Ask anyone to name an Irish beer and the most likely answer would be Guinness. It is, after all, Ireland’s most popular beverage, fiercely protected and feverishly drunk for its nutritional value (if you were to go by the brand’s billboards). But it is by no means the only beer available in Ireland. The country has a booming craft beer scene where delicious beers are created in small batches by microbreweries all over the country. On my recent road trip in the beautiful southwest region of the country I came across two men whose adventures I had read of as a teenager, immortalised by way of beer.
The first was Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. As a teenager I used to read voraciously about the Second World War and one of my favourite stories was about ‘the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’. When Mussolini fell out of power in 1943, thousands of Allied prisoners of war were released, though Nazi Germany’s occupation of Italy threatened the POWs with recapture. Many of them made their way to the Vatican where Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty was posted and he hid thousands of them. It was a game of wits he played with Obersturmbannführer Herbert Kappler, the head of the SS and Gestapo in Rome. His ability to evade the traps set by the German Gestapo, earned O’Flaherty the nickname ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’.
Hugh O’Flaherty was an Irishman who grew up in Killarney. A pretty little town serving as the gateway to the spectacular Ring of Kerry touring circuit, Killarney is full of atmospheric pubs. It also sits right at the head of the Killarney National Park that is home to three beautiful lakes—Muckross, Upper and Leane. In the centre of town on Muckross Road is the Killarney Brewing Company that brews an India Pale Ale (IPA) called The Scarlet Pimpernel. It is the brewery’s tribute to the local legend. In fact, the back of the bottle tells the story, ‘Our scarlet coloured IPA was inspired by a true local legend of Killarney, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, known as the “Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”’
Fifty kilometres to the northwest in County Kerry itself is the village of Annascaul on the Dingle peninsula. This peninsula is another spit of land jutting into the Atlantic and affords a scenic drive around it. You can also drive across the peninsula over high mountain passes including the Conor Pass. Four kilometres north of Annascaul itself is the Annascaul Lake, which throws up stunningly beautiful sunsets on clear days. But more than all that, Annascaul’s claim to fame is that it was home to Tom Crean—an Antarctic explorer.Born here on the 16th February 1877, Tom Crean left the family’s farm and enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 16.
Tom Crean has the distinction of being part of three Antarctic expeditions including the Robert Scott Discovery expedition from 1901 to 1904 and the second Robert Scott expedition from 1910 to 1913 called the Terra Nova expedition where Scott and most of his party perished. But Crean survived, and during the expedition, Crean’s 35-statute-mile (56 kilometre) solo walk across the Ross Ice Shelf to save the life of Edward Evans led to him receiving the Albert Medal. After this Tom Crean was recruited once again for another Antarctic expedition, this time by Earnest Shackleton no less, for the Endurance Expedition from 1914 to 1917.
Thomas Crean retired from Naval duty in 1920 and opened a little pub called the South Pole Inn in Annascaul along with his wife Ellen in 1927. It was the only expression of his adventures. He never spoke about them in public because one couldn’t really advertise being part of the Royal Navy in Ireland at that time. The South Pole Inn still stands and is the humdrum of happiness every evening with local music, great brews and fantastic food. And oh yes, Tom Crean and his adventures are now celebrated with pride within, by way of memorabilia and books.
Tom Crean’s granddaughter Aileen Crean O’Brien runs the Tom Crean Brewery in Kenmare which is on the southern side of the Ring of Kerry that is the peninsula below the Dingle Peninsula. Her husband Bill Sheppard is the brewer and they produce an entire series of beers honouring Tom Crean and his Antarctic exploits. These beers are a fitting tribute to a man who rose to such great heights from humble beginnings in a small Irish village and have imaginative names like Expedition Irish Red Ale, Scurvy Dog IPA and Last Man Standing that commemorate Tom’s testing times and triumphs.