“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, Honour and recognition in case of success.”
The above quote, attributed to Ernest Shackelton, greets visitors at the South Pole Inn, the premises built and run by a “a great Irishman who didn’t have to die to become a hero,” as the Irish Independent put it.
Tom Crean, who not only rebuilt his home into a pub, but constructed his family’s tomb in the nearby Ballinacourty Graveyard, is fondly remembered in the village of Annascaul, tucked into the heathered slopes of the Slieve Mish Mountains.
The pub’s façade – a blend of white, blue and orange – provided a splash of welcoming colour on an overcast, breezy afternoon when I finally made my pilgrimage to the Dingle Peninsula a fortnight ago.
Drifting between both sections of the bar with a cup of tea in tow, I did my best to digest the many photographs and reproductions of news reports which trace the tale of the man who left home at 15 to ultimately embark on three Antarctic expeditions.
The teapot was well and truly drained as I absorbed my surrounds, with only a handful of other souls in the premises such was the early hour at which I visited.
It’s not every day one visits the home of a man so universally admired and I was in no hurry to leave, all the more so given the comfort The South Pole Inn afforded thanks to its well-stoked stove.
When Tom and Ellen Crean (they wed in 1917) moved into the home which became the South Pole Inn in 1927, it was a typical rural Irish dwelling: single floored and thatched. Said Tom Kennedy, who bought the South Pole Inn in 1992: “But he renovated and gave it four bedrooms, a sitting room 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.” But Crean never attempted to financially exploit the adventurous spirit which would render him a celebrity nowadays, according to Kennedy who described Tom as “a good gardener (who) liked to speak with the customers, though rarely about the South Pole or the Navy”. Crean, who is splendidly honoured by Michael Smith in ‘An Unsung Hero: Tom Crean – Antarctic Survivor’, was party to “three of the four momentous expeditions of Britain’s Heroic Age”, as the author put it.
He ventured to Antarctica aboard the Discovery (1901-1904), the Terra Nova (1910-1913) and the Endurance (1914-1916), the latter, under Shackleton’s lead, ultimately became become the greatest rescue story of that exploratory era – the Apollo 13 of the early 20th Century.
In May 1916, Crean, along with Shackleton and Captain Frank Worsley, trekked 30 miles across the island of South Georgia, having completed a 16-day, 800 nautical mile voyage across the churning Weddell Sea aboard the ‘James Caird’ (joined by Henry McNish, John Vincent and Timothy McCarthy).
Behind them, on the Antarctic fringe at Elephant Island, they had left 22 shipmates from the foundered Endurance (she sank in compacted ice on November 21st, 1915), with nothing other than hope that all 28 would, in time, be reunited.
But on August 30th, 1916 the revived and rejuvenated trio of Crean, Shackleton and Worsley, aboard the Yelcho, improbably returned to Elephant Island.
Worsley, writing in ‘Shackleton’s Boat Journey’ (1940), recalled: “As I manoeuvred the Yelcho between stranded bergs and hidden reefs, Shackleton peered through his binoculars with painful anxiety. I heard his strained tones as he counted the figures that were crawling out from under the upturned boat. ‘Two-five-seven’ and then an exultant shout. ‘They’re all there, Skipper. They are all safe! His face lit up and years seemed to fall off his age. We three solemnly shook hands as if we were taking part in some ritual.” All lived to tell the most remarkable of tales. That Crean succumbed to appendicitis (there was no surgeon available in Tralee when he took ill) having survived the worst wintry excesses on Earth, remains inexplicable, 80 years on from his death.
Among the many tributes hanging in the South Pole Inn, the lyrics and sheet music for ‘The Ballad of Tom Crean’ resonated heavily, the final verse of which reads:
“But he came home and fell in love, a local girl he wed
The South Pole Inn he opened, to pull black pints instead.
A father of three daughters, Mary, Kate, Eileen:
Though he left this world at sixty-one,
His deeds live on, Tom Crean.”
In an age where we can travel from one end of the planet to the other with an ease which would probably dumbfound Crean, Shackleton, Scott et al, it’s worth remembering the treasures on this island which many of us have yet to enjoy.
Dingle nourishes the soul and exemplifies the welcome and warmth which many local operators are striving to emulate in Waterford, and that’s a level of imitation we shouldn’t shirk from replicating.
All the while, a delightful bar in Annascaul offers a twin-headed reminder about embracing the spirit of adventure and ambition while never losing sight of the place which should always occupy primacy: home. Sure there’s no place like it.