My interest in Tom Crean can be traced back to childhood. I picked up a book from the school library about Captain Scott’s last expedition when I was 13 or 14 years old. It was essentially a picture book and I was captivated by the evocative images and dramatic story. I was always fascinated by history and that modest book started a life-long interest in Polar exploration.
I read more about the subject in later years and began to collect old second-hand books, including the modest little picture book, which started the whole affair. I have it on my bookshelves to this day.
The more I read about Polar history the more often I came across the name Tom Crean. He featured in most books about Scott or Shackleton and I searched for a book about him. I was astonished to find that no one had ever written a book about a man whose exploits were central to the age of Antarctic exploration. In fact, very little had been written about Crean anywhere and much of the earlier stuff was vague and inaccurate. I also discovered there was little information in the archives. Therefore, I resolved to write a book myself.
The process of researching and writing An Unsung Hero – Tom Crean took three years of combing archives and libraries, interviewing the people still alive who remembered Tom and digging into the crucial wider themes such as Irish history and the growth of Antarctic exploration in the first decades of the 20th century.
I soon realised why no one had bothered to write a biography of Tom Crean. Tom was not well educated and unlike many of his colleagues on the expeditions, he left virtually nothing behind. He did not keep a diary and only a few original letters have survived. He never gave a single interview to authors or journalists after coming back from the Antarctic. To dig into Tom’s character, I had to delve into the archives and books to see what others said about him at the time. It was like holding a mirror up to someone’s life and helps explain why the process took three years.
At the same time, I was having great difficulty finding a publisher who would publish my book. It is fashionable for authors to speak about their books being rejected by publishers, but in this case, my experience is perfectly true. Most publishers responded by saying the Tom Crean story was just another book about Scott or Shackleton. Others did not bother to reply.
I never lost faith in the strength of Tom’s incredible story and by an extraordinary twist, the owner of The Collins Press publishers in Cork was looking for someone to write a biography of Tom. Happily, we eventually bumped into each other and the book subsequently became the No 1 best-seller (non-fiction) in Ireland and has been published around the world.
An Unsung Hero – Tom Crean has become a global success. It has inspired a one-man play, TV documentaries and even a TV advertisement by Guinness. I also adapted the story for younger readers by writing The Iceman. This led to the story being adopted onto the school’s curriculum in Ireland, which means for the first time the life of Tom Crean can be told to future generations. This has been hugely gratifying.
My sincere thanks to Michael Smith, for providing Tom Crean Discovery, with an insight into the origins of his book, An Unsung Hero – Tom Crean.
An Unsung Hero – Tom Crean, by Michael Smith, is the only full biography of Tom Crean, in publication.
Had the book been a tome of fiction, it could easily have been dismissed as too far fetched, and so highly improbable, as to border upon the ridiculous. But it is a true story, of a real man, who’s amazing tale was almost lost to history, were it not for the ambition, and excellent research of Michael Smith, who plucked the story from obscurity, and preserved it for us. For this we owe Michael Smith a debt of gratitude.
Michael Smith – Books
An Unsung Hero – Tom Crean (The Collins Press; Hodder Headline; The Mountaineers Press), 2000
I Am Just Going Outside: The Tragedy of Captain Oates (The Collins Press; Spellmount)
Polar Crusader: A Life of Sir James Wordie (Birlinn)
Tom Crean – An Illustrated Life: Unsung Hero of the Scott & Shackleton Expeditions (The Collins Press)
Captain Francis Crozier: Last Man Standing? (The Collins Press)
Great Endeavour: Ireland’s Antarctic Explorers (The Collins Press)
Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer (The Collins Press and Oneworld Publications)
Tom Crean – Ice Man: The Adventures of an Irish Antarctic Hero (The Collins Press)
Shackleton – The Boss: The Remarkable Adventures of a Heroic Antarctic Explorer (The Collins Press) 2004