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Tom Crean – The facts from the fiction

In the years prior to publishing my book, I, like many others, had been left transfixed after reading about the amazing acts of heroism performed by Tom Crean in the most inhospitable place on Earth.

The first account exclusively dedicated to Crean’s story which I happened upon, was one written by Denis Barry in 1952. The name Denis Barry , I later discovered, was an alias and while researching for my book I became aware of the real identity of this talented writer. I elaborate on this in the latter part of this post.

Had ‘Denis Barry’s’ version gained a wider audience then I believe that Crean’s amazing story would have been far more widespread than it currently is.

In the year 2000, another account featuring Crean was released. A biography titled An Unsung Hero – Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor by the author Michael Smith. Released under the portfolio of an established publisher, the book reached a wide audience and Crean’s acts of heroism generated a growing fan club for the Kerry explorer but, upon carrying out my own research, within its pages I discovered a number of significant errors.

Although Crean’s heroics in Antarctica were well detailed in previous accounts of his life, there was very little in the way of his life outside of exploration and I felt there had to be more. Much of what was written about Crean was sourced via the documented references written in a number of books released by his expedition colleagues or leaders yet no account left us with much information about his life before and after his time in Antarctica.

Researching for a book in 2017 was an advantage I had at my disposal given that the internet opened up a host of sources that I was able to access. Still, it took long hours of searches, trawling through and visiting archives and having to qualify the information I discovered. It became apparent during the early parts of my research that a number of things presented as factual in previous accounts of Crean’s life were incorrect. Furthermore I discovered there were events and people associated with him that had never before been referred to in any previous publication.

The biggest frustration I was left with after writing up my account, was that, prior to releasing my book, incorrect information had, for many years, filtered through to become established as factual in a world where platforms such as Wikipedia are considered primary sources of the facts. Subsequent book releases on Tom Crean, whether they be children’s books or recurring biography editions, also serve to misinform readers as they continue to repeat inaccuracies about Crean. To be fair to new publications about Crean, their authors do not know any different. And here’s where I turn my attention and point the finger at Wikipedia and previous accounts of Crean’s life.

To give you a good example of how false information takes root and multiplies, Wikipedia, for some the fountain of all knowledge in the internet age, has a policy of drawing their article references only from books within the portfolio of an established publisher. The work of self-publishers such as myself, is not recognised simply because I do not have a publisher promoting my title.

After an attempt to change the error-littered Wikipedia article on Tom Crean – the following was their explanation for keeping the article as it is: 

“It’s core Wikipedia policy that original research and self-published sources are not permitted. An exception to the self-publishing restriction can only be made for an author who is an “…established expert on the subject matter, whose work in the relevant field has previously been published by reliable third-party publications”. In the absence of such recognition, even if your research has identified errors in the secondary sources, those erroneous secondary sources take precedence and are invariably the only sources we can use. Sounds stupid, I know, but that’s Wikipedia.” 

You can read the full discussion of my futile attempt to correct the Tom Crean article, via Wikipedia editors here

What I haven’t yet referred to is the responsibility of any author to establish the facts are correct before transcribing words to a book.  I carry that same responsibility and will never be conceited enough to believe that everything I write, without credible sources, is to be believed. References and quality sources are everything when presenting any historical account. As an author has responsibility to get the facts right so too does a publisher in verifying them but clearly they haven’t and so the publishers too, are complicit in misinforming readers of Tom Crean’s story.

In the Tom Crean story up until my research, those responsibilities seem to have been overlooked in every account of Crean’s story that I’ve read – the latest being a children’s book that is misinforming young minds, albeit that new authors writing about Tom Crean are oblivious to the the facts because they aren’t available to them in the mainstream and they draw their information from Wikipedia or from accounts that were evidently poorly researched.

In this post I want to detail the differences and to distinguish the facts from false information that has, for many years, infiltrated the knowledge bank of Tom Crean’s story and has left an imprint of false belief on readers. And so to my findings and I welcome the scrutiny of comparing my findings with those in previous biographies.

The Facts and the Fiction

  • Fiction: That Tom Crean was 15-years-old when he joined the British Navy and had to lie about his age.

Facts: It’s now indisputable that Tom Crean was in fact almost 16½-years-old when he joined. His Naval document recorded the incorrect date of birth as 10th July 1877 and it’s an anomaly that exists in a number of Naval records of young Irish recruits I investigated in the same era. The reasons for incorrect birthdates on the Naval records are unclear and it’s extremely unlikely Crean himself knew his own birthdate. In 1893 when Crean joined up, naval recruits were able to join from the age of 15 so, even if he had been 15, which he wasn’t, he would have had no need to lie.

  • Fiction: That he was born on July 20th 1877.

Fact: The earliest documented date of Tom Crean’s birth was 16th February 1877. This was the date that parish records registered his baptism, albeit under a different first name. Because baptisms often occurred on the same day as the birth of a child is the reason for me defining it the ‘earliest documented date’ as the birth could have taken place a day or more earlier. To shore up this fact read more here

  • Fiction: That he had five brothers and four sisters and was one of ten children born to Catherine Crean

Fact: Tom Crean was one of eleven children. He had seven brothers, Hugh, John, Cornelius, Daniel, Patrick, his five older brothers, Michael and Martin, his two younger brothers. His three sisters were Mary, his older sister and Johanna and Catherine, his two younger sisters. I have traced all documents relating to their births and their mother Catherine Crean née Courtney, confirmed, in the 1911 Census, that she gave birth to 11 children. 

  • Fiction: That his mother Catherine Crean died after his return from the Discovery expedition in 1904

Fact: Tom Crean’s mother Catherine lived to the grand old age of 85 when she passed away in September 1924, 20 years later than has been documented in a previous account of Crean’s life. It was Tom Crean who signed her death certificate.

  • Fiction: That after his retirement and his return to Annascaul and the death of their father, he would visit his two brothers at the family homestead at Gortacurraun

Fact: Hugh Crean, Tom’s oldest brother, who had resided at Gortacurraun, died in 1908, twelve years before Tom Crean retired. After Tom Crean had retired, only one brother, Daniel, remained at Goratcurraun until he passed away on 3rd June 1932. Tom was present when his brother died with cardiac failure after suffering from Endocarditis, a rare infection of the heart. Although I was unable to discover a date of death for Tom Crean’s father, Patrick, it can be determined he passed away between September 1917, when he attended Tom Crean’s wedding, and September 1924, when his wife Catherine’s death certificate confirms she was a widow at the time of her death. 

  • Fiction: That he was granted a publican’s licence in 1913.

Fact: Tom Crean purchased the building that would later be transformed to become the South Pole Inn, in 1916 and he was granted a publican’s licence in 1917

  • Fiction: That the South Pole Inn was the result of a refurbishment in 1927.

Fact: The building was vulnerable to flooding from the nearby river and foundations were raised. The new elevations would form the two-storey structure it is today, in 1929. Tom Crean confirms the year the renovations took place in a direct quote transcribed to a news article from his appearance in a court case in 1930. 

  • Fiction: That Tom Crean’s career effectively ended in April 1919, after a fall at Rosyth while serving on HMS Fox.

Fact: Tom Crean played an active role as a Boatswain Warrant Officer during HMS Fox’s role in the North Russian Expedition. Some of his activity is referred to in the ship’s logs and a good example of his physical activity is also referred to in a letter written by a crew member when the ship was had reached Russia.

Whilst not fitting under the category of fact or fiction, there appears to be a commonly held belief, born out of opinion written in a previous account which I consider to be incorrect. The suggestion being that Crean, after his retirement and his return to Ireland caught up in the War of Independence and later in 1922, The Irish Civil War, Crean, ‘because of political tensions’, kept quiet about his time in Antarctica and the British Navy

Along with the supposition that Crean was ‘vulnerable in staunchly Republican Kerry because of his links with the British Navy’ these are mere assumptions I strongly disagree with and I believe I have good reason to.

In April 1920, whilst a notable figure who had returned to his birthplace after retirement, Tom Crean’s presence at a protest in Tralee, was openly referred to in the Killarney Echo which confirmed his attendance with the lines: ‘Mr Crean of Aunascaul, a famous man who was with Shackleton to the South Pole’ . He was there along with other retired soldiers and sailors who attended in protest at the maltreatment of 100 Irish Nationalist prisoners held at Dublin’s Mountjoy jail. This was hardly the action of a man who, because of his past, wished to keep his head down and out of the spotlight.

Tom Crean was never alienated nor intimidated by those in his community whatever their political persuasion. Many Nationalists could be counted among his closest friends and colleagues, among them, Robert Knightly, his closest friend who was the intelligence officer of the 5th Battalion, Kerry No.1 Brigade during the Civil War.

I believe it is true that Crean shied away from talking about his time in Antarctica but that was purely due to a strong reluctance to appear to be boasting of his achievements. 

Other information revealed for the first time in Crean – The Extraordinary Life of an Irish Hero

No reference, before transcribing my findings to the book, had ever been made to Crean’s first seagoing Naval assignment to the Pacific Station covering the whole West Coast of the Americas from the Arctic Circle to beyond Cape Horn. It equates to 133 lines of latitude and it also accounts for 6 and a half years of Tom Crean’s Naval career that have never before been referred to in any other publication. Crean’s presence on HMS Royal Arthur and HMS Wild Swan are of great significance and a number of events and incidents could have placed him in mortal danger had conflicts escalated. Thankfully they didn’t. The Naval blockade of Corinto was just one such event of international interest and it made headlines across the world. That Tom Crean’s service took in a number of the South Pacific Islands such as Hawaii and Tahiti, is of great interest as was his presence at a number of major cities and ports in the countries that make up the Americas.

Similarly no reference had ever been made to Joseph Foster Stackhouse, proposed leader of the British Antarctic Expedition that was originally scheduled to clash with Shackleton’s Endurance expedition in 1914. Stackhouse had tried to recruit Crean but he postponed the expedition and Crean was made second officer on Endurance for the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition led by Shackleton. 

Tom Crean last Naval assignment before joining Shackleton on Endurance was in 1914, serving aboard the Admiralty yacht HMS Enchantress. On board at the same time, was Winston Churchill, who was at the time, First Lord of the Admiralty.

In February 1917 Tom Crean disembarked HMS King Alfred, in Sierra Leone. It remains a mystery why he was aboard yet he returned to Ireland and applied for a publican’s licence in March 1917.

Tom Crean never signed an oath of allegiance to the crown. Joining the Royal Navy was a long-standing tradition for boys from Annascaul and surrounding areas. That they were not required to swear allegiance may have been a factor in it being acceptable in their community.

Three days after the end of the First World War, Crean was appointed Boatswain on HMS Inflexible. It is a significant time in that Crean was present at Scapa Flow, the Navy’s main base for the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet

As mentioned above, it is true that he shied away from talking about his time in Antarctica but that was purely due to his reluctance to appear to be boasting of his achievements. He didn’t consider it dangerous to talk about his time in the Royal Navy – it was just an intrinsic part of his character to avoid the spotlight.

Tom Crean - The facts from the fiction Tom Crean Book
Tom Crean at Shackleton’s 100th Lecture at the Royal Philharmonic Hall

Of two images I discovered when researching for the book, both of which had not been seen by the current generation, one of them, seen left here, conveys Crean’s avoidance of being centre-stage better than any words could. Crean is the figure standing back row far right, peering out from behind Leonard Hussey, the man with the banjo.

The first comprehensive account dedicated to Tom Crean and his heroics in Antarctica was an account published in the Capuchin Annual of 1952. It featured a full account of Crean’s heroics written by a veteran of the Easter Rising, Tadhg Gahan, using the alias Denis Barry. During the Rising, Gahan was active at the Jacobs biscuit factory under the leadership of Thomas MacDonagh and John MacBride. He would later, in 1928, be awarded the Tailteann first prize for literature for his novel ‘Tom Creagan’.   The similar sounding name of Tadhg’s book could just be sheer coincidence or it could be a tip of the hat to the Kerryman he admired so much.

Tom Crean - The facts from the fiction Tom Crean Book
Tom Crean’s widow sat with Robert Forder stood to her left at the 1949 premiere of Scott of the Antarctic

Tom Crean’s widow, pictured left, attended a premiere of the movie, Scott of the Antarctic, in 1949, not in 1948 as written in a previous account.. Accompanying her to the first showing at Cork’s Savoy Cinema would be Robert Forde, stood right, Crean’s former Terra Nova colleague.

Not referred to in the book but of interest nevertheless, is that the Crean family house that stands at Gortacurraun today, is not the home where Tom was born. Crean was born in a single story cottage that was located in front of the current building. This later became a cowshed and is no longer standing. Read more here

In March 2020, on the centenary of Tom Crean’s retirement from the Navy, I released the second edition after discovering fresh information about Crean in the year after its first release. For me Crean’s has been an ever-evolving story and I know this still isn’t the end as my research uncovers new information that is of great significance to his timeline.

The Kerry-made version of the book and one I distribute myself, can be signed on request and it is currently on offer here on the website for £12.99 + postage. I have also recently released, on March 24th 2020, the centenary of Crean’s retirement, a new hardback version which now sits alongside another lighter, (in weight), paperback version. Both are now available through Amazon and other popular online booksellers.

Feature image of Tom Crean that accompanies this post by Matt Loughrey

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