Thomas Clarke was one of the architect’s of the Easter Rising, his nationalism hardened by 15 years in prison in England.
By Helen Litton
Thomas James Clarke, despite his low profile at the time, is now increasingly regarded as a principal architect of the Easter Rising.
Born in England on March 11, 1858, to a Leitrim father and a Tipperary mother, he spent his first years in South Africa, where his father, a British soldier, was stationed.
In 1865, the family returned to Ireland, and Tom grew up in Dungannon, Co Tyrone. He was radicalised by the anti-Catholic discrimination he witnessed and the poverty of the Gaelic population, and, in 1879, he was sworn into a Fenian association, the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
Following a riot in Dungannon and fearing arrest, he arrived in New York in 1880 and joined Clan na Gael, the American Fenians. In 1883, he was sent to England to take part in a dynamiting campaign, but was arrested in London because of an informer. Aged 25, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, and sent to Chatham Prison, which was notorious for the severity of its conditions. The Fenian prisoners were singled out for particularly harsh treatment.
Tom spent 15 years in prison, alleviated only by his friendship with John Daly, of Limerick, and James Egan, who were also Fenian prisoners. These three supported one another, despite the ban on any association or speech, and circumvented the regulations with great ingenuity. Daly was released in 1884, and campaigned for amnesty for the other Fenian prisoners.
Tom was released in September, 1898, aged 40, and returned to his mother and sister in Dublin. Daly invited him to Limerick, where he was now the first nationalist mayor, and Tom fell in love with one of John’s nieces, Kathleen Daly. She was only 20, but knew her own mind, and ignored her family’s warnings about marrying a much older man with poor employment prospects.
Tom returned to New York, where he and Kathleen were married in 1901. He renewed his association with Clan na Gael, and the couple lived and worked in the Bronx, in Brooklyn and, finally, in Long Island, running a market garden.
In 1907, Tom, aware of stormclouds in Europe, persuaded Kathleen they should return home. They came back late that year, with their son, John Daly Clarke, and Tom set up two tobacconist shops in Dublin. The smallest one, at 75A Parnell St, became a centre of revolutionary activity, constantly watched by the police.
Clan na Gael had empowered Tom to revive the IRB, which was in decline, and provided a constant supply of money. Building up contacts with young nationalists, such as Sean MacDiarmada, Tom re-energised the organisation and began to work towards a rebellion.
This was brought a step closer in 1913, with the formation of the Irish Volunteers in reaction to the establishment of the Ulster Volunteers. Although Eoin MacNeill, a UCD professor, was chief of staff, the Volunteers were controlled by Tom Clarke and by other members of the IRB.
Kathleen Clarke was a founder member of Cumann na mBan, the ladies’ auxiliary, and head of its central branch. By now, Tom and Kathleen had two more sons, Tom and Emmet.
The outbreak of the First World War caused a split, as the vast majority of the Irish Volunteers joined the British army, but the remainder, about 11,000, were still determined to fight for the nationalist cause.
War had also caused the postponement of the Home Rule Bill, which constitutional nationalists had been awaiting impatiently, and many despairingly joined the ranks of the revolutionaries.
On April 18, 1916, seven of the IRB leaders signed the Proclamation, in preparation for the Rising. They insisted that Tom Clarke sign it first, a mark of high respect. However, when MacNeill realised that the “manoeuvres” announced for Easter Sunday were actually the start of a rebellion, he issued a countermanding order.
This threw the plans into disarray, and although the Rising began the following day, Easter Monday, the number of Volunteers who came out was much smaller than expected. The Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan also turned out, but Kathleen Clarke spent that week at home, ready to carry on the IRB, whatever the outcome.
Tom Clarke was in the GPO all of that devastating week, and was one of the last to leave when the spreading fires drove everyone out. As they took shelter in Moore St, Tom was the only one who voted against surrender; he wanted to die fighting.
Following the surrender, on April 29, he was court-martialled and sentenced to death. His wife visited him in Kilmainham Jail to say goodbye, and he professed his willingness to die and his pride in the week’s events. He was executed on the morning of May 3; recent research suggests that it was bungled, and that he had to be shot twice.
Kathleen’s brother, Ned, commandant at the Four Courts, was executed the following day, aged 25.
Tom Clarke had achieved his ambition of a blow against the British Empire, and knew in his heart that his death would not be the end of the fight.
Helen Litton is author of ‘Thomas Clarke’, in the 16 Lives biography series published by O’Brien Press, and ‘Edward Daly’ (about her grand-uncle) in the same series. She edited ‘Kathleen Clarke: Revolutionary Woman’, about her grand-aunt, the wife of Tom Clarke.