Oh, the People You’ll Meet

By JOHN M. IMPERIALE | Dec 11, 2019
LEGACY LIVES ON: The author (second from right) poses with Cian D’Arcy, Aileen Crean O’Brien and Bill Sheppard at their restaurant. A portrait of Tom Crean looms in the background.

History records the deeds of great men; families record the history of the unsung heroes who made the greatness possible.

Traveling, the places you go, gives you the thrill of seeing the awe-inspiring natural beauty of this world. The glorious green landscapes, the rugged coastlines, the forests and waterfalls, the canyons and cliffs, the flowers, the rivers and streams – they give you that sense of wonder every time.

As the great writer Sylvia Plath said, “I feel my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery – air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.’”

Such was our sense when my wife and I spent eight days in the stunning, alluring, natural beauty of Ireland.

Ah, but note a key word within Ms. Plath’s quote: “people.” Ireland cemented one thought in me: Nature is beautiful; people are inspiring.

And so it was that in the midst of experiencing the glory of the Irish landscape, we met Aileen Crean-O’Brien, her partner, Bill Shepherd, and her son, Cian, in the charming little town of Kenmare.

Their story, and the story of Aileen’s grandfather Tom Crean, the unsung hero, filled me with many thoughts and dreams of my own, the most stirring of which is this: We should all live a life such that our future generations will look back on us with pride.

If you never heard the name Tom Crean, that is understandable. But most of us know the name Ernest Shackleton, famous in the annals of exploration. Perhaps you also know of Capt. Robert Falcon Scott. During the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century, Shackleton and Scott wrote their names in the history books as leaders of great expeditions. They, and their men, suffered and endured conditions never experienced before by men, all in the name of discovery.

Tom Crean, who left his family farm in Annascual, Ireland to join the navy at age 15,  accompanied both of these legendary explorers to the Antarctic, going twice with Capt. Scott. Crean was, in fact, the only man to be part of Capt. Scott’s Discovery Expedition and Terra Nova Expedition, and Shackleton’s Endurance Expedition.

It was on Shackleton’s 1915 Endurance Expedition that Tom Crean, along with Shackleton and other crew members, traversed South Georgia in the quest to save the lives of the men stranded on Elephant Island after the Endurance cracked under the pressure of the ice and sank to the bottom of the sea.

Only Shackleton, Tom Crean and Frank Worsley would heroically cross an astonishing 800 nautical miles of the Antarctic, from Elephant Island to South Georgia, as no man had done before, to find a rescue party for the stranded crew of the Endurance. The three men marched across the wild and mountainous terrain of Georgia Island, covering 32 miles in 36 hours to reach the Stromness whaling station, and help, at long last.

One hundred years later, his family would traverse the same terrain.

Aileen, sons Cian and Morgan, and Bill would leave their quaint Irish town and cover the same cold, desolate, inhospitable Antarctic terrain, walking in the footsteps of the man who they say “inspires others to achieve their own ambitions.” Then, after more than  two years of training and a year on their own expedition, they returned to Ireland to live lives of quiet dedication and accomplishment.

Which is where we met them: at the Tom Crean Fish and Wine Restaurant, owned by Aileen Crean-O’Brien, her sons and Bill. The restaurant is full of Tom Crean photos and memorabilia. Everywhere you looked you saw this rugged Irish seaman, flashing a smile against a backdrop of glaciers and frozen isolation. We just had to ask about him, and soon a quiet dinner out became a fascinating night with our hosts spinning tales of courage, hardship and adventure.

Aileen is the chef. She came out to our table to talk when she could, always mindful she had guests to feed. Cian, young, fit and as anxious to talk with us as we were with him, was our server. Bill, at 66 years of age, founded a brewery at the restaurant, after achieving a midlife degree in archeology, just because he wanted to, as he said to us. He gave us a tour of his brewery, all the while explaining how he had never done anything like this before.

Their joy in life, their own and Tom Crean’s, was evident in every word they spoke.

Pride is one of the deadly sins, but as with all things, pride is only wrong when taken to excess. When we strive to be worthy of others’ admiration, we accept pride as a virtue, and find joy in it.

The Crean family is not only proud of Tom Crean, they took years of their lives and endured unimaginable hardships just to emulate a man who gave them such family pride.

Bill, in his book Honoring Tom Crean, states that Tom was valuable to the crew, and loved by his family, for his “adaptability, reliability, and enduring sense of humor.” They did not mention to us that Tom had received England’s Albert Medal for the bravery shown in a 35-mile solo walk across the Ross Ice Shelf to save the life of fellow crewman Edward Evans. Instead they talked about how he considered it “just his job.”

By undertaking the same expedition to the Antarctic that Tom Crean did, his family hoped to develop the strength of character that made Tom the hero he was. Of course, they were too modest to recognize, or agree with me, when I pointed out that they must have already had an incredible strength of character to devote years of life in training, another year in the harshest Antarctic conditions imaginable, all with the intention of coming home better able to be the best at whatever they chose to do.

Cian downplayed crossing South Georgia in the Antarctic as his grandfather did by pointing out that the equipment they had was much better than what was available in 1915. As if that made it easy!

Aileen found it “remarkable” that she repeated an experience that befell one of Tom Crean’s crewmates: She broke her leg, in several places, on a runaway toboggan sliding down a glacier. She had to be strapped into a converted pulk stretcher and pulled to where she could be transferred from South Georgia to a hospital in the Falkland Islands by the Royal Navy ship HMS Clyde, eventually to be medevaced to Chile, then Paris, and finally to Cork Hospital in Ireland. She never got to complete the journey, as did Bill, Cian and Morgan.

Her leg still bothers her today after years of therapy. But Aileen did not talk to us of the pain or the disappointment or the struggle to recover. No, she said, “I learned patience and gratitude for the wonderful friends and family I have.”

And that’s the point. They crossed the Antarctic to learn to live a better life. They were inspired just to be part of Tom Crean’s family.

I dare say that neither I nor anyone reading this will ever inspire anyone by crossing the glaciers of the Antarctic. We will not go months, years even, struggling with the wind and coldness and desolation at the bottom of the world.

But we do live our lives. And we can find ways to demonstrate courage, strength and determination in ordinary ways so that someday our own future generations might look back on us with pride, and perhaps emulate the best of our character.

John M. Imperiale, commissioner-elect in Harvey Cedars, can be reached at johnmimperiale@gmail.com.




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