From Annascaul to the Antarctic

Neko Harbour: A Gentoo penguin looks out at the Polar Star, the ship that took Rachel Holstead to the Antarctic.

By Sharon Ní Chonchúir Contributor
August / September 2006

Sharon Ní Chonchúir takes a look at the incredible adventures of Tom Crean, one of Ireland’s greatest explorers, and talks to Rachel Holstead, who has been commissioned to write a piece of music about his life and exploits.


Tom Crean froze as he felt the sea-ice shift ominously under his feet. The familiar creaking and grinding told him the ice was beginning to break up. He urged the others to take the longer way back, the safe way home . . .

But they’d had a hard slog and were worn out. The Lieutenant suggested they set up camp. What could Crean do but bow to rank?

It was too late now – the middle of the night. He can hardly see but he can tell the ice has broken up around them. One of their ponies has disappeared – presumed drowned in the freezing water. What was that? The ice shrieks beneath his feet as it cracks in two.

They are stranded on an ice floe. It’s dark. It’s bitterly cold. And they are float- ing towards open seas and death.

Killer whales appear, alerted by the prospect of fresh man-meat. They circle hungrily.

What choice has he got but to try to get help? For hours, he jumps from floe to floe with the aid of a ski stick, mustering all of his might to avoid those killers.

Eventually, shivering and wheezing for breath, he comes up against the high cliff of the Barrier. Using his stick to make footholds in the ice, he climbs to the top and makes for camp. He has taken a terri- ble chance but it was the only one he had.


An albatross circles in the blue skies above. The boat weaves between imposing icebergs, impressive with deep indigo veins. Glaciers tower high above their heads. Before them on barren rocks, they can see playful penguins, sedentary seals and, what’s that? A killer whale, resplendent in its bulk and majesty, coming to the surface for air.

Suddenly, a deep thud resounds through the boat, disturbing their tranquillity. They have hit a submerged iceberg. Panic flashes across their faces as they hear the clink, clank, clunk of one of the ship’s anchors sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

In February 1911, Tom Crean from Annascaul in West Kerry rescued two fellow explorers from certain death just off the Ice Barrier. All three were members of Robert F. Scott’s last expedition, a naval venture that aimed to conquer the South Pole for Britain. Crean rose from humble Irish beginnings to become a hero of his time. He played a prominent part in three of four major British expeditions to Antarctica. During these expeditions, he displayed great courage and strength; repeatedly performing incredible deeds in the world’s most inhospitable climate. He was also modest. After risking death (and the wrath of killer whales) to save his colleagues, his response was: “Oh, I just kept going pretty lively, them killers wasn’t too healthy company.” We can add the art of understatement to his long list of attributes.

In January 2006, Rachel Holstead, a composer from West Kerry, followed Crean’ s footsteps south. She had been commissioned by the Tom Crean Society to write a musical piece in commemoration of Crean’s life and exploits.

Rachel, who graduated with a Ph.D. in composition from Queen’s University Belfast in 2005, was a woman with a mission. “I wanted to experience Antarctica for myself to understand who Tom was,” said Rachel. She was awestruck. “My admiration for Tom increased hugely,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Antarctica is more hostile than you can imagine. Even in high summer, with modern equipment, we managed to hit an iceberg and lose an anchor. How did they manage all those years ago? How am I going to set such extraordinary heroism, bravery and achievements to music?”

Initially, Rachel knew little about Crean. “All I knew was he had been to Antarctica and had opened a pub in Annascaul – a pub I played music in when I was a teenager,” she said. Her lack of knowledge was hard- ly surprising. Crean’ s contribution to polar exploration had been largely forgotten. Why? Firstly, Crean was the poorly educated son of an Irish farmer. He left school with little more than the ability to read and write. Middle-class, educated officers left behind letters, diaries and books detailing their explorations in Antarctica; Crean’ s legacy was paltry in comparison.

Secondly, when Crean retired from the navy, he returned to Kerry – just as the Irish war of independence broke out. His association with the British Navy had suddenly become dangerous. His instinct was to protect himself. He lived a quiet life as a publican and rarely spoke about his Antarctic exploits. Consequently, he was relegated to a footnote in the history books. However, there has recently been a revival of interest. A biography appeared in 2000. The Tom Crean Society formed in 2001 – on the cen- tenary of his first trip to Antarctica.

“I grew up hearing about Crean’s adventures,” said Marie Kennedy, a relative of Crean’ s and a founder member of the T om Crean Society. “It’s only lately the outside world has caught up. Crean was a remark- able man,” said Marie. “Such good humor. Such loyalty to his friends. He was never fazed – not even by catastrophe. He deserves to be remembered.”

The society has already erected a statue and twice travelled to Antarctica in Crean’s memory. On the first trip, they brought a storm-washed boulder from Minard – the beach near Annascaul where Crean signed up with the navy aged 15. The stone, engraved with the names and dates of Crean’s expeditions, can now be seen in South Georgia. “And on the second, we brought Rachel Holstead,” said Marie excit- edly. “She made recordings of ice cracking, whales singing and icebergs calving – all the sounds of this wonderful place. She’s going to write an amazing piece of music.”

Rachel and Tom hail from the same part of Ireland. Tom was born in 1877 at Gurtuchrane, a remote farming area near the village of Annascaul on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. Rachel, born one hundred years later, grew up in Ventry, a village further west along the peninsula. These are quiet places of rolling green hills. They couldn’t present more of a contrast to the hostile, frozen Antarctic where Crean  would carve out his remarkable career. Crean’s early life was one of grinding poverty. His parents struggled to provide a life for him, his five brothers and four sisters in an Ireland devastated by famine and emigration. “I am amazed he could have made a transition from living in a place like Annascaul to performing daring deeds on the ice of Antarctica,” said Rachel. The Dingle Peninsula has strong musical traditions, traditions Rachel absorbed as a child. “I played the fiddle and learned local tunes,” she said. “I was also studying the violin and now hope to bring both traditional and classical influences into this new piece.” Crean was also musical – something he too may have picked up from his West Kerry upbringing. Fellow explorers had fond memories of hearing him singing to himself, especially during times of crisis. During the Antarctic winter of 1916, Ernest Shackleton and five others – including Crean – overcame plummeting temperatures, debilitating seasickness, a severe lack of drinking water, ferocious storms and mental anguish as they crossed the volatile Southern Ocean in their 23-ft-long open boat. “A memory from those days is of Crean singing at the tiller,” Shackleton later recalled. “Nobody ever discovered what the song was. It was devoid of tune and as monotonous as the chanting of a Buddhist monk at his prayers; yet some-how it was cheerful.” Rachel is taken with the idea of Crean’s singing. “Just think,” she said. “There he was on the most turbulent seas on earth, constantly humming a tune.”

Rachel’s first impressions of Crean were of “a strong, silent Irishman.” However, it wasn’t until she visited Antarctica that she fully appreciated the depths of his character. “Before I went to Antarctica, I knew the facts. It was only when I got there that I began to understand the man,” she said. The extremes of the environment struck her forcefully. “The land is so stark, the life so bleak. How could they possibly have survived,” she wondered.

Life in Antarctica is a constant struggle for survival. During the ten years Crean spent there, he took part in man-hauling expeditions, some of which lasted for months at a time. Man-hauling was probably the most demanding form of travel on earth. Groups of men in harness dragged an 800lb sledge over broken ground strewn with hidden crevasses. This in the face of biting winds and blizzards and through temperatures that regularly fell to -40F and lower. The men were often hungry, almost always thirsty and their clothes provided little protection from the harshness of the elements.

“The difference in our experiences of Antarctica is staggering,” said Rachel. She crossed the Southern Ocean in a well- equipped ship (and still managed to hit an iceberg); Crean crossed this most dangerous of seas in a 23ft-long open boat without proper navigating equipment. Rachel was well fed; Crean was often on the brink of starvation.

In 1912, in an attempt to save Lieutenant Teddy Evans, Crean completed the final 35 miles of an appalling 1,500 mile journey with only three biscuits and two sticks of chocolate for sustenance. (He succeeded and was later awarded the Albert Medal in recognition of his heroic gallantry.) Rachel had the best protective clothing. “My mother made sure of it,” she said. “When I think of what he wore (when crossing South Georgia, he had to wear the same set of clothing for over a year!), I can’t imagine how he managed to bear the cold.”

Throughout such hardship, Crean retained his sense of humour. “Even when death seemed imminent, Tom cheered everybody up,” said Rachel. “He would sing songs, tell jokes and make the dread- ful life they were living a little bit more bearable.” Rachel finds it difficult to understand how he maintained this good- humored strength. “Antarctica is not fit for humans. “You can’t hide there. If you have any weaknesses, this is where they are going to be exposed. And Tom never displayed any weakness. He only ever showed strength,” she said.

So why did Crean undertake three separate expeditions to this cruel region? “I found this hard to understand at first,” said Rachel. “But having been there, I can see what drew him back. The place takes hold of you.” Marie Kennedy agrees. “Go once and you’re bitten forever,” she said. “I’ve been twice and I’m already planning to return in 2008.”

For now, Marie and Rachel must content themselves with life in Ireland. “I’m reading lots and listening to recordings I made in Antarctica,” said Rachel. “Certain episodes from Crean’ s journeys are suggesting ideas, especially his singing. And the sounds I recorded are full of drama – hinting at musical shapes and gestures.”

While Rachel concentrates on making music, the Tom Crean Society is also busy. “We are fundraising for this musical com- mission,” said Marie. “We are offering a week’ s holiday in Crean’ s old home in Annascaul. We are organizing a sponsored sledging trip. There’ s a lot happening.” The society is also expanding internationally. “When we started in 2001, our only branch was in Annascaul,” said Marie. “We now have one in Dublin and another in London. Who knows where Tom Crean will lead us next?”

Whatever happens, it’s clear that Tom Crean is being restored to his rightful place in the history books. His name lives on in Antarctica. Mount Crean rises to 8,360 feet in Victoria Land and the four-mile-long Crean Glacier runs down to Antarctic Bay on the island of South Georgia. In Annascaul, a life-size statue of Crean stands a short distance from The South Pole Inn – the pub he opened when he hung up his explorer’ s boots and retired. It’ s a thriving business to this day.

The Tom Crean Society organizes activities in an ongoing effort to preserve his memory. And now, his life and times are about to be set to music. Tom Crean, long forgotten, has been reinstated as a hero of his time. Indeed, a hero for all time. ♦

One Response to “From Annascaul to the Antarctic”

  1. michael o' sullivan says:

    Wonderful information about a great Kerryman

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