Last link to age of polar exploration fades with death of Mary O'Brien
Mary O'Brien, who passed away this week aged 99, displayed her father Tom Crean's famous humour in abundance in this '03 interview with Dónal Nolan
The Heroic Age of Polar Exploration only truly came to an end in this part of the world with the passing of Tom Crean's daughter Mary O'Brien on Sunday, aged 99.
Mary was the last immediate link to that frozen, salty world through her relationship with her beloved father, now considered one of the all-time greats of the age for his scarcely credible feats of stamina, courage and exploration on three Antarctic expeditions.
But for most of Mary's life her father remained uncelebrated; the nationalist politics of the time combined with his own modest, unshowy nature, ensured a quiet life of relative anonymity in Annascaul after his retirement from the Royal Navy in 1920.
"As I said below in the Ashe Memorial Hall, the day they were opening the exhibition [in 2002]," Mary said. "I praised the Curator, Helen O'Carroll, because she has made a marvellous job of it but I said all honours went to Michael Smith because, in my book, he resurrected my Dad from the ashes. He did. From the ashes."
Smith's book Tom Crean: An Unsung Hero (2000) sparked a major revival of interest in the Annascaul man's story, fully redressing the lack of recognition for Crean alluded to in its title. But the fame would have meant little to a man who much preferred a quiet, simple family life in his native west Kerry.
Asked what she felt her father would have made of the interest, Mary replied: "I don't know. He'd listen to it, I know, but as far as to meet anyone, he wouldn't. He never did. He wasn't interested in any publicity. What they did they did."
Few approached the family for interviews prior to 2000. "Not as much as now. Since that book of Michael Smith's everyone, everyone is following it. But not until then. Yerra no. When we were children it wasn't talked about." The man did not seek or want recognition, Mary explained: "No. No. No. He didn't want to be famous. Simple life at home, he loved it."
"He loved it. Loved it, didn't like the pub though," Mary recalled with humour.
"Never filled a pint, he hated it. It was my mother [Ellen] did all of that. Boy, he hated it, he bought it before his retirement and his sister ran it for him. She wasn't married at the time and she ran it but my mother was brilliant to manage it. She was reared in one. The one up the village: Dan Foley's. She was a tough ... looked after everything. He had a free life once he came home. His dog, his pipe and the garden."
Crean was famous for his great humour. It was a key part of every Antarctic mission he served on by all accounts, to the point of single-handedly keeping morale up among his fellow seamen through some of their worst struggles. He returned home with the humour fully intact, if not enhanced, and evidently passed it on in full to Mary as her face lit up recalling her father's sometimes ribald attitudes.
"I remember though when we used to be at our meal , he had a lot of Navy expressions. 'Now, Pass the salt there Dad please'. 'Step and fetch it,' he'd say with a big laugh. He meant it humorously. He was very funny. He had great humour, sure it kept him alive on the expeditions...he was great fun. I'm going to tell you this about him, you needn't include if you don't want to. During the war when the trains were only run by turf then, no coal, no anything, they'd take ages to heat up. They used to stop above at the railway, you would be on the road all day and they used to take it in shifts, the railway men, they'd all face our house next door to it you see, and they'd be fellows above stoking the engine and it was a Friday morning and he was up, you see, for their breakfast, they'd be cooking.
"We had a big back kitchen with an oil cooker in it, and they were frying rashers and everything. We had the fast then, the Friday fast, and they'd be frying sausages and rashers, and my mother upstairs and she called my dad.
"'Do you realize you're frying rashers and sausages this morning? It is Friday'. Do you know what he said to her? I'll tell you the humour.
"'If you were where I was on a Friday morning I'd take a slice off your arse and fry it!' That's what he said to her. That's the end of the humour!"
So they had the fry in the end? "Of course. What was wrong with it? They were starving. He had great humour. I never saw him in bad humour. I don't think I ever saw my father in a temper. I never heard him lifting his voice. He never raised his voice, never said a word to us, gave us everything.
"My mother was the Boss, sure she had to control us. No, I never heard him having a row with anything or anyone."
Mary and her sister Eileen grew up knowing little of his exploits, but each were marked indelibly by their father's exploits in the eyes of the community nonetheless. And not always in a style to Mary's liking.
"They used to call me Mary Pole. And I didn't understand the meaning of Mary Pole at all. It was an awful nickname. We used to be very annoyed. The doctor at home at the time, Lord have mercy on his soul, Dr O Donoghue, he was a lovely man though, he used always call me Mary Pole ....and the Parish Priest. I didn't understand what it was. I hated it.
"I was 20 years of age, well I was 20 after he died [in 1938]. I was well on to my 20s when we really understood. It was never mentioned Donal. I learned more since Michael Smith and the book."
'She was a wonderful mother'
Born in 1918, Mary Crean O'Brien was one of three children to Tom and Ellen. Her sisters were Eileen and Katie. Katie tragically died aged just four to the devastation of the family.
Mary came to Tralee in her youth. It was a town she would come to call home where, along with her husband Robert O'Brien, she raised their four children: Brendan, Robert, Carol and Gerard.
Robert Jnr told The Kerryman this week that his mother provided a wonderful, loving home for her children, particularly so after the death of her beloved husband in 1962.
"She was a wonderful mother in every way, and while we are deeply sad at her passing, we know she's gone to a happier place now.
"She worked in Revington's in the Mall in Tralee for most of her adult life where she was in charge of the office, working alongside Joe Revington in a role she loved. She had a brilliant head for figures and could add two lines at a time before calculators came along. She had a brilliant brain always."
Mary's mind remained undimmed largely to the end. "She was driving up to the age of 93. Admittedly there wasn't a straight panel in the car but she still drove," Robert laughed.
Mary was famous for her style and appearance throughout her life. "I still took her out to get her hair done every fortnight, right until the end almost, to Liz Morrissey who looked after her with great kindness and tenderness. Appearance meant a lot to her always."
Mary is also survived by nieces and nephews Aileen, Enda, Tom, Kieran and Mary. Her remains are to be brought to St John's Church in Tralee on Wednesday at 7pm for Requiem Mass at 12noon on Thursday, and burial in Rathass Cemetery.