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From The Archives

From The Archives

Welcome to the first in a series of articles that will focus on some interesting historical facts and figures associated with Irish Rugby through the years.

The first Ireland rugby team took to the field in 1875; in the years since there have been many historic days but now we want to take a look at some of the people and facts behind the scenes as we dig a bit deeper into the IRFU archives.

Archivist Willow Murray has compiled a truly wonderful collection of Irish Rugby memorabilia over the years and hes uncovered the strories of some of the remarkable people who have worn the Irish jersey.

First up in our “From The Archives” series is Thomas Crean.

IrishRugby.ie frequently gets asked if the Tom Crean listed in our player database is the famous hero of the Antartic. Romantic as it may sound he isn’t, but he was nonetheless a hero in his own right and an interesting figure to “kick off” the series.

Archivist Willow Murray takes up the story:

Tom CreanThomas Joseph Crean was born in Dawson Street, Dublin on the 19th April 1873.

He was educated at Belvedere College, Dublin and finished his secondary education at another Jesuit College,  Clongowes Wood College, Co Kildare where he spent his last three years as a border from 1889 to 1891. Tom was a fine athlete at school and excelled at both the quarter and half mile events.

He was also a very strong swimmer and in September of 1891 when swimming with a group of fellow students he and another saved an Arts student called William Ahern from drowning off Blackrock, Co Dublin. So at the age of 18 he won the first of his medals for bravery when he was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s medal for saving a life at sea.

In October of 1891 he commenced his medical studies at the Royal College of Surgeons in St Stephens Green Dublin and graduated as a Doctor  in 1896 becoming a Licentiate of both the Royal College of Surgeons and The Royal College of Physicians.

Rugby Record

While at school Tom played his rugby at half-back and on joining Wanderers in 1891 he played in the same position for the third XV. He started to play as a forward in the 1892-3 season and was quickly promoted to the senior side. He represented Leinster against both Ulster & Munster in 1894,’95 &’96 and won his nine Irish caps, during this same period.

His  international debut was against England at Blackheath on the 3.2.1894 and he played an important part in Ireland’s historic first Championship & Triple Crown win that year. The following year Ireland won the  “wooden spoon”, however in the last match of 1895, Tom showed his strength and drive when he scored Ireland’s only points by catching a long line-out throw and dived across the  line with a number of Welshmen hanging out of him.

In 1896 Ireland were deprived of a second Triple Crown when Scotland came to Lansdowne Road and managed a scoreless  draw. Once again Tom saved his best for the Championship decider against Wales, when he scored his second try for his Country in an 8 pts to  4 pts win.

The strength of Irish rugby at this time was reflected in the Anglo – Irish team that was selected to Tour South Africa in 1896. Tom was one of nine Irishmen selected. Seven -Crean, Louis Magee, J.Sealy, L.Bulger, A.D.Clinch, A.Meares and R.Johnson  were internationals, the latter having played in 1893.  They were joined by Jim Magee a brother of Louis who never played of Ireland and the as yet uncapped Trinity Student C.V.Boyd.

According to the tour brochure Tom played for Richmond during the 1895/6 season so he must have been a medic in London during this period.

He played in all four tests and scored a try in the second. The tour Captain  Johnny Hammond only played in seven of the Twenty-one games and it was said that the real Captain was Tom Crean. A big man for the time. He was 6ft 1.5 ins tall and weighed 14 St 7 Lb. “Handsome, witty and a bundle of energy”, he was also described as a “typical fighting Irishman”. By his own admission, his life at this time, was made up of wine, women, song and rugby.

Medical & Military Career

When the tour finished he stayed on in SA and worked  in the Johannesburg Hospital and played for the Johannesburg Wanderers Club. At the start of the Boer War Tom enlisted in the Imperial Light Horse as a trooper and in 1901 he became the Brigade’s Medical Officer . On the 18th Dec 1901, at the battle of Tygerkloof,  Tom won his Victoria Cross when he successfully attended the wounds of two soldiers and a fellow officer under heavy enemy fire. He was wounded in the stomach and arm during these encounters and was invalided back to England where he made a  full recovery.

On the 13.3.1902 he was presented with his VC by King Edward VII and he was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland in the same year.

Military Honours & Rugby

Only four Rugby internationals were awarded the Victoria Cross and three of them came from Wanderers. Tom Crean was one.

Robert Johnson who played with Crean at Wanderers and on the SA Tour of 1896 was another. He also stayed on in South Africa when the tour was over and joined the Imperial Horse Brigade. He won his VC at Elandslaagte on the October 10 1899.

The third Wanderers player and Irish international to win a VC was Fredrick Harvey; he won two caps in 1907 and 1911 and was one of three brothers who played for Ireland. He won his VC  at Guyencourt on March 27 1917.

The fourth was the England international Arthur Harrison, who won two caps in 1914. He was killed in action at Zeebrugge on the March 23 1918 and was awarded the VC for his courageous leadership during this raid.

Tom continued to serve with the RMAC until 1906 when he returned to private practice in Harley Street.
In 1905 he married a spanish lady  and had a son and a daughter. At the outbreak of World War 1 Tom rejoined the RAMC and served with the 1st Cavalry Brigade. Wounded several times and “mentioned in dispatches”. He won a DSO in June 1915.

In Feb. 1916 he was promoted “Major” and commanded the  44th Field Ambulance , British Expeditionary Force, in France.

Remembering Tom

After the war ,in London, hampered by ill health from the stress of  his war service, Tom struggled to carry on his private practice  and he died from diabetes on the March 25th 1923 aged 49.

He  is buried  in St Mary’s RC Cemetery, Kensal Green, London. His VC can be seen at the Army Medical Services Museum, Keogh Barracks, Aldershot.Tom Crean Stamp

For  “rugby theme” stamp collectors  it is interesting to note that the South African Post Office launched their third stamp issue – ‘Angels of Mercy’,  in a series commemorating  the Anglo/Boer/African War on the August 1 2000.

 They produced  a set of two stamps – One of the Rev Kestell a Dutch Reform Church Minister who served with the Boer Commando and the other of  Capt Thomas Crean VC.


IrishRugby.ie would like to thank Willow Murray for this story. The information in this article is correct according to current research. Any corrections or additions to the story of Thomas J Crean can be emailed to the editor – manager@irishrugby.ie