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Book Review of ‘Crean – The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero’

Crean: The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero (Keel Foley Publishing, 2018)

In Crean: The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero Tim Foley skillfully balances thorough research with vivid narrative. A naval recruit from a farm near Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula, Tom Crean (1877-1938) served on three expeditions to the South Pole, rising to amazing challenges in order to ensure the survival of his comrades. Scrupulous to substantiate every detail with evidence, Foley astutely distinguishes the wood from the trees by focusing the book’s main thrust on Crean’s four most extraordinary exploits, two during the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott (1910-1913) and two with Shackleton on the Endurance (1914-1916). The central chapters of the book are therefore entitled ‘Tom the Jumper’, ‘Tom the Walker’, ‘Tom the Sailor’ and ‘Tom the Climber’.

No bragger himself, Crean’s astonishing feats of courage and endurance were recounted by the shipmates he saved. Lieutenant Teddy Evans (later Admiral and then 1st Baron Mountevans) never forgot that he owed his life to seamen Tom Crean and William Lashley who, during Scott’s final attempt on the Pole, refused Evans’s order to save themselves by abandon him as he was dying of scurvy. Leaving Evans with Lashley, Crean trekked the last 35 of their 800-mile march to base and rescue. Evans’s gratitude extends through the generations to his grandson Julian who provides the Foreword to this book. The challenges of Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition are detailed in films such as Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure (2001) with Kevin Spacey and the TV mini-series Shackleton with Kenneth Branagh (2001). ‘The Greatest Survival Story of All Time’ (the TV series’ subtitle) ended with what has been judged ‘one of the greatest boat journeys ever accomplished’: 800 miles on the roughest ocean on earth in a 6.9 metre open boat. Crean was one of the five who accomplished that feat, following it with a 36-hour march across the uncharted mountains of South Georgia.

As significant as Crean’s physical courage and stamina was his character, friendly, cheerful, optimistic. Calm and confident in the face of danger or catastrophe, his wit, banter and tuneless singing carried his companions through the direst of ordeals. Foley quotes Joseph Foster Stackhouse who planned another British Antarctic Expedition but went down with the Lusitania when it was torpedoed by the Germans in 1915. Commenting on Crean’s march to save Evans, that ‘ten miles of such a walk which would have sent hundreds of men clean out of their minds’, Stackhouse declared: ‘Crean [was] an Irishman with an incorrigible sense of humour … There should be an Irishman on every expedition’.

Crean married in 1917 and in 1920 retired to his native Annascaul on Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula, opening a pub which he later called The South Pole Inn. Content with a daily life of family and friends and modest in character, he did not talk about his exploits, although they were well-known in polar circles. Foley’s text is interspersed with reproductions of newspaper clippings which, interesting in themselves, give the reader an idea of the intermittent local attention Crean attracted. However, it took Michael Smith’s An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean, Antarctic Survivor (Cork: Collins Press, 2000) to put him on the explorers’ map. He has since become an iconic figure, featuring in Guinness advertisements and in the Irish primary school curriculum. He is the hero of a popular one-man play, while one of Norwegian Airlines’ airplanes bears his name. Tim Foley spearheads a Facebook campaign, ‘Ireland Should Honour Tom Crean’, appealing to the Irish government to recognize Tom Crean as an Irishman worthy of national acclaim.

This book advances on Michael Smith’s findings by meticulous research, both archival and online. Foley provides a clear account of the social and economic conditions in west Kerry inciting Crean, and so many of his contemporaries, to seek employment far from home. Essential to our understanding of Crean’s life and experience is the detailed account Foley gives of his entire naval career. The author is scrupulous in referencing all information while at the same time maintaining the flow of the narrative. Each chapter presents Crean’s extraordinary feats as an unbroken story, with a final note indicating the multiple sources from which it is derived. Crean’s post-Antarctic life is chronicled with the support of reliable oral history; newspaper accounts throw a light on how Crean negotiated his Irish identity over a period of great political change. The production values of this volume are striking: illustrations by Egle Gostautaite, impressive layout, chapter title pages supported by epigraphs, photographs, news clippings and sidebars. Comprehensive endnotes, bibliography and index facilitate the reader intent on further research.

Foley’s rigour in documenting his evidence engenders confidence in the reliability of his narrative. At the same time, he is aware of the fallibility of even official records. Smith identified Crean’s date of birth from Tom Crean himself. This reviewer has seen the ‘form of the passing certificate of qualifications in Seamanship for a Warrant Officer’, signed by Crean on 1 August 1917, on which he wrote his date of birth as ‘20 July 1877’. Researchers have since uncovered Crean’s civil birth certificate dated 25 February 1877. Until the advent of government bureaucracy – represented by such forms as that above – most citizens did not need to know their date of birth nor, indeed, their precise age. Tom would have had to ask his parents when he was born, a fact that to them would have been fairly vague. Catholic infants were baptised within a day or two of birth, while it would take country dwellers months before they visited the local town during office hours in order to register a birth with the authorities. Comparing church and civil records leads to many instances of Catholic babies apparently baptised months before they were born. Foley has identified Tom Crean’s baptism as performed on 16 February 1877, although his name is given as ‘Johanna’, where the ‘Th’ of ‘Thomas’ was mistakenly transcribed from a temporary record as ‘Joh’.

The explosion of online genealogy has led to many who sport the surname Crean in their Kerry ancestry to seek a relationship with the Antarctic explorer. Foley provides information on Tom’s siblings and their descendants, but only when supported by documented evidence. Other research has established that Tom’s grandfather, Hugh Crean (c. 1805-1893) married Mary Connell in Keelballylahive, near Castlegregory on the northern side of the Dingle Peninsula, where they started their family. Sometime in the mid 1840s they moved south to farm at Ballynasare Beg; some of their children, including Tom’s father Patrick, then moved nearby to farm at Gortacurrane near Annascaul, where Tom was born. Descendants of Tom’s aunts, uncles and even great-aunts and uncles may be able to establish a connection.

This carefully documented, well-organized volume offers the reader a full and gripping history of an unassuming Irishman whose extraordinary deeds put into practice a humanity and generosity which saved the lives of his comrades, lightening the darkest of times with courage and cheerfulness.

Jennifer FitzGerald

Jennifer FitzGerald was a lecturer at the Queen’s University Belfast who now lives in San Diego, California. Since her retirement she has published biographical and critical studies of the Irish medievalist, Helen Waddell. Her interest in Tom Crean has been lifelong, knowing that her maternal grandfather from Annascaul was Tom’s “cousin” but hampered by erroneous and misinterpreted records in pinpointing the precise connection. It was only by tracing Tom’s grandfather, Hugh Crean from Keelballylahive near Castlegregory on the northern side of the Dingle Peninsula, who moved in the 1840s to farm at Ballynasare Beg east of Dingle, and whose son Patrick (Tom’s father) then farmed at nearby Gortacurrane, that the relationship was established.

Jennifer is Tom Crean’s second cousin twice removed, descended from Hugh’s brother Jeremiah Crean who remained in Keelballylahive. Jennifer also has Dingle connections on her father’s side, as her London-born grandfather, Desmond FitzGerald, began his political career with the Irish Volunteers in 1914 in Ventry. The latter’s youngest son, her uncle, Garret FitzGerald, was Taoiseach in the 1980’s.

Book Review of 'Crean - The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero' Tom Crean Book

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