Irish hero of the week: Tom Crean

From childhood to explorations and awards, we look at the Irish hero of the week, Antarctic explorer, Tom Crean.

Whether it is due to primary school history or having been through Kerry at some point, many Irish people recognise the name, Tom Crean. Unfortunately, the story of Tom Crean is one which remains unbeknownst to many. This Kerry man is an unsung hero in the age of Antarctic explorations.

Here is everything you need to know about our Irish hero of the week: Tom Crean.

Early life

For his early life, he was born in Kerry and lived on a poverty-stricken farm.

Born in 1877 in Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Tom Crean was one of ten children. Life was tough, his family lived in harsh and poverty-stricken conditions on their farm. At the age of 12, Crean dropped out of school to help out on the family farm, as the family’s survival depended on the crop yield.

Following an argument with his father, fifteen-year-old Crean vowed to run away to sea. Seeking a better life like countless other Irish men and women, he joined the Royal Navy as part of the Queen Victoria’s fleet. For eight years, Crean worked his way up the ranks before becoming a Warrant Officer.

The Discovery expedition

Tom Crean is known for his involvement on the Discovery Expedition.
British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13

Much British exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic were carried out by members of the Royal Navy. In 1901 Tom Crean volunteered to join the crew of the ship Discovery as it voyaged southwards to explore the uncharted territory of Antarctica.

Crean took part in five major and treacherous journeys as part of the Discovery expedition. He was one of a group of twelve men who stood at 79º 15′ S, which was the furthest south any human had ever been before. He endured temperatures lower than -50ºC and falling through ice into freezing waters for almost two years.

When the Discovery expedition ended in 1904, Crean had established himself as a valuable member of the crew and as a result was promoted to Petty Officer 1st class. Due to the impression Crean left on the captain of the Discovery, Scott, he was requested to serve alongside him for several years.

The race for the pole begins

Tom Crean was part of the race to the South Pole mission.

In 1910 aboard the Terra Nova, Crean and Scott began their mission to finally claim the South Pole. Crean was crucial in the survival of the crew, as one night having pitched their tents on unstable ice, they found themselves adrift and surrounded by killer whales. He managed to leap from floe to floe before raising the alarm.

In November 1911 a large group of the Terra Nova crew departed Cape Evans on the 1,390 km (870 miles) trek towards the South Pole. At various points along the journey, teams were sent back until all but eight remained. When they were 150 miles short of the South Pole, Scott ordered Crean and two other men to return to Cape Evans.

Disheartened, Crean who was the fittest and strongest of the eight, and two others began the 750-mile trek to the Terra Nova. On January 4th, 1912 they waved off the five members of the Polar Party who were never to be seen alive again.

A man of bravery

Tom Crean disobeyed an order to leave a man behind, one of his noble  traits.

On the journey back to the Terra Nova, a crew member who was also sent back was unable to walk and gave the order to Crean to continue on without him. Crean disobeyed and hauled Evans across the ice on the sledge for many miles before deciding to go for help.

Less than 24 hours later Crean had a rescue team sent out to bring Evans back. Thankfully, Evans survived thanks to what is widely regarded as the single-most greatest act of bravery, in the history of exploration. Crean was awarded for his bravery by being presented with an Albert Medal in Buckingham Palace by King George.

Crean’s final expedition

Tom Crean's final expedition  took place aboard the Terra Nova.

A year after returning from the Terra Nova expedition under the eye of Shackleton, Crean returned to Antarctica. Aboard the Endurance, they faced enormous sea swells and high winds which caused the ship to sink. Although Crean and others survived the ordeal they unfortunately never made it to the South Pole.

Crean’s later life

Tom Crean opened the South pole Inn after his adventuring days.
Credit: @southpoleinn / Instagram

Following his final Antarctic expedition, Crean returned to Kerry in 1920 where any association with the British was very unpopular. For this reason, he decided to keep a low profile and not speak of his adventures in Antarctica, even to his three daughters.

In 1927, Crean opened a pub in his hometown called the “South Pole Inn,” which is still there to this day. However, as Crean never spoke to anyone about his expeditions, there are little records about it apart from the logs kept during them. Crean died in 1938, aged 61, after his appendix burst.

While having never made it to the South Pole, Crean played a crucial role in the discovery of Antarctica.  Although the Polar Party were narrowly beaten at being the first people to reach the geographic South Pole, they would never have made it without Crean. It is no wonder that Tom Crean is our Irish hero of the week!

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Aoife O'Mara is a travel-hungry 21-year-old from East Clare. Having returned from a gap year in Melbourne, she discovered a newfound appreciation for the place she calls home. Now studying communications and media production in Griffith College Dublin, she is also writing for the university's magazine. When not dreaming about future trips and adventures, she can be found petting dogs, exploring Ireland's lakes and rivers, and taking photos.