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Oral History – Coming to Shackleton’s Aid

One of the sources I used when researching and writing Tom Crean’s biography was the Oral history archive compiled and created by Irish Life and Lore. (1)

The importance of these interviews cannot be understated as a number of the interviewees provide a direct link to the past. In the case of Tom Crean two of those interviewed knew him well and their recollections are a valuable and primary insight into the life of the Kerryman.

I incorporated relevant parts of John Knightly’s interview to passages within the first two editions of the book but another person who knew Tom Crean well was Pádraig Begley and his memories add even more to the knowledge bank of Tom Crean’s story. This account of Pádraig’s recollections appear in the third edition.

Pádraig passed away aged 98 in 2005 and was buried with full military honours. He was among the last of a generation to have participated in the Tan War. Then, as a young teenager, he played a role of great importance.

At significant risk to himself, he acted as a dispatcher carrying messages between various Brigade commanders during the Tan occupation. (2)

Recalling with great amusement, as did John Knightly, the time on a Friday that Crean was chastised by his wife Ellen for rustling up a full breakfast to which he replied “I’d eat a slice of your arse where I’d been”, Pádraig told of another revealing occurrence.

In reference to the crossing of South Georgia, Pádraig, recalled how, during the traverse, Crean came to Shackleton’s assistance.

On one of the rare occasions that Crean made mention of his time South, Pádraig, recalled a conversation he had with Crean stating:

“He, (Shackleton), got tired. The Pole (Tom Crean) brought him and put him up on his back and carried him out as far as he took him”

Shackleton’s heart condition

Despite Shackleton having suffered a longstanding heart condition that, on occasion, rendered him breathless, it never acted as a barrier to his physical undertakings.(3) On this, his third visit to Antarctica and as the expedition leader, he was bound by his own sense of honour and duty, to lead from the front and on May 19th, 1916, with Crean and Worsley, he headed into the mountains.

Shackleton’s health was a matter Carline Alexander, author of Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, expanded upon in a lecture she gave in New York.(4) During her talk she refers to an entry in the diary of the expedition’s geologist James Wordie, which recorded how Shackleton was noticeably short of breath after only a short walk on South Georgia before the ship set off for the Weddell Sea. It almost beggars belief that Shackleton was able to endure the hardships and taxation on the body that the historic rescue would expose him to.

That Tom Crean may have come to Shackleton’s temporary assistance comes as no surprise given Shackleton’s condition and it increases further the belief that Crean’s powers of endurance were out of the ordinary. Certainly, had the shoe been on the other foot then Shackleton too would never have hesitated to help Crean had he suffered an injury or had been affected by a health condition.

The popular ‘Pole’

Like every reference I discovered from those who were familiar with Tom Crean, it’s clear that they all had one thing in common – all spoke with great fondness and endearment for The Pole, their neighbour and friend.

Pádraig’s memories of Tom Crean were no different and like John Knightly’s oral history recording, he recalled his times with Crean with bouts of laughter. Whilst chuckling at the thought of his humour, Pádraig recalled “He was a funny man.”

The interview strengthens the belief in general, that Crean shied away from talking about his time on the expeditions. The reasons I believe, were never borne out of the tense political atmosphere of the time, merely that he didn’t ever wish to appear boastful. Crean very probably got a tired of inquisitive visitors asking him to recall his experiences – it’s another part of Pádraig’s interview that points to this as a possible answer.

“D’you know a few Englishmen were surprised a lot I think, that a man from Annascaul went to the South Pole. When I was there once I heard someone talking about it. They used go in to see him.”

For a man who valued his privacy, a trail of inquisitive visitors would soon become something Crean would be eager to avoid

Asked whether it was noticeable that Crean’s time in Antarctica had taken a lot out of him, Pádraig answered, “It didn’t. Sure he was a hardy man all the time…….he was a tough fella, no doubt about it” 

It’s a facet of Crean’s character that was also reinforced in a telling exchange, when, at the end of her lecture Caroline Alexander, signing books for audience members was asked by one: “Do you think the journey made the men?’ she replied:

“I think in this case the leader made the men. I think some of them could have done it – Tom Crean could have done it without anybody but as a whole, no.”

Oral history recordings are of great value to those of us wishing to know more first hand information about our history. I’m really grateful and fortunate that I was able to draw upon the spoken memories of those who knew Tom Crean when writing my book. Listening to them was fascinating and I now regret never putting a recorder in front of my father who was born just a few miles from Crean.

 

References used in the compilation of this post

  1. https://www.irishlifeandlore.com/product/padraig-begley/
  2. https://www.independent.ie/regionals/kerryman/news/war-of-independence-survivor-laid-to-rest-27364298.html
  3. Calder I, Till J. Shackleton’s heart. J R Soc Med. 2016;109(3):106‐108. doi:10.1177/0141076815624423
  4. Caroline Alexander Lecture April 9th 1999 – https://www.c-span.org/video/?122397-1/the-endurance 

© Tim Foley 2020

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