Thomas Crean : Irish Antarctic explorer

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The ‘indestructible’ Thomas Crean (1877-1938) was born in Anascaul, Co. Kerry. He became an Antarctic explorer and a prominent figure on three major expeditions to Antarctica, on the Discovery 1901-4, Terra Nova 1910-13, and Endurance 1914-16, where he served as second officer to Ernest Shackleton. In 1912 he received the Albert Medal for Bravery. Crean is remembered in at least two place names : Mount Crean (2550 metres) in Victoria Land, and the Crean Glacier on South Georgia. There is a Thomas Crean Society’s memorial in Anascaul, Co. Kerry.

Legendary exploits

Born on 20 July 1877 into a family of ten of a poor small farmer, this adventurous Irish explorer ran away from home at the age of fifteen. Forging his age at sixteen, he was accepted as a recruit in the British navy. He learnt all that could be known about seamanship and began to climb the promotion ladder when he was appointed to the torpedo school.

Also studying this new weapon was Robert Falcon Scott, an English officer with ambitions to become a celebrated explorer in the Antarctic. Scott’s determination impressed his superiors, and he became the leader of two Antarctic expeditions in the years just before the First World War, bringing with him Thomas Crean (1901) and (1910), whose skill, courage and initiative he had divined. On Terra Nova, Captain Scott said he could only really trust a handful of people, one of whom was Crean.

When Ernest Shackleton, a former merchant seaman, born in Kilkea, Co. Kildare, took on the leadership of British Antarctic exploration he chose Crean as his main supporter in 1914. Crean’s exploits were legendary, perhaps above all in Shackleton’s fifteen-day voyage in the open boat, the James Caird, from Elephant Island to South Georgia.

On Endurance, like Scott, Shackleton deeply trusted Thomas Crean. After their ship was destroyed in the ice during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the crew had to sail the life boats across the Weddell Sea pack ice and then travel by boat to Elephant Island. When they arrived, they rebuilt one of the lifeboats - the James Caird and six of the men including Shackleton and Crean sailed to South Georgia for help.

This has become known as one of the most extraordinary small open boat journeys in history. Because they landed on the uninhabited south coast of South Georgia, three of the men, again including Shackleton and Crean, had to walk across to the other side in a remarkable thirty-six hour journey which was the first crossing of the mountainous island. They arrived at the whaling station at Stromness, tired and dirty, and prepared for the rescue of the other twenty-two men still on Elephant Island, twenty-two months after sailing from South Georgia.

Living History

A short Living History performance on Tom Crean was created by Galway’s Aidan Dooley for London’s National Maritime Museum’s Antarctic Exhibition ‘South’ in 2001. It has become a highly successful one-man show ‘Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer’ (written and performed by Aidan Dooley).

Following the publication of Michael Smith’s book ‘Unsung Hero’ the show was developed over a two year period with several small try-out performances in Ireland, including a performance in front of Crean’s remaining family at the Tom Crean Society’s memorial in Anascaul, Co. Kerry. The play has successfully toured Ireland and continues to be performed to sell-out audiences in countries on both sides of the Atlantic. Performed by Aidan Dooley, in Geneva, Switzerland on 17 October 2007, the sell-out show vividly brought Tom Crean’s story to an international audience.

‘The South Pole Inn’

After returning home, Crean saw service in the First World War, and retired from the navy in 1920. He married and opened up a small pub called ‘The South Pole Inn’. Throughout his life, Crean remained an extremely modest man. When he returned to Kerry, he put all of his medals away and never again spoke about his experiences in the Antarctic. He became ill with a burst appendix and died on 27 July 1938 before he reached the nearest hospital in Cork.

Background on Antarctica

Captain James Cook, Journal, February 1775, wrote about Antarctica. Lands doomed by nature to be everlasting frigidness and never once to feel the warmth of the sun rays, whose horrible and savage aspect I have no words to describe ; such are the lands we have discovered, what may we expect from those to be which lie more to the South, for we may reasonably suppose we have seen the best as lying more to the North, whoever has resolution and perseverance to clear up this point by proceeding farther than we have done, I shall not envy him the honour of the discovery but I will be bold to say that the world will not be benefited by it. Robert Falcon Scott, Journal, 17 January 1912, wrote Great God ! this is an awful place. Antarctica is the only continent without reptiles or snakes.

Four British expeditions took place to Antarctica. Two of these were led by Sir Robert Falcon Scott (1868-1912) aiming (amongst other more scientific goals) to reach the South Pole : 1901-1904 National Antarctic Expedition on Discovery and the 1910-1913 expedition on Terra Nova. With four companions, Scott made a journey to the South Pole by sledge, arriving there in January 1912 to discover that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) had beaten them by a month. Delayed by illness and blizzards, Scott and his companions died on the journey back to base only a few miles from safety.

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton (1874-1922) had accompanied Scott on the two previous expeditions. With a crew of twenty-eight men he led the third Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on Edurance 1914-1916 when his ship was embedded in the frozen Weddell Sea. He and his crew eventually reached an island from where he and five others set out in an open boat on an 800 mile, or l,300 kms., voyage to South Georgia to get help. This rescue operation has been called ‘one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished’. When he returned to retrieve his men, not one of them had died. The boat is preserved in his old school.

Scott’s death may have made him better known but without doubt Shackleton’s qualities of leadership were unsurpassed. ‘Sometimes I think I am no good at anything but being away with wild men’, he wrote to his wife in 1919. The qualities he valued were optimism, patience, physical endurance, idealism, and courage.

It has been said that polar exploration (for which he and Scott were knighted) appealed both to his poetic turn of mind and to his aspiration to secure position of fame in the class-riven world of his time. In 192l Shackleton set off in his fourth expedition again for his beloved Antarctica in the Quest. He died of a heart attack on 5 January 1922 at South Georgia, where he is buried. His last words to his doctor who attended him were ‘What, do you want me to give up now ?’

Ita Marguet, November 2007

Note : Acknowledgement is given to all sources of information used in preparation of this text. It follows a performance of Tom Crean Antarctic Exlorer. Written and Performed by Aidan Dooley the play was presented by the Geneva Literary Aid Society (GLAS) in Geneva, Switzerland, on 17 October 2007 as a fund raising event for the Global Network of People living with HIV AIDS. GLAS is supported by the Geneva Irish Association (GIA) and the Geneva English Drama Society (GEDS)

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