South Pole Inn is worth a trek down to Kerry


Trade NamesThe pub that famed Antarctic explorer Tom Crean built in Annascaul, Co Kerry, is still in safe hands today, writes Rose Doyle

It's a fair bet that owning a pub in his native Annascaul, Co Kerry, wasn't the first thing on Tom Crean's mind as he trekked to the South Pole with the Discovery expedition in 1901. He may have had other things on his mind, too, when he went back to Antarctica with the Terra Nova expedition in 1910 and with Endurance in 1914.

But it may have been a long term plan, a dream to hold on to as he struggled with the snowy wastes.

What are facts are that Crean, born in 1877 in Gurtacurrane, outside Annascaul, was a man of great courage and few words about Antarctica who, with wife, opened the South Pole Inn in the village of Annauscaul in 1927.

It's there still, a hub in the community, restored to what it would have been when Crean was the landlord, but with a restaurant added.

The loving recreation and continuing life of the South Pole Inn owes a lot to another Annauscaul man. Tom Kennedy bought the premises in 1992 and "set about developing the Tom Crean theme pub. I was always interested because of its history and a family connection." He has collected a library of information about Tom Crean, and about the South Pole Inn, and tells the pub's story with the conscientious fervour of a man to whom history, and Tom Crean's memory, matter.

"He was a great man, a great man," he says. "On the Endurance expedition, when they were returning and within 170 miles of the South Pole, they ran into difficulties. Tom Crean went on alone to get a rescue party. He walked about 18 hours and 36 miles to get help."

Crean, who had enlisted in the British Navy in 1893, fought in the first World War when he returned from Antarctica in 1916. In September 1917 he married Ellen Herlihy, daughter of an Annascaul publican, and in March 1920 he retired from the British Navy. The Creans, Tom and Ellen, set up home and began rearing their family in the village house which, in 1927, became the South Pole Inn.

"It was a single, thatched cottage when they moved in," Tom Kennedy says. "But he renovated and gave it four bedrooms, a sittingroom and kitchen upstairs - with a bar downstairs. He called it the South Pole Inn and his wife, as the daughter of a publican, ran it. They had three daughters; one of whom, Katherine, died at 12 years. Mary and Eileen, her sisters, live in Tralee today."

Crean, according to Kennedy, "was a good gardener and liked to speak with the customers, though rarely about the South Pole or the navy. He was well liked. He died in 1938, after being rushed to Cork hospital with appendix trouble. He was 61. His wife Ellen continued to run the pub until their daughters married - they married two brothers - when she moved to Tralee where the husbands were in business."

There are, Tom Kennedy admits, "no secure dates" for the pub's ownership in the years' following. What is known is that a local family, the Cahills, bought the pub from the Creans, owned it for about four years then sold to the Lenihan family in the mid 1950s.

Tom Kennedy's boyhood memories of the South Pole Inn are from the days of Lenihan ownership.

"I'm from a farming background, about two miles outside Annascaul, and would have been in the pub as a boy on fair days. I remember the big crowds! The Lenihans had a concrete walled yard at the back and buyers would put cattle in there for a number of hours while they were in the pub paying the farmer. The Lenihans were involved in cattle themselves. There were 12 fairs a year, one a month, and two special horse fairs; on May Day and in October. We used get the day off school for the horse fairs - so I knew the pub well as a boy.

"In Tom Crean's time there was a snug where women could sit and not be seen. But when I was a child there were no women at all in the pub. When men were doing business they would drink glasses but later, when deals were done, they'd drink pints. The jobbers - or cattle buyers - would drink whiskey."

The South Pole Inn had large, picture windows when he was a boy.

"I always had an interest in it. Tom Crean was related to me through my mother, Bridget Courtney from Ballinacourty who was a second cousin of Tom Crean's mother, Kathleen Courtney."

Kennedy wholeheartedly set about restoring the South Pole Inn to how it would have been in Crean's day - and giving it historical significance. "I went to the Polar Institute in Cambridge, England, and researched Crean's involvement in the Antarctic expeditions. I collected 25 photos and got them framed and mounted on the walls.

"At about the same time Michael Smith was researching his book, Unsung Hero, and I helped with the research for that.

"I ran the pub for two years, then closed it for complete renovation. When I reopened it in October 1994 I leased it out."

By then he'd put in a new wooden counter, similar to the one existing in Crean's day, all part of what he calls "an old Irish style of pub" with floors changed, new kitchen and new "public" room upstairs for "talks, art shows, meetings and such. The seating is wooden and there's a section of the bar where sets are danced on Tuesday nights. It's very popular with the people around Annascaul and very popular with tourists who know about Tom Crean."

Annascaul, in 1900, had a population of 3,600. A hundred years later, in 2000, this had dropped to 660. These days it's growing again.

The South Pole Inn is run by Eileen Perceval. Her son, Gary, works for her, along with local staff.

The Perceval's story, and how they came to Annauscaul, is interesting in its own right. Eileen Perceval left Annauscaul for the UK when she was 13 years old. She came back to run the South Pole Inn eight years ago.

Son Gary explains how this came about: "She was over on holiday, heard it was up for lease, phoned and made the deal! I decided to come over with her."

A good move on Gary's part - in the South Pole Inn he fell in love with and married the barmaid, Jane. They have two children, Oisin, six and Nell, four. "I love the village," he says, "and the life here. My mother Eileen loves it too, loves being among the people she went to school with. We'll be here as long as people keep coming in the door. Even in the eight years we've been here I've seen history grow, learned so much about Tom Crean. He was undervalued. There's a sense of history in the pub, it's very pleasant; you feel it when you come through the door. We've no TV in the bar; the pub's the draw - and the fact that we've the best pint in Ireland."

Tom Kennedy has no desire to run his pub himself. "There's a certain skill in running a pub and I'm not trained for it. I know my limitations and it's being run really well at the moment by Eileen. I was very lucky to get her and the others. The pub is their life and it's safe with them. In saying I'm related to Tom Crean I don't mean to blow my own trumpet. The achievement was his, but we need to do our daily work properly as well. If we did anything wrong the name of Tom Crean would suffer and, after all, it was Crean who got us where we are today."