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The acquaintance of Tom Crean who preserved Kerry’s Antiquities

Among the many names included in those mentioned at the funeral announcement of Tom Crean in 1938, was one who appeared in the messages of sympathy. 

Commander Donal Bernard O’Connell who had, two years earlier, retired as a Captain from the Royal Navy, intrigued me. Donal happened to be the great-grand-nephew of The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, himself.

Born in Dublin in 1893, the year Tom Crean joined the Navy, it became evident he may have been a colleague of Crean given that O’Connell had entered the Royal Navy shortly before his 13th birthday in 1906. Destined for the commissioned ranks in 1911 he was promoted to midshipman and rose steadily up the ranks in what appears to be an exemplary record of service.

A look over his Naval record however, offered no hint of a closer connection between the two men so I dug a little deeper and found myself drawn into a fascinating story about a man with a passion to preserve County Kerry’s antiquities and ancient monuments.

In 1936 at the age of 43, Donal retired as a captain from the Navy, settled in Killarney, Kerry, at his family’s Lakeview House and undertook a long-held ambition for which he needed to recruit his Kerry compatriots. To do so, he announced his ambitions in a letter dated 16th September 1936, to the Kerryman newspaper in which he issued an appeal for help.

His mission? To undertake a survey of the historical monuments of County Kerry and to do the mammoth task he required the assistance of his county-folk. Over the course of the following two years the people of Kerry rallied to his cause and a substantial haul of archaeological finds were documented and donated.

The acquaintance of Tom Crean who preserved Kerry's Antiquities Tom Crean BookThroughout the course of the survey Donal would write a further 28 letters to the Kerryman thanking what he termed his ‘Helpers’ and the people for answering the call in their droves.

His letters detailed all of the finds and locations of and drew a groundswell of eager supporters who subscribed to playing a part in protecting their county’s rich heritage.

As there was, at the time of the survey, no Kerry museum capable of storing all of the portable artefacts found, they were housed in the ‘Kerry Collection’ at Cork University Museum. 

The survey would reveal many ancient artefacts among them axes, coins, swords and hammers spanning the ages from 100’s of years BC up to the medieval period and beyond.

With 2,300 townlands making up the whole of the county, reports of finds were widespread and each one is listed in the fascinating journal that contains the 29 letters. The location of Ogham stones and Souterrains (medieval underground tunnels) were all mapped and charted. 

It’s been a privilege reading the letters which are accompanied by a number of images of finds discovered during the survey and Donal gives credit to each and every helper in his army of assistants.

The last of the letters was dated December 3rd 1938 and from this point the trail of Donal Bernard O’Connell begins to fade slowly into the ether.

He did have other strings to his bow and on November 10th 1939 he addressed a large audience of the Royal Dublin Society who, it was reported, were thoroughly entertained by his lecture on the ‘Great Gorges of the Yangtze and Those who Dwell There’ The same article revealed that he had been working in Kerry on behalf of the Irish Association of the Knights of Malta and that the numbers of the Kerry Archaeological Survey of which he was the founder, had now grown to 200 members.

I discovered he re-entered the Navy in 1940 and would take command as the captain of HMS Resource, a repair ship in the Mediterranean fleet, which he commanded during the war before retiring again in 1946. In the New Year’s Honour’s list of 1st January 1943 Donal was awarded the CBE and thereafter, for a man who’d accomplished so much in his lifetime, information about him almost dried up. 

I could find no further references other than a short piece on the Dreadnought project website which confirmed the same details available in his naval record stating that he took up the role of a temporary gallery warden at The British Museum in 1952. While residing in Devonport, Plymouth, his death is recorded as 22nd October 1971 when he was 78 years old.

Surprisingly, given his huge contribution in preserving the antiquities of County Kerry, his legacy is virtual anonymity aside from a few references here and there. Considering he was a pioneer of Kerry’s archaeological finds and antiquities, it took some ‘digging’ to find out any information about a person who motivated a county to help him uncover the past.

The image below is of one such artefact that stands in a field facing my cousin’s home in Annascaul. Long before I discovered just who D B O’Connell was, my cousin had told me about this stone colunm and it’s fascinating to imagine the reasons for its location and wonder at its significance at a time when Paganism was the main religion practised by the population. 

The acquaintance of Tom Crean who preserved Kerry's Antiquities Tom Crean Book

How then did he know Tom Crean?

Well a great deal of Donal’s daily trips from his Killarney home were to Annascaul where there were artefacts in abundance, among them a baptismal font once housed in the Protestant church at Ballinacourty close to where Tom Crean’s tomb now lies. 

It’s very likely that the Naval connection between two men was the spark that spawned their friendship. Both men will have been aware of one another’s reputation and maybe Tom was among the ‘helpers’ intent on playing a part in preserving the county’s antiquities.

I detest gaps in any story and I’d be eager to learn more about Donal and what became of the Kerry Collection that was housed at Cork University. Any helpers out there?

© Tim Foley 2023

Researching and writing Crean’s Life Story

The acquaintance of Tom Crean who preserved Kerry's Antiquities Tom Crean BookMy book, Crean — The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero, has been as much a labour of love for me as it has been a passion to see Tom Crean awarded the recognition he deserves from the country he loved.

For 3½ years I researched Crean’s story at some of the world’s most respected archives to be able to chronicle his story. In doing so I’ve unearthed a substantial amount of new information never before published about this incredible man and I became aware of many errors that exist in the existing timeline of his life.

In mid-2020 I presented a 7,000 word document and three folders containing files and sub-folders of the sources I used as references and notes to write the book. Used as evidence of inaccuracies and missing information, this was submitted to the Royal Irish Academy after I offered to share the research I’ve gathered over the period of my investigating Crean’s life in preparation for writing his biography.

In an update of huge importance, on October 2nd, 2020, I received confirmation from the Royal Irish Academy, that the entry for Tom Crean in the internationally recognised, Dictionary of Irish Biography, would be revised in light of the evidence I provided them. Substantial revisions to Crean’s story were officially announced on March 17th 2021.

The acquaintance of Tom Crean who preserved Kerry's Antiquities Tom Crean BookFor children, and because existing children’s books about Crean also contain a number of inaccuracies, I have written a book specifically for 6-10 year-olds. Tom The Mighty Explorer. The book is based on my findings while researching Crean’s life. The story contains 27 fully illustrated images, 4 maps and a fun interactive section.

References used in the compilation of this post:

Tom Crean Funeral Announcement – Kerryman Newspaper 20th August 1938

Letters to the Kerryman Newspaper

The Dreadnought Project

Archaeology for Everyone – Irish Times July 13th 1939

Dublin – Weekly Irish Times November 18th 1939

Because of my research Tom Crean's story has changed so do please share the posts.
    The acquaintance of Tom Crean who preserved Kerry's Antiquities Tom Crean Book    

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