Life in the latter part of 19th century Ireland was, for most, merely an existence. With memories of the earlier, devastating famine which robbed the country of many of its inhabitants either, through starvation or emigration, survival was uppermost in the minds of families whose work was to farm the land in order to pay the rents set by Landowners. The young Tom Crean and his family were also statistics of these hard times
Born into a large family on 16th February 1877 at a time when the whole of Ireland was ruled by the British, Tom Crean was one of 11 children born to Patrick Crean and Catherine Crean nee Courtney on the beautiful surroundings of the Dingle peninsula in the townland of Gortacurraun close to the village of Annascaul in County Kerry.
Poverty here was rife in an area where families depended almost entirely on farming to eek out an existence and at a time when memories of the famine were still fresh and raw. It’s perhaps been overlooked that the hardiness of past generations was born out of the environment and social conditions they grew up around. Certainly, the seeds of toughness Crean was to develop were instilled in him from a young age and his endurance skills that would later serve him and others well were most likely honed in an era where even shoes were an out of reach luxury for families such as the Crean’s.
Growing up in an area that exudes natural beauty and with almost every element of his environment within a stone’s throw of his home, it’s likely young Tom Crean looked out across the vast ocean that surrounded him and wondered what lay beyond the horizon.
The time to wonder no more arrived after a dressing down from his father in which Tom was deemed to have let the cattle stray after leaving a gate to his father’s field open.
The ‘last straw’ incident most likely happened around the early period of 1893 and aware that others too were joining up to serve in the British Navy at the nearby inlet of Minard, Tom Crean, set his plans in motion.
With a borrowed suit, the 16-year-old Tom Crean traveled to Minard with James Ashe, a relative of Thomas Ashe and he embarked upon his new life as a Boy 2nd Class in the British Navy. It was to become his salvation and it opened up a new world beyond the poverty and hardships of life in Anascaul.
Records state that Crean enlisted on 10th July 1893 and his travels for the next 7 years took him across the world in a number of ships and the work of the lower decks was backbreaking and all undertaken under strict naval discipline. In 1895 Crean’s baptism of fire would occur thousands of miles from his home in Nicaragua, South America while serving aboard HMS Royal Arthur. Just two years into his career, Crean was thrown into potential armed conflict in an international incident that threatened to escalate. Fortunately, the incident ended peacefully but it must have left Crean wondering whether a life in the Navy was right for him,
It’s little wonder that men on shore leave and free from the rules aboard ship would let their hair down when the opportunity arose and Crean was no different in this regard. In 1901, after rising through the ranks to Petty Officer Second Class, Crean was demoted and although little of the exact details for his demotion exists, it’s believed his step down the ladder was due to the enjoyment of a drink or two. He was, after all, as human as us all.
Shortly after his demotion and whilst serving on the Australian Station aboard HMS Ringarooma in New Zealand, the hand of destiny would give rise to the legend of Tom Crean. It arrived in the shape of HMS Discovery and its Captain, Robert Falcon Scott.
With a crew member short after one of the men had been dismissed for insulting and almost striking a Petty Officer, Scott chose Able Seaman, Tom Crean to serve on this, the first of Scott’s expeditions to Antarctica.
Tom Crean was about to embark on a journey to the place that would become his second home and a place where his incredible feats were to become frozen in the ice for almost a century.