Unsung polar hero

An Irishman’s Diary about an afternoon in Tom Crean’s pub

One pleasant afternoon over Easter, I found myself sitting at the counter of the South Pole Inn in Annascaul, Co Kerry, with my eyes fastened on a book but my ears tuned to the singing of two old men behind me.

They were taking turns to belt out Spancil Hill and Barbra Allen, and similar standards from extensive repertoires. Occasionally, they offered the floor to others in the gathering, who were happy to leave them to it.

Once I even felt a nod towards the stranger reading at the bar. So I smiled to assure them that, although enjoying the entertainment, I was no singer. Then they carried on themselves, without much arm-twisting.

A turf fire burned nearby, banishing the April chill. But the South Pole Inn is not a pub where you should ever complain about the weather. It is of course named in honour of its former owner, the Antarctic explorer Tom Crean, who unlike most Irish people, knew what bad weather really meant.


The book I was reading was his biography, An Unsung Hero, by Michael Smith, part of a miniature library about the polar expeditions that now decorates the mantelpiece over the fire. It described, among his many other heroics, the epic retreat from the Antarctic in 1916 after the sinking of the Shackleton expedition's ship. Then Crean was part of a select group chosen for a perilous, 17-day voyage by open boat to South Georgia.

After that, with Shackleton and Frank Worsley, he made a fraught, unmapped crossing of the island's mountains and glaciers to reach the whaling station on the north coast, and raise help for the 22 others left behind in Antarctica.

It was because of such adventures that, in later life, Crean had blackened feet and rigid earlobes.

But he didn’t complain much, either. In fact, according to Smith, he was an extremely reticent hero. Customers who frequented the pub in the 1920s said he never spoke about his experiences: “Even his family were not told much.”

Wrapped up as I was by now in Crean's story, I nevertheless overheard one of the singers behind me asking if anyone knew the opening lines of The Boys of Barr na Sráide. Amazingly, in a Kerry pub, nobody did. So lowering the book to half-mast, I realised this was my moment of glory. Because I knew all the words – or did I?

During a quick internal review, I recalled that Barr na Sráide is a poetic summary of Irish 20th-century experience, from a Kerry nationalist perspective. It touches most of the classic themes – a sporting youth (represented by the song's recurring motif, the hunting of the "wran"); the War of Independence; emigration; death.

Not only did I remember the words, I was tempted to sing them. For a heady moment, I imagined myself silencing the pub: “And when the hills were bleeding, and the rifles were aflame/To the rebel homes of Kerry, the Saxon stranger came...” But it was already too late. The singers had already moved on to another song. The pub had had a narrow escape.

Crean was no singer either, it seems, although he did sing sometimes for his own amusement. On the voyage to South Georgia, during spells at the tiller, he was heard to sing often, tunelessly and (it was assumed) in Irish. His English colleagues thought they heard The Wearing of the Green once. But usually, they could identify neither music nor words.

Maybe singing was his coping strategy. And maybe the silence of later years was strategic too. After all, not unlike that of the soldiers returning from mainland Europe in 1918, it was the polar explorer's fate to go home to a different Ireland than the one he'd left. The new dispensation was underlined very harshly when Crean's brother, an RIC sergeant in Cork, was shot dead at Ballinspittle in 1920.

And although the explorer himself could hardly have been considered a combatant in anyone else’s wars – his enemies had been blizzards and ice, rather than Germans – he had sailed under the Union Jack and his medals were from the king. This might have been misunderstood in the rebel homes, and rebel public houses, of 1920s Kerry.

It was shifting ice that destroyed his expedition’s ship in 1915, eventually precipitating the desperate rescue mission to South Georgia, 800 miles away. But the ice was shifting elsewhere too. As Smith writes, that voyage to South Georgia began at noon on April 24th, 1916, a Monday: “On the same day, on the streets of Crean’s homeland, Irish republicans launched the Easter Rising against British rule”.