Thomas Clarke: Quiet man made noise with crackle of dynamite
Fires burned for years in tobacconist and activist, the eldest signatory of Proclamation, writes Helen Litton
Published 18/02/2016 | 02:30
Historian Desmond Ryan, who had fought as a Volunteer in the GPO, once wrote: "In a sense, Tom Clarke is a man of one small book, a few letters, and his signature in the 1916 Proclamation". This is certainly the public image of Clarke, still one of the least well-known of the 1916 leaders. But there is little doubt that this apparently meek, quietly-spoken shopkeeper was one of the driving spirits behind the rebellion.
Thomas James Clarke was born in England on March 11, 1858. His father, James, of Carrigallen, Co Leitrim, was a British soldier, and his mother, Mary Palmer, came from Clogheen, Co Tipperary. In 1859 James was moved to South Africa, but the family returned to Ireland in 1865 when he was appointed Sergeant of the Ulster Militia.
They settled in Dungannon, Co Tyrone, and here Tom grew up, becoming an assistant teacher. Appalled by the poverty of the local Catholic population, and Dungannon's strong sectarian discrimination, he was sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood by John Daly of Limerick in 1879.
In 1880 he emigrated to New York and joined Clan na Gael, the American counterpart of the IRB. He was instructed in the use of explosives, and in early 1883 was sent to Britain as part of a dynamite campaign. Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa had started this campaign, hoping that it would cause the British authorities to harass the Irish community in Britain, and encourage Irish nationalism.
Leaving his job as an assistant hotel manager, Tom set off for England (surviving shipwreck on the way) under the name of 'Henry Hammond Wilson'. Landing in Liverpool, he made contact with other members of his group, but an informer had made sure that they were shadowed by police at every step. In Birmingham, Tom collected a portmanteau full of nitroglycerin and brought it to London, where he was arrested.
In June 1883, aged 25, Tom Clarke was sentenced to penal servitude for life for conspiracy to murder, and was sent to Chatham Prison, one of the toughest prisons in England, as Prisoner J464. The Fenian prisoners were kept in a separate wing, under particularly severe conditions. Any contact between prisoners was forbidden, and absolute silence was kept all the time. Punishments ranged from solitary confinement, on a bread and water diet, to beating with a birch or a whip, depending on the 'crime'. The grille cover of the cell door was slammed back every hour at night, so sleep was impossible. Many of the Fenian prisoners ultimately went mad, or were released with their health shattered.
Tom's account of his prison years, Glimpses of an Irish Felon's Prison Life, describes how he kept himself sane by endless calculations - estimating the number of bolts in the doors, the number of bricks in the prison, the length of hair cut over the years.
He worked variously as an iron-moulder, a darner and a printer. He developed a slight heart murmur, and his eyesight deteriorated. His family had no idea where he was for months, until an old friend recognised 'Wilson' from a newspaper sketch. Visits were few and far between, because of cost and distance, and were often cancelled abruptly for a perceived breach of discipline.
In 1884 John Daly, who had sworn Tom into the IRB, was arrested for conspiracy to use dynamite, along with James Egan, and sent to Chatham. Here Clarke, Daly and Egan formed a strong friendship, which helped them to defy the physical conditions of their imprisonment. After an enquiry into conditions in Chatham, triggered by a vigorous amnesty campaign in Ireland, the Fenian prisoners were moved in 1891 to Portland Prison, where the regime was slightly easier.
John Daly was released in 1896, and flung himself into the amnesty campaign, appealing particularly for the release of Clarke, now almost the only Fenian prisoner left. Tom, aged 40, was released on licence in September 1898, and received a hero's welcome in Dublin. He was reunited with his mother and sister Hannah (his father had died in 1894), and was invited to Limerick by his old friend Daly, now first nationalist mayor of the city. He was welcomed by the entire Daly family - John's sister and mother, his widowed sister-in-law, and her eight daughters and one son. He and John's niece Kathleen, aged 21, fell in love, and became engaged.
Unable to find work in Ireland, Tom returned to New York. With the help of Clan na Gael he found work in an iron foundry, and became secretary to John Devoy, the Clan leader. He also became editor of the Gaelic American, a Clan publication. He and Kathleen married in 1901, and their first son, John Daly, was born a year later.
Kathleen's health was not good, and they were advised to leave the city, so from 1906 they ran a market garden in Long Island. In 1907, Tom scented the possibility of a European war, in which Britain would be embroiled. This would provide Ireland's opportunity, and he persuaded Kathleen to return home. She knew this was his life's ambition, and would not stand in his way, but feared the outcome. By early 1908 Tom was in Dublin setting up a tobacconist's shop, and Kathleen was in Limerick, awaiting the birth of their second son, Tom. Their third son, Emmet, was born in 1910.
Over the next few years, from his shop in Parnell Street, Clarke pieced together the remains of the IRB, working with such enthusiastic young men as Bulmer Hobson and Seán Mac Diarmada. An important step was the foundation of the Irish Volunteers in 1914, in reaction to the Ulster Volunteers' establishment in the north. Kathleen's brother, Ned Daly, joined the Volunteers on the first night, and subsequently became Commandant of the First Battalion. Kathleen herself was a founder member of Cumann na mBan in 1914, running the organisation's Central Branch. Gun-running from Germany supplied some arms for the Volunteers; others were bought illicitly from British soldiers needing cash. Money was pouring in from Clan na Gael, and Tom controlled its distribution.
Clarke was devastated by the 1914 split in the Volunteers, caused by MP John Redmond's appeal to them to join Britain in the First World War, but refused to let go of his revolutionary aims. Redmond had pinned his hopes on the new Home Rule Bill as a step forward, but at the outbreak of war it was suspended, and the Unionists in the north would anyway never accept it.
Tom's hopes grew that a majority of the Irish population would back a rebellion, and in 1915 the death of O'Donovan Rossa in New York provided an opportunity for a display of Volunteer strength, as thousands followed the coffin. Tom, one of the chief organisers, chose Patrick Pearse, a teacher and writer, to give the oration at the graveside, telling him to make it "as hot as hell". Pearse obliged, and his heartfelt oratory attracted many more to join.
The Irish Volunteer commander, Eoin MacNeill, was not aware that the IRB were controlling the organisation behind the scenes. Clarke established a secret military council of Pearse, Éamonn Ceannt and Joseph Plunkett, and plans for a rebellion were laid. The leaders gathered to sign the Proclamation on April 18, and insisted that Tom sign it first, a token of the respect in which they held him.
When MacNeill realised what was to happen on Easter Sunday, April 23, he issued a countermanding order. Despite this, the Rising went ahead the following day, but with fewer participants because of the confusion over orders. Clarke himself entered the General Post Office with Pearse, Mac Diarmada and James Connolly, and spent the week there.
He often chatted to younger people, encouraging them to carry on the fight afterwards - he obviously expected that he and the other leaders would die. When the fires in the GPO drove its defenders to retreat to Moore Street, Tom was one of the last to leave.
After the final surrender in Moore Street, on 29 April, everyone was herded into the Rotunda Gardens and kept there overnight. Tom Clarke was treated badly by Captain Lea Wilson; he is said to have been stripped in front of the nurses at the hospital windows, and verbally abused.
At his court-martial he said little apart from "not guilty", and was sentenced to death. Kathleen was brought to visit him in Kilmainham the night before his execution; the following night she came back to say goodbye to her brother Ned. Tom Clarke was executed at dawn on May 3, 1916, with Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh. Recent research implies that his execution did not go smoothly, and he had to be shot a second time.
Kathleen, who had been sworn into the IRB to maintain continuity, started a Volunteers' dependants' fund with money left by Tom. She lost a baby shortly after the Rising, and her uncle, Tom's closest friend, died in June aged 70. Kathleen carried on Tom's work, becoming a TD and a Senator, and was elected Dublin's first woman lord mayor in 1939. She died in 1972, aged 94.
Tom Clarke had achieved his ambition of a blow against the British Empire, and hoped that his sacrifice would encourage others. This dedicated, reclusive man had engaged the loyalty and commitment of hundreds of idealistic younger men, and knew in his heart that his death would not be the end of the fight.
Helen Litton has written biographies of both Edward Daly and Thomas Clarke. She also edited Kathleen Clarke's memoir, 'Revolutionary Woman'