Crean reflect immense warmth and liking for the Kerry man, whose physical and mental strengths were outstanding. And that from a Kildare man is something else.

When Endurance was trapped and crushed in the ice and the crew sailed in small boats to Elephant Island, Shackleton chose Crean as one of the small crew that continued on the epic 800 mile sea voyage from Elephant Island to South Georgia to bring help to their stranded companions.

Tom Crean also served through World War 1 and retired in 1920.

Shackleton wanted Crean to accompany him on his final expedition on The Quest in 1921 but Crean declined.

Tom Crean had spent more time on Antarctica than either Scott or Shackleton.

After completing his last expedition Crean returned to his home village of Anascaul Kerry where he married. He opened his pub, The South Pole Inn, at Annascaul , married and had three daughters. Crean’s later life was quiet and unassuming, like the man himself. But Crean was employed in the British navy during his years in the Antarctic and any association with the Brit`s was inevitably unpopular, for some it was even fatal.

His elder brother, a sergeant in the Royal Irish constabulary was ambushed and shot dead near Cork at around the time Crean arrived home.

In the difficult circumstances Crean took a vow of silence and never spoke to anyone about his exploits in the Antarctic in the pay of the British navy.

By a bitter twist of irony a few months later Crean’s weighty testimony saved a man from execution by the Black and Tans. The Tans, it appears, reprieved the condemned man because the word of an ex British sailor counted for something extra.

When people travel to the South Pole Inn to see the explorer Crean would sink into background. Even his family were kept in the dark about his exploits and before long Tom Crean had faded into the distant memory. He died in 1938, taking his dramatic story to the grave.

But his tale is the stuff of legends. He was one of 10 children born into a poor farming community in the lush green hills of Kerry in 1877. At 15, he ran away from home, lied about his age and joined the mighty British navy with the quaint rank of Boy 2nd Class.

In 1901. Crean volunteered to join Captain Scott’s expedition ship, Discovers which, in 1910, was making the first major attempt to explore the unknown Antarctic continent.

The expedition would last for more than two years. Totally out of contact with civilisation territory where no human had previously set foot. And it was Crean’s steadfast reliability and cheerful resourcefulness marked him out from most men.

He became a key figure on the disastrous expedition, hauling a sledge to within 240km of the South Pole before being ordered to return to base camp.

On the 1200km journey, Crean performed the greatest single-handed act of bravery in the history of Antarctic exploration. One man collapsed with scurvy and Crean and his only other companion dragged the dying man for hours before their strength and food supplies finally gave out 55km from safety.

With death staring them in the face, Crean volunteered to march that final 55km alone. It was a hazardous journey across treacherous crevasses in sub-zero temperatures and his only food was two sticks of chocolate and three biscuits. He had no sleeping bag or tent and was already exhausted. BUT Cream’s incredible strength and endurance carried him through and the sick man survived.

The Kerryman was awarded the Albert Medal, then the highest award for gallantry. A few months later, Crean returned to the ice to bury the frozen body of Captain Scott who perished on the way back from the South Pole, in 1912.

While mere mortals might have hung up their snowshoes, Crean went straight back to the ice in 1914 with Shackleton on the Endurance expedition – the most incredible tale of survival in the history of exploration.

Endurance was crushed in the Weddell Sea in 1915 and 28 men survived for months on drifting ice floe before sailing their small lifeboats across stormy seas to reach the uninhabited Elephant Island. Leaving 22 men marooned on the rocky beach, Crean joined Shackleton and four others to sail the 22ft James Caird across the Southern Ocean to the South Georgia whaling stations.

The 17-day crossing of the wildest sea on earth in an open boat was among history’s most challenging ever taken. Crean, Shadkleton and the navigator Worsley, used up their last reserves of strength to walk across the forbidding mountains, and glaciers of South Georgia to reach the whaling stations. The 65km hike took a painful 36 hours.

All three men later confessed to feeling the mysterious presence of a ‘fourth person’ guiding them on their exhausting slog and a little later the poet, T.S. Eliot alluded to it in his famous poem, The Waste Land.

It took another four months to find a ship and battle through the ice to rescue the 22 castaways left behind on Elephant Island. As the boat was being guided towards shore, Crean stood up and threw cigarettes and tobacco to the men. It was Tom Cream’s last act as an explorer.

Fortunately, Tom Cream’s achievements are now receiving proper recognition. Apart from Dooley’s successful play, a statue has been erected outside Cream’s home in Anascaul and Guinness have themed a TV advertisement about him.

Dooley has also been invited to perform his award-winning play in the Antarctic in three years’ time. Children in Irish schools are now being taught about Crean.

Read about the Antartic Rescue Tom Crean and Ernest Shackleton undertook: An Epic Rescue.

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Tom Crean

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