Diarmaid Ferriter: The snow makes me think of Tom Crean’s brother Cornelius

The Creans’ legacy reveals much about loyalty and service as we approach War of Independence centenary

Tom Crean, the Irish Antarctic explorer who died 80 years ago this year

Tom Crean, the Irish Antarctic explorer who died 80 years ago this year

 

There was much reminiscing during the week about the great Irish freeze of 1982 and, from those of a very advanced age, talk of an even greater Irish freeze in 1947 that lasted two months and prompted this newspaper to declare “it is almost unbelievable that such conditions could exist in Ireland”. This week’s “significant weather event” also got me thinking about the endeavours of the Irish Antarctic explorer Tom Crean, who died 80 years ago this year and died, ironically it could be maintained, not from fighting the magnificent, terrifying elements and blizzards that defined his career, but from appendicitis, a week after his 61st birthday.

Crean’s exploits certainly put the experiences of Ireland these last few days into some kind of perspective. Having joined the Royal Navy in 1893 Crean volunteered to join RF Scott’s British Antarctic expedition of 1901-4 where his resilience earned him the admiration of Ernest Shackleton. Awarded the Polar Medal, he travelled again to the Antarctic on an ill-fated British expedition of 1910-13 where he was involved in saving the life of his team leader and then volunteered to return to the Antarctic with Shackelton, and was appointed second mate on the Endurance during the imperial trans-Antarctic expedition of 1914-16 where, once again, his stamina and courage were exceptional and he garnered a number of medals. After his retirement in 1920 he returned to his native Anascaul in Kerry and later opened the South Pole Inn public house.

Recent development

Crean is something of an icon now, but such status is a fairly recent development; since the 1980s there have been memorials dedicated to him, attempts to replicate his endeavours, a Guinness TV advertisement, Tom Crean lager brewed in Dingle and Michael Smith’s biography, An Unsung Hero (2000). Those accolades were a long time coming, partly because Crean spent so much time away from home and partly because of the complications of celebrating a decorated imperial explorer at a time that coincided with the Irish War of Independence. Crean seldom spoke about his exploits and eschewed self-promotion of any kind but, as Smith suggests, there may also have been a sense that he was vulnerable because of his British navy past.

Where now lies the memory of the RIC?

A much less remembered Crean, his brother Cornelius, a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and a talented rugby player, was shot dead in Upton, a village midway between Kinsale and Bandon in Cork at the age of 49, just a month after Tom’s return to Kerry. Four bullets pierced Cornelius’s heart, the perpetrators believed to be members of the IRA’s third west brigade. An inquest returned a verdict that became all too common during the War of Independence: “Murder by person or persons unknown.”It has been maintained that Cornelius’s wife, Anne, had implored him to resign given the extent to which RIC members were being targeted, but he insisted on remaining in the line of duty. Also during the War of Independence, Tom’s wife, Nell, attended a parade in honour of republican martyr Thomas Ashe and the Crean home in Anascaul was raided by the Black and Tans in search of evidence of republican sympathy or links; according to Michael Smith “all they found was a Union Jack”, a souvenir of Tom’s service in the navy.

Boycott

Where now lies the memory of the RIC? It was a force that had been well integrated into Irish society before the IRA targeted it for boycott. The campaign to assassinate its members during the War of Independence was responsible for more than 400 deaths. In 1919, Diarmuid O’Hegarty, the clerk of the Dáil, elaborated on what the ostracisation of the RIC should amount to: “The police should be treated as persons who, having been adjudged guilty of treason to their country, are regarded as unworthy to enjoy any of the privileges or comforts which arise from cordial relations with the public.” But it is far-fetched to maintain that RIC members were overwhelmingly loyal to the crown; many members came from nationalist backgrounds and bitterly resented, for example, the threat of the conscription of Irish men into the British army that became very real at this time 100 years ago.

Complicated

The RIC, some of whom were responsible for excess brutality, like other groups at that time, was ultimately ill-equipped to deal with the IRA but British counterinsurgency policy held that its place was in the front line. Memorialising the RIC has been complicated; the majority of the force were Irish Catholics, but as far as I’m aware, the only church memorial to them is not in Ireland but the RIC chapel in Westminster, London, raising interesting questions about the Irish hierarchy of remembrance.

The Crean family experience and legacy reveals much about complicated definitions of loyalty and service that will be quite a challenge to do justice to as the commemoration of the centenary of the War of Independence beckons.

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