The Irish polar heroes who battled their way through certain death and into history
It’s Easter 1916, April 24, and some desperate Irishmen are about to launch a bid for freedom against overwhelming odds, but this struggle doesn’t have Dublin’s General Post Office as a backdrop, nor the British Empire as the enemy. No, this is an epic battle between Mother Nature and six brave men – three of whom were Irish and went by the names of Shackleton, McCarthy and Crean.
The feat which they undertook on the very day that the first salvos were fired in their homeland against British forces during the 1916 Rising would go down as one of the most remarkable endeavours ever.
Ask most Irish primary school children who Tom Crean was and they’ll tell you. These days he’s the stuff of school projects – his life emblazoned across A3 card with cut-outs of icebergs and Crean’s sturdy weather-worn features staring back at you. But it wasn’t always so.
There was a time when Ernest Shackleton and the tragic Robert Falcon Scott were the twin towers of Antarctic exploration and heroism, but thanks to Michael Smith’s extraordinary book, An Unsung Hero, relating the life and stirring exploits of a seaman from Annascaul, in Co. Kerry, the name Tom Crean can be added to that exalted list, and stand justifiably shoulder to shoulder with those two giants.
Below is a brief flavour of Crean’s polar exploits… of what he endured and what he achieved, and why this quiet, modest man’s name should be on the lips of people not just from Ireland, but from around the entire world…
Crean’s association with polar exploration began in 1901 when he first met Captain Robert Scott as he was about to set sail on the first major expedition to Antarctica.
Crean, aged 24, was serving aboard HMS Ringaroona, which formed part of the Royal Navy’s Australia-New Zealand squadron. He was helping load supplies onto Scott’s ship Discovery, liked what he saw and asked for a transfer, which Scott organised.
That first expedition to Antarctica would prove longer than anyone expected. After deciding to moor for the winter in a sheltered harbour in the Ross Sea, Scott had assumed the following spring and summer would melt the ice that he expected would soon enclose Discovery.
He was wrong, and it would be two long years before the ship was freed from its icy grip in February, 1904, and could head home.
In that time, Crean would spend 149 days ‘man-hauling’ sledges. Man-hauling was the system of placing groups of men in harness and having them drag heavy sledges of supplies for miles on foot across the ice; it placed huge strain on the men’s bodies.
The idea was to lay food depots at various points towards the South Pole for the selected group who would attempt the journey there. That attempt subsequently failed, but there would be other opportunities and other expeditions for Crean in the years to come.
In 1910, there would be a second expedition South. Crean would spend the intervening years from 1906 on with Scott, following him from posting to posting – HMS Victorious, HMS Albermarle, HMS Essex, HMS Bulwark – with Crean as coxswain and Scott as captain.
In 1909, Ernest Shackleton, from Co. Kildare, who had accompanied Crean and Scott on the first expedition, mounted an expedition of his own and was forced to turn back just 97 miles from the South Pole. Shackleton later said he would probably have made it there, but would have been too exhausted to manage the return trip.
The following year, it was Scott’s turn again. The ship taking them there would be the Terra Nova. Crean signed on as Petty Officer in April, 1910. There were 31 in the polar party in total. But they weren’t the only ones with ambitions of discovery. On the voyage South it emerged that Norwegian Roald Amundsen was mounting a rival expedition of his own.
The Terra Nova finally sighted land on New Year’s Eve 1910. Crean and others spent the next months journeying out, laying vital food depots on a route across the Ross Ice Barrier towards the Pole that would be used by the team making the record attempt.
Crean was a popular member of the crew and his outstanding qualities were revealed in one particular episode one day when he and two two others found sea ice breaking up all around them.
Stuck on a 30ft piece of ice that was floating out to open sea they had to jump from once ice floe to the next in a desperate attempt to reach safety as killer whales teemed about waiting for one of them to slip.
In sub-zero temperatures, Crean volunteered to go on ahead, leaping from floe to floe, spending hours moving from one piece of ice to the next. Then he had to climb the 200ft-high face of the Ice Barrier to reach solid ground, before finding help to save his companions’ lives.
The weather worsened for Scott and his crew, and with temperatures at one point falling to -70, they were forced to bunker down until conditions improved.
Finally, in November 1911: Scott and his team of eight (Crean included) set out on an 1,800-mile round-trip to the Pole. The journey was mind-bending in its challenges. Each man would haul 200lbs (90kg) 400 miles across the Ross Barrier, then undertake a 120-mile 10,000ft climb, followed by a further 350-mile trek to the Pole, and then back again.
On January 4, 1912, with 168 miles to go before reaching the South Pole, Scott halted and picked four men to join him for the final push. Crean was not one of them. It was a crushing blow for the man who had been by Scott’s side down the years.
Crean cried as he watched Scott’s party recede into the vast white-scape. Then he and his companions, Lashly and Evans, began the 750-mile trek back to base. It would be the last time they would ever see Scott’s party alive.
The three men struggled through blizzards, battling exhaustion and hunger; at one point getting lost in a storm that left them three days further from their goal than they had thought. Increasingly weak and desperate, they knew they had to make up time, and they chose an almost suicidal method in which to do it.
The three climbed onto a sleigh and glissaded down an ice fall. descending 2,000 feet at a speed of 60mph, in the process passing crevasses that were 200-feet wide.
It was a miracle they weren’t killed, but it was either do that or probably die where they stood.
On February 18, six weeks after leaving Scott, and just 35 miles from base, with Evans close to death and both he and Lashly starving and utterly exhausted, Crean summoned up the last of his strength and set out alone to get help, with just three biscuits and some chocolate for nourishment.
He covered the 35 miles in 18 hours, barely stopping for rest, before reaching the supply camp at the height of a raging storm. He made it inside, to the astonishment of the men present, and organised a rescue party for his two companions.
Later, when Scott and his men failed to arrive back at the appointed time, Crean, despite his already near-death exertions, joined the search party that trekked out to find them. And find them they did, huddled together in a little tent, with Lieutenant Henry Bowers and Dr Edward Wilson on either side of Scott whose frozen fingers clutched the journal he kept of their last hours before cold and exhaustion had taken them all.
But Crean’s polar odyssey wasn’t over yet. In fact, his greatest feat was yet to come.
In August 8, 1914, four days after the start of World War One, Crean was one of six men (Shackleton included) who were to attempt crossing Antarctica from coast to coast (1,800km) using dog sleighs. They set sail in Endurance for Buenos Aires on August 8.
They left there on October 25 and after arriving at South Georgia set out on December 5 for Antarctica. But the ship became ice-bound in the Weddell Sea on January 19, 1915 – just 80 miles from their intended destination, Vahsel Bay. Locked in the ice they drifted towards the bay.
Winter came and the sun disappeared for the next six months. At one point 400 yards of heavy ice, blocked their way to the open sea. Shackleton had the men try to saw and hack their way through it, but to no avail.
With no realistic option to reach land and build a shelter, they stayed put and continued to drift, this time away from Vahsel Bay. For 10 months, the ship, locked in ice, drifted 1,200 miles in a semi-circular direction.
The pressure of the shifting ice caused the Endurance’s frame to buckle and warp. Eventually, on November 21, the ship sank.
Three lifeboats were unloaded before that happened. Twenty-eight men, 60 dogs, sleighs and five tents, plus as many food supplies as they could carry were loaded and dragged across the ice for a couple of miles, but the going was too difficult and the men were exhausted.
The ship’s carpenter raised the sides of the lifeboats using wood from the Endurance, so they would not be swamped when they were eventually put to sea. On December 23, the men started hauling the boats across the ice again towards where they reckoned there was open water. It was backbreaking work. They stopped six days later, the ground being too broken to haul the boats across.
Unable to move further, they made camp, and waited…. until April 1916, when the ice finally broke up enough for them to be able to launch their boats. In the meantime the men had all grown weaker, subsisting on seal meat and their sleigh dogs.
They had spent the best part of two years stuck on the ice.
But the perils were only beginning. Huge lumps of floating ice threatened to sink the three little boats as they set off to find land. For five days, they sailed through the bitter sea, every wave and clump of ice threatening imminent disaster.
Then, on April 15, they landed on the exposed shore of Elephant Island, many of the men were in states of complete collapse and unable to fend for themselves. On April 24, Shackleton and five men, Crean and another Irishman Tim McCarthy included, set out on the boat the James Caird for South Georgia to get help.
It was the Endurance’s captain, Frank Worsley, who managed to navigate the 800-mile voyage to South Georgia – 10 days of hell in a tossing boat in huge, swelling seas and dreadful conditions. It has been described by experts as being one of the most remarkable navigation feats in maritime history.
On May 10, the group finally landed on the uninhabited side of South Georgia, where they stayed, sheltering from the elements in their boat, too exhausted to venture inshore.
Then, on May 19, three of them – Shackleton, Crean and Worsley – hiked for over a day across the treacherous mountainous terrain of the inner island until they reached Stromness whaling station. That journey alone was considered a marvel by those who knew the terrain.
When they finally reached the whaling station 30 hours later, all three men had walked, rowed and sailed their way into polar history.
Their three companions (Kinsale man Tim McCarthy among them), waiting on the other side of South Georgia, were found the next day. A rescue ship later managed to reach the 22 stranded on Elephant Island. All returned home.
Not one man was lost throughout the entire ordeal.
And now, this momentous, extraordinary story of survival has been enhanced even further, by the discovery of the doomed ship herself, the Endurance – so aptly named – resting undisturbed and intact 9,842 feet below the surface of the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea.
The shipwreck is protected an historic site and will remain in its icy waters undisturbed… a reminder of the courage, grit and fortitude of the men who sailed her and whose actions went into the annals of exploration.
Shackleton, Crean and McCarthy are just three Irishmen who put their lives on the line in the Antarctic, but there were others, too, and all of them, coincidentally, from Co. Cork.
Patsy Keohane, from Courtmacsherry (went on Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1910-1913 as well as the Terra Nova expedition), Bandon man Robert Forde (also on the Terra Nova expedition), and Edward Bransfield, from Ballinacurra (who is credited with being the first person to sight Antarctica) all made their marks.
Now a campaign is underway to celebrate these brave men by naming future Irish naval vessels in their honour. Let’s hope that the Minister for Defence heeds the clamour and acts accordingly.
Less than a year after his rescue on South Georgia, Tim McCarthy was dead – killed in a German torpedo attack on the Merchant Marine vessel upon which he serve after his polar exploits.
Shackleton died in January 1922, ironically on South Georgia, when he had a heart attack while about to launch another Antarctic expedition. He was only 47 years old.
Crean could have joined him on that trip, but maybe he sensed he’d pushed his nine lives far enough. Instead, he moved back to Annascaul and lived a quiet life, only the name of the pub he opened there hinted at his exotic past – he called it The South Pole Inn.
His silence was also founded on the harsh fact that he had served in the British navy and he was now living in the newly independent Ireland, where people had engaged in a bloody war to call the land their own.
It was a place where anyone associated with the Crown was putting their life at risk. Tom’s brother Cornelius, a sergeant in the British-run police constabulary, paid with his life for that association, so Crean kept quiet, until his death in 1938, at the age of 61, and his polar exploits were all but forgotten. Such are the vagaries of history.
Thankfully, those exploits have since been put on view for all to appreciate.
When Shackleton, Worsley and Crean stumbled into the Stromness whaling station on South Georgia that May day in 1916, they were greeted by the grizzled whalers who worked there, men tougher than teak… men who had seen the stormiest of seas and the worst of Antarctic’s weather.
Understanding what had been accomplished by the trio, the hardened veterans of the sea lined up in awe and, one by one, shook the hands of Crean and his two companions.
‘These are men,’ one of the whalers said.
It was a fine compliment, but he was wrong; they were far, far more than that – they were titans.
How fitting it is that their ship was named so, because endurance was the very cornerstone upon which their reputations were built. Their ability to endure, to withstand and to survive all that Nature could throw at them puts them in the pantheon of polar greats.
Shackleton was a remarkable leader. To take his men through such an ordeal and to bring them all home alive was a miraculous feat. That said, when you have someone of Tom Crean’s qualities at your shoulder, it is easy to believe in miracles…