Tom the “Irish Giant” Crean was an polar explorer during the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration whose selflessness and bravery repeatedly saved the lives of his crew.
Thomas Crean was born July 20 1877, in Gurtuchrane, County Kerry, to Patrick Crean and his wife Catherine. Crean grew up in a large family of ten children and at 15 years old enlisted in the Royal Navy, probably having lied about his age. Crean eventually rose to the rank of petty officer, second class before being disrated for some unknown offence in 1901.
That same year, Crean’s ship, the Ringarooma, was ordered to assist Robert Falcon Scott’s ship Discovery. When an able seaman of Scott’s ship deserted after striking a petty officer a replacement was required and Crean quickly volunteered. In the second year of the expedition, Discovery became locked in ice and all efforts to free her proved fruitless. Some of the members of the expedition (including Ernest Shackleton) were able to leave in a relief ship, but Crean and many others remained in the Antarctic until the ship was finally freed in the February 1904. Crean was promptly promoted to petty officer, first class, on Scott’s recommendation.
Crean also joined Scott’s ill-fated 1911–13 Terra Nova Expedition, which saw the race to reach the South Pole lost to Roald Amundsen and ended in the deaths of Scott and his polar party. During this expedition he earned wide spread recognition for his daring 35 mile solo walk across the Ross Ice Shelf to save the life of Edward Evans who was dying from scurvy. For this act of incredible bravery, Crean was awarded the Albert Medal in 1913.
Crean’s third and final Antarctic adventure was Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition on Endurance in 1914. Crean was appointed second officer and again his heroic conduct was responsible for saving the lives of his team. On 19 January 1915 Endurance became stuck ice. Again, all efforts to free her were fruitless and on one occasion Crean narrowly avoided being crushed to death in the process. The ship eventually sank and the desperate crew were forced to travel 800 nautical mile open boat journey to South Georgia. Crean was one of the three volunteers who undertook the first land crossing of the island, without maps or proper mountaineering equipment, in order to get aid for his fellow survivors.
Throughout his life, Crean was renowned as a tough, capable and steadfast polar explorer. He was awarded three Polar medals and briefly returned to the navy before returning to County Kerry to run the “South Pole Inn” with his wife Ellen until his death in 1938.