January 18, 1915, was not a good day to be standing on the wooden decks of Endurance. Exactly 100 years ago today, the ship Sir Ernest Shackleton was sailing to Antarctica for his ambitious Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition became trapped in the shifting pack ice. Endurance would drift, beset by ice, for over nine months before being crushed and sinking into the depths of the Weddell Sea.
Shackleton’s expedition may have failed before it started, but his epic journey from the pack ice to uninhabited Elephant Island, followed by a desperate and daring passage across the Southern Ocean to the whaling station on South Georgia, was to become one of the most celebrated acts of endurance and survival in history.
And at his side throughout was a man you’ve probably never heard of. An Irishman named Tom Crean.
Sailing south on three of the four major Antarctic expeditions of the 20th century, “few men made a greater contribution to the annals of Antarctic exploration than Tom Crean, and few were more highly respected by his celebrated fellow explorers than the unassuming Kerryman,” writes biographer Michael Smith.
After two trips south with Robert Falcon Scott, who famously perished in his tent after being beaten to the pole by Roald Amundsen, and an Antarctic odyssey with Shackleton, he remains the unsung hero of polar exploration.
Born in the Co. Kerry village of Annascaul in 1877, Crean’s name may not be widely known, but it is immortalised on maps of the deep south. Mount Crean rises to 2630-metres in Victoria Land, Antarctica, while the six-kilometre Crean Glacier runs into Antarctic Bay off the island of South Georgia.
And then there’s the South Pole Inn.
Which is how I find myself driving along the Dingle Peninsula on my way to one of the most famous pubs in Ireland; a country never short of a watering hole. It’s a landscape as far removed from the icy wastes of Antarctica as you could imagine, and on a drizzly autumn day this south-western corner of Ireland is living up to every postcard cliché. Through the mist the landscape is a giant chessboard of green; a myriad shades of lush pasture with hand-packed stone walls separating one sheep-filled field from the next.
To my left, the Slieve Mish Mountains that form the backbone of the Dingle Peninsula soar up into the clouds. Local lore has it that the last wolf in Ireland was shot in the hills overlooking the village of Annascaul.
It is a staggeringly beautiful place that Tomás Ó Croidheáin left behind; squeezing into a borrowed suit to run away to sea at the age of 16. When he returned in 1920 he’d had his fill of ice and sea, so found a wife and set about running a pub with the most curious name in Co. Kerry. The South Pole Inn.
“Tom Crean had this pub built on the existing foundations of a much older pub that was falling down,” explains Eileen Percival, who grew up in the village and returned 15 years ago to run the South Pole Inn, leased from a distant relative of Crean’s. “Although really, it’s more of a museum than a pub.”
She’s not half right either.
Photos of Crean’s craggy face stare out from the rough stone walls, while dozens of images document the incredible exploits of this unassuming Kerryman who left as a farm boy and returned with his name firmly carved into the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration.
Above the fireplace there’s HMS Endurance stuck fast in the ice, a precursor to the dramatic crossing to Elephant Island and South Georgia that has become one of the greatest survival stories of all time. In grainy black and white there’s Crean alongside the pony – aptly named ‘Bones’ – that he lead on a 400-mile trek across the Great Ice Barrier on Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova expedition in 1910-12.
Another image shows the cramped and crowded conditions ‘below decks’ on the ship Discovery; a reminder that in the early-1900s Crean was essentially a second-class citizen under the British class system. Regardless, the Polar Medals he earned for his exploits are today displayed in the Tom Crean Room at the Kerry County Museum in the town of Tralee, along with the silver teapot Shackleton sent Crean as a wedding gift. A more fitting tribute is hung on the walls of the South Pole Inn: the lyrics to ‘The Ballad of Tom Crean’, a popular folk song in these parts, are on display for anyone with a mind to sing them.
Sitting at a cosy corner table in the warm convivial pub, it’s not hard to imagine it as the sort of place Crean would have dreamed of during the many cold dark Antarctic winters he endured. While today Crean is hailed as a local hero, when he returned from the ice he made little mention of his adventures. He packed away his medals and rarely spoke of his time in the south.
“People would travel some distance to visit the pub and discuss his exploits over a pint of stout, but Crean would not be drawn,” writes Smith. Instead, he would pass the time of day on the stone bridge a few steps from the pub, chatting with locals. Today, a statue of the explorer holding a clutch of husky puppies has pride of place in a small memorial garden across the road from the Inn, and he lies buried in the family tomb in the hills just above Annascaul.
For having dodged glaciers, pack ice, frostbite and starvation, in the end it was a simple infection from appendicitis that killed Crean in July 1938, at the age of 61.
Buried with his wife and young daughter, who died in childhood, the Ballynacourty burial ground is a peaceful spot beneath the Slieve Mish Mountains. A few steps from his grave the Annascaul River flows down the hill, past the South Pole Inn and out to sea. And, perhaps, eventually south to Antarctica.
‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea’ reads the inscription, fittingly, on Crean’s tomb. There’s no shortage of fine pubs in Ireland, but few have as charming a history as the South Pole Inn. If you visit, raise a pint to the memory of Tom Crean.
If you go
Visas: South African passport holders do not require a visa to visit The Republic of Ireland.
Getting there: British Airways flies daily from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Dublin. From Dublin take the train to Tralee or Killarney and hire a car.