A Lion and a hero

Some remarkable men have played for the Lions down the years and none has been more remarkable than Tom Crean. [more]

A Lion and a hero

Some remarkable men have played for the Lions down the years and none has been more remarkable than Tom Crean.

Born in Dublin 140 years ago on Friday, he was the heart and soul of the 1896 tour to South Africa.

Tom Crean
Club: Dublin Wanderers
Position: Forward
Lions Record: P 21 W 19 D 1 L 1 – 18 points
Test Record: P 4 W 3 L 1 – 3 points

Tom Crean was one of three Irish rugby internationals from the Wanderers club in Dublin who won the Victoria Cross. He was the most dashing international forward of his generation and a noted hell-raiser. He was the linchpin of two championship-winning sides for Ireland and the star forward for the Lions side that won the Test series 3-1 against the Springboks in 1896.

There had been no Irish players on the 1891 venture to South Africa, and only one Irish-born player had gone with the 1888 Lions. But in 1896, reflecting their success in the Championship, Crean was among nine Irishmen who sailed with Johnny Hammond’s side.

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Standing 6ft 2ins tall, and weighing in at almost 15 stone, he was a giant of a man with great energy. He was a typical fighting Irishman, witty and with a devil-may-care attitude. It was also claimed he was the fastest man in the team and he is best summed-up by team mate Walter Carey, who described Crean as “the most Irish, the most inconsequent, the most gallant, the most lovable personality one could imagine and he made the centre of the whole tour.”

By his own admission, Crean’s life at this time was made up of ‘wine, women, song and rugby’. But there was so much more to come in his life after the Lions tour. Having qualified as a doctor by the age of 22, he set up a practice in Johannesburg at the end of the 1896 tour before joining the Imperial Light Horse two years later. During his student days he had demonstrated his courage by saving a fellow student, William Ahern, from drowning in the sea off Blackrock College, an act for which he received the Royal Humane Society medal for bravery.

On tour he played in every one of the 21 matches and took over the captaincy from Hammond in the 14 fixtures in which he was unable to play, becoming the first Irishman to lead the Lions in a Test match when he skippered them to victories in the first and third Tests.

At the start of the Boer War he enlisted in the Imperial Light Horse as a trooper and in 1901 became the Brigade’s Medical Officer. On 18 December, 1901, at the battle of Tygerkloof, Crean 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 despite uttering the immortal phrase at the time “By Christ, I’m kilt entirely now”.

On 13 March, 1902, he was presented with the Victoria Cross by Edward VII in a ceremony at St. James's Palace. His next honour was to be made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland and when WW1 broke out he went back into action, despite being 41. He rejoined the RAMC and served with the 1st Cavalry Brigade. Wounded several times, and “mentioned in dispatches”, he won a DSO in June, 1915.

He was promoted to “Major” in 1916 and commanded the 44th Field Ambulance, British Expeditionary Force, in France. The war took a heavy toll on him and, after setting up a medical practice in Mayfair, he died in London a month short of his 50th birthday.

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