Leaving Annascaul – The Tom Crean Generation.
How a young Annascaul man, became an Antarctic explorer.
On January 4th 1912, Tom Crean and Captain Robert Falcon Scott, shook hands, embraced and parted company for the very last time. They were situated 150 miles from the South Pole, on Antarctica’s unforgiving polar plateau. Crean would return to base as part of the last support party, with Edward Evans and Bill Lashly, whilst Scott would make a final push for the pole, taking with him Oates, Wilson, Bowers and Edgar Evans.
That he had not made the final cut for the Pole Party, was no refection of Scott’s opinion of Crean, in terms of his ability for the task. Quite the opposite in fact.
After taking three 4-man sledging teams up the Beardmore Glacier, Scott’s original intention, was for two of them to return to base, during the journey, whilst he would proceed as part of the last four man unit.
The First Supporting Party which consisted of Atkinson, Cherry-Garrard, Wright, and Keohane, turned back as planned, in latitude 85º 15′ on December 22, 1911. But on January 3rd, Scott informed the seven remaining men of a significant permutation to the original plan. He had decided to bring four men southwards with him, and send the last support party home, as a three man team.
Scott had not decided upon, or assigned any definitive role, regarding sledging teams before departure. This astute move allowed him to monitor the men, over the course of the gruelling journey, and make his ongoing selections, based on these observations of performance and health.
Crean’s potential place on the team was always likely to have been a choice between himself and Edgar Evans. That Scott chose Evans and opted to send Crean back, says more about his opinion of the Irishman, than one may imagine. It is often argued that Tom Crean was the fittest and most capable of the men that stood with Scott on the plateau that day, and should therefor have been selected for the Pole Party; whereas in actual fact, Crean was most likely sent back with a team that was a man short, because of that very fact.
A cruel twist of Fate? Most definitely not! One of the most quoted sentiments about Tom Crean, is that if Scott had included him in the Pole Party, they would all have survived. This of course we will never know for certain, and opinions are no doubt clouded by Crean’s heroics as part of the Last Support Team. What we can say for certain is that Lt. Edward Evans would have certainly died but for Crean’s inclusion in that team. His epic solo march, at the end of a gruelling 1,500 mile journey is the stuff of legend.
But could he have saved Scott and the Polar Party? Most probably not. Considering every aspect of their return, including surface conditions, the evaporation of cached fuel, severely low temperatures, and the subsequent results of frostbite, fatigue and diminishing daily distances; it is safer to suggest that no-one could have saved the doomed men, the last of whom (Scott, Wilson and Bowers) died 11 miles short of One Ton Depot.
Crean’s input may certainly have seen them reach the depot, but that, and subsequent possibilities thereafter, can only be consigned to the realms of conjecture. It is more realistic to say that Scott, by way of not selecting him, actually saved Tom Crean’s life. That twist of fate, saw Crean heroically save Edward Evans, and later play an integral role in the epic survival story that was the Endurance Expedition.
From Annascaul to Antarctica.
So how did Tom Crean – the son of a poor farmer from Co. Kerry – find himself, on the polar plateau, not just shoulder to shoulder with Captain Scott, but as one of his most trusted and admired team members? Both men had come from such diverse backgrounds. Tom Crean was born near the village of Annascaul, Co. Kerry, on 25th February 1877, and was one of Patrick and Catherine (née Courtney) Crean’s ten children. Life would have been hard for the Crean’s, and they probably knew little other than extreme poverty.
Nineteenth century Ireland was a desolate place. Ruled by England, the country had been carved up during the 17th century, into landed estates, which were handed out to Lords and nobles. From the early 1700’s monumental houses of lavish and obscene grandeur were constructed as family homes by the landlords. The plight of the Irish who became their tenants, and tried to eke out a living on their tiny plots of holding, were simply wretched. Families toiled endlessly, in extreme hardship, simply to meet their rent requirements and put some food on the table for their children. Failure to pay rent, saw many families evicted from their homes, and the diet of the Irish peasant relied heavily upon the disease prone potato crop.
Famine stalked the Irish, most notably the Great Hunger 1845 – 1849 where over 1,000,000 people died of starvation, whilst the Government continued to export food from the country. As many and more had managed to scrape together enough money to emigrate.
As a young boy, Tom Crean would have worked hard on the family farm, at Gurtuchrane, as would his siblings. His parents no doubt fretted endlessly regarding the performance of their potato crop, so crucial was it to their very existence.
Tom would have received a basic education at the nearby Catholic school at Brackluin, probably leaving at the age of 12, to work the farm with his father. The school building is long since gone, but Tom, like most Irish children of that time, would probably have walked there barefoot, each morning.
As a child Robert Falcon Scott, affectionately known to his family as Con, rode his beloved pony Beppo, to school in Stoke Damerel. Born at Oatlands, which was the Scott family home in Devon, on June 6th 1868, Con found himself in very comfortable circumstances. His father John Edward Scott, along with his three brothers had all served in the Royal Navy, and from a very early age, it had been decided that this was the career path for young Robert. He was a Navy cadet at the age of 13, and prospered, becoming a cadet captain at 15. His Royal Navy life, and indeed his life in general continued to flourish, until financial disaster struck in 1894, and his father’s fortune was lost. So serious was the situation, that some of the family servants ‘had to go at this period.’*
To his credit, as well as deciding to look after his own bedroom, such was the servant crisis, Scott became the main provider for the family thereafter. In 1899 after a chance meeting with Sir Clements Markham, in London, Scott learned of Markham’s plans to send an exploratory expedition to Antarctica. The following day Scott contacted Markham and volunteered to command the expedition. Markham was elated, as he saw him as the perfect candidate for the pioneering venture, having closely monitored his rise through the Navy. Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic career was about to set sail.
For Tom Crean and his classmates, there were few career options, outside of the daily existence battle on family farms. The long term prospect of such a life, was that upon the death of the family patriarch, the farm would be divided into subplots and distributed between remaining children; who in turn would face the daunting future of trying to provide for their own families, on a piece of land which was a fraction of the size of that which their own parents had struggled to provide for them upon.
To avoid such a life, the choices were pretty grim – emigration, joining the Royal Navy, the R.I.C. or enlisting in the British Army. Emigration was only an option for those that could afford it.
Tom’s home county of Kerry had the highest emigration rate in Ireland, between the years 1891 – 1911. In 1841, the census had determined the population of the county at 295,00, but the 1911 census, showed that the population of Co. Kerry had fallen to 160,000.
Immigration from Co. Kerry 1861 – 1911
As earlier stated, Tom Crean was born on February 25th 1877, and on the previous day, in the village of Annascaul, there had been another new arrival! John O’Mahoney was born in Annascaul, on February 24th, 1877, to his proud parents James O’Mahoney and Bridget Shea. No doubt Tom Crean and John O’Mahoney were friends, as they would have attended school together. But in 1892, John emigrated to America. This no doubt left Tom pondering what his future would hold. It is most probable that he considered the possibility of emigrating, but equally as probable that his parents could not afford his passage, which greatly narrowed his career choice.
For a young Irishman to join the British Army, at a time when Nationalism was firmly taking root across the country, was basically not advisable. Such an act was considered outrightly traitorous, yet somehow joining the Royal Navy was not deemed such a grave offence. And that is what Tom Crean chose. The proximity of the naval recruitment office at nearby Minard, assuredly was a factor in his decision. Tom Crean officially enlisted in the Royal Navy, on July 10th 1893.
His friend John O’Mahoney would prosper in America. He joined the priesthood, and was ordained in 1904. Two years later he became head of St. Viator’s College, Chicago, at the age of 28, and was reported to be the youngest college president in the United States, at that time. He was one of the founders, and first president of the National Catholic Educational Association, and from 1915-1916, was the CEO of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.
Whilst he was Provincial of the Order of St. Viator, Fr. O’Mahony was summoned to the scene of a shooting in the city of Chicago. The man who had requested his presence, and who lay dying on the street, having been shot by the police, he recognised as former school friend, Dan Sullivan, from Annascaul. Dan, who had been living under an Italian alias, disclosed his true identity to his former schoolmate, and soon after died.
Fr. O’Mahoney defied the then Bishop of Chicago, Cardinal Mundelein, by both attending the funeral of Dan Sullivan, and reading the burial service. For his loyalty to his former friend, and for disobeying the orders of the Bishop, Fr. O’Mahoney was reported to the Vatican, where he had to travel to defend himself. He ultimately won his case, and was exonerated.
Tom Crean’s formative years in the Royal Navy would have been extremely tough! The life of the young Navy recruits was one of hard work and very strict discipline; with regular use of canings and the dreaded birch, meted out for even minor indiscipline.
HMS Impregnable, at Devonport, was the vessel, Crean was initially trained upon. Conditions aboard, for the 16 year old, and his fellow recruits, would have been pretty dire, overcrowded and unsanitary. The drudgery of their draconian daily routine was only punctuated by inadequate meals and allotted sleeping time.
There must have been many occasions when the young Irishman would have questioned his decision to enlist, but perhaps it was the prospect of the possibilities that lay ahead, that pulled him through.
Not that Tom Crean, would have ever dreamt of a career as an Antarctic explorer, at that, or indeed any other stage. Crean’s training continued on numerous different vessels, including Devastation, Wild Swan and he eventually joined the Navy’s torpedo school ship, Defiance. In February 1900, Crean was posted to Ringarooma, a torpedo vessel which was part of the Royal Navy’s New Zealand Squadron.
In 1901 Ringarooma was ordered to head to the New Zealand port of Lyttelton, to assist Robert Falcon Scott, as he readied his ship, Discovery, for a pioneering expedition to Antarctica.
One of the Discovery crew, a man named Harry Baker, was involved in a dispute, and struck an officer. Baker fled, rather than face his punishment, and now Scott’s crew was a man short.
Realising his only hope of replenishing his number lay with Captain Rich of the Ringarooma, Scott approached him with the request for one of his men. When the call went out for a volunteer, it was Tom Crean who took up the challenge.
So, completely by chance, and due to the indiscretion of one Harry Baker, the 24 year old Irishman was soon on his way to Antarctica. Few could have foreseen that this was the opening chapter in a story of heroic bravery, compassion and endurance, forged on ice, sea and land, over the course of three Antarctic Expeditions. The story of a boy, whose life circumstances in a bleak, late 19th century Ireland, saw him seek a future in the Navy of the occupying forces that ruled his country. The story of a boy who left Annascaul, Co. Kerry, to become a man, a sailor, an explorer, but most of all, a legend!
Smith, Michael (2000). An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor. London: Headline Book Publishing
Photographs of Annascaul – from the Lawrence Collection – National Library of Ireland
* The Voyages Of Captain Scott
HOW THE NATION STARVED WHILE THE COUNTRY WAS FULL OF FOOD Important paper by Limerick Redemptorist HOW THE Irish nation starved at a time when the country was full of food was told in an important paper read by Rev. M. Minihan, CSSr., Limerick, to a recent meeting of the Old Limerick Society, Mr. Thomas F.