Monday 21 October 2019

Tim Pat Coogan: Kathleen Clarke - Having lost her husband and brother, she remained staunch and unbroken

The 1916 Centenary parade makes its way past the GPO in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
The 1916 Centenary parade makes its way past the GPO in Dublin. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Members of the Irish Defence Forces at a wreath laying ceremony at Kilmainham Jail. Photo: Mark Condren

Tim Pat Coogan

Dublin 2016, the Luas drivers are preventing workers from entering the city to honour James Connolly. In the Dáil, from where guidance should come, no one knows what uncouth beast will eventually slouch off towards Bethlehem. A terrible ugliness is born.

As we take stock on this, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, we can see, dismayed though we are, that there is a certain logic to all this.

The public have responded with anger and confusion at being forced to take on billions in private debt, and have in effect said "a plague on all your houses" to the political parties, and strikes - no matter how ill conceived - were bound to erupt as wage freezes ended.

Let us never forget that the word 'austerity' in Ireland means that more people died from suicide during the seven or eight austerity years than in all the 30 years of the Troubles. (In just the six years from 2007-2012 alone, the National Suicide Research Federation lists 3,057 deaths from suicide. In the Troubles between 1968 and 1998, 3,532 people were killed). Let us never forget a generation forced into emigration from a crippling unemployment, homelessness, the withdrawal of vitally needed money for special needs children and equally vitally needed medical cards for the over-seventies.

On top of this, now we see Fianna Fáil, who presided over all of this, and Fine Gael, who let rural Ireland die and crime flourish, now dance around each other, trying to see who can get the best dowry for a loveless marriage of convenience.

There are seven votes between them (after the appointment of the Ceann Comhairle); seven votes passed the Treaty and brought this State into being, seven votes led to a Civil War. Now is the opportunity, on this most fitting of anniversaries, to finally end that war.

Whatever happened to idealism?

Recently, I came across an interview I did with Kathleen Clarke, Tom Clarke's widow, on the 50th anniversary of the Rising for my first book, 'Ireland Since the Rising'. But as is the way of publishing, it ultimately went out of print and the Clarke interview went with it. On this, the 100th anniversary, I feel a contemporary newspaper readership would appreciate the opportunity of assessing the calibre of the women of 1916, leaving them to make their own comparisons with what is currently happening in the Dáil and workplace.

She was detained in the Castle when an officer came and said: "I had permission to see my husband. 'My God, Kathleen, said one of the girls, what does that mean?' 'It means death, I said.' 'Oh no,' said the girl; Marie Perolz was her name. 'Look,' said I, 'do you think that if the British government were going to send my husband on a journey any shorter than to the next world they would get an officer and a car out at midnight to go for me?' "You're a stone,' said the girl. I was.

"We were stopped several times. There were snipers on a lot of rooftops and I didn't think we would be let go on but the officer showed his pass and we got through. Killmainham was terrible. The conditions! There was a monk downstairs.

"He told me that my husband had put him out of the cell. There was no light in it, only a candle that a soldier held. 'Why did you surrender?' I asked Tom. 'I thought you were going to hold out for six months.' 'I wanted to but the vote went against me,' he said. We talked about the future the whole time, I never saw him so buoyed up. He said that the first blow had been struck and that Ireland would get her freedom but would have to go through hell first.

"He had to face the ordeal by himself in the morning. If I broke down, it might have broken him down. I said, 'What did you do to that priest down there?' 'That damned fellow came in here,' he said, 'told me he would give me confession if I would admit that I was wrong and that I was sorry. I am not sorry, I told him that I gloried in what I had done.' I was expecting a baby but didn't tell him that in case it might upset him.

"I asked an officer to have his body sent to me. He hemmed and hawed and said he had no instructions about it. In the end, he promised to do something, but he wrote to me after to say I could not have the body. I walked home from the Castle to Fairview; there was a smell of burning in the air. I had to walk in the middle of the road because things were falling off the roofs. In O'Connell Street, a big policeman stopped me. When I told him who I was and where I was going, he said, 'You'd better go down Fairview, Maam. There are some soldiers up at Parnell's monument and they are not very nice.' I had to climb over a big pile of rubble in North Earl Street. The bricks were still hot. I never met a sinner all the way home.

"I had sent the children down to Limerick and there was no one in the house. I don't drink but I had whiskey and brandy in the house in case any wounded were brought in. Now, I thought, I'll have one 24 hours of oblivion; and I took out a bottle of port and filled myself out a glass. I thought it was strong but I was awake again in an hour.

"My sister came up from the country and that night a lorry came and took us to Kilmainham to say goodbye to my brother. I heard it coming before any of them and I said, 'They are coming to take us to Ned. He is going to be shot.' They thought I was going off my head. But a few minutes later, we all heard it. Then it stopped outside the house. My sister didn't want me to go but I insisted. My brother was in uniform. He looked about 18.

"There was a group of officers outside the cell; they seemed to have some spite against him. The soldier holding the candle had been in my husband's firing party. He said my husband was the bravest man he'd seen. I lost the baby a week later. I don't know if it was a boy or a girl.

"I worked at the prisoners' fund. It saved me from going mad. God must have put the idea in my head."

For several months after, she was the person who kept the revolutionary flame alive. She ran the National Aid Association which helped to alleviate the hardships of families and survivors.

Kathleen had only seen the Rising as round one in the fight for independence.

On his release from Frongoch, she handed over the running of the fund to someone who thought like her - Michael Collins.

Irish Independent

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