Thomas (Tom) Clarke was born on 11 March 1858 on the Isle of Wight, the eldest of four children born to James Clarke, an Anglican bombardier in the Royal Artillery and his Catholic wife, Mary. After spending eight years in South Africa, to where his father had been posted, the family settled in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone, in 1867 where the young Thomas attended St. Patrick’s national school. It was also in Dungannon that Clarke, still in his teens, came into contact with fenianisn, joining the movement after John Daly, its national organiser, visited in 1878.
In 1882, he emigrated to the United States where he joined Clan na Gael and attended bomb-making classes. Within a year, he was sent to London on a dynamiting mission. Arrested in possession of explosives, he was sentenced to penal servitude for life, spending the next fifteen years in the British jails at Millbank, Chathan and Portland. His harsh treatment in prison was later recalled in the pages of Irish Freedom in 1912 and in book form in Glimpses of an Irish felon's prison life, published following his death in 1922.
Clarke emerged from prison physically changed – he was stooped and prematurely aged – but as committed a Fenian as ever. He returned again to the United States, finding work as an Assistant Editor to the Clan na Gael leader John Devoy on his newspaper, the Gaelic American. Active in various Irish-American organisations, Clarke became a naturalised US citizen in November 1905.
Two years later, in 1907, together with his wife Kathleen Daly (niece of the veteran Fenian John Daly, with whom he served time in jail, and a sister of Edward (Ned) Daly, later executed for his part in the 1916 Rising) and their three children, Clarke returned to Ireland, opening a tobacconist shops on Dublin’s Parnell Street and Amiens Street. The former became a focal point for IRB activity in the city. Clarke was an influential, background figure who assisted a cohort of young militants, especially Séan Mac Diarmada, in revitalising an IRB organisation that had, for decades, been weakened by inactivity and division. Together with Mac Diarmada and fellow IRB men, Denis McCullough and Bulmer Hobson, he published Irish Freedom, a republican journal which launched in 1910 and ran until its suppression in December 1914.
Helping in the establishment of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, Clarke was opposed of the effective takeover of its executive by John Redmond’s nominees in June 1914. He therefore welcomed the split in the movement that followed Redmond’s pledge of Volunteer support in September 1914, which helped tighten the IRB’s control over the smaller faction. On 9 September 1914 Clarke presided over a meeting at the Gaelic League’s headquarters in Dublin – attended by IRB men in the main – at which it was agreed to mount a rebellion against British rule during the course of the European war. Clarke was a key figure in delivering on that promise: a member of the IRB’s Supreme Council, he later joined its Military Council who operated secretly in its planning of the Rising. More openly, Clarke orchestrated the spectacular funeral of the veteran fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in August 1915, at which Patrick Pearse, encouraged by Clarke’s advice to make it ‘hot as hell’, delivered his famous graveside oration.
For all the low profile he maintained, Clarke’s reputation of a lynchpin of separatist activity in Dublin was well known to the British authorities and his movements were closely monitored by the Dublin Metropolitan Police. However, Clarke was also the vital link between the rebels and the John Devoy’s Clan na Gael organisation in New York, a connection that was used to arrange the landing of German arms in Ireland.
When the planned Rising for Easter 1916 was thrown into disarray by the interception of those weapons and Eoin Mac Neill’s countermanding order cancelling Volunteer manoeuvres scheduled for Easter Sunday, Clarke was determined to carry on. He reluctantly agreed to the deferral of the Rising by a day. Throughout Easter Week, Clarke, whose name appears first on the Proclamation, served in the GPO alongside most of the other members of the Provisional Government. He opposed the surrender but was outvoted. Following his arrest he was court-martialled in Richmond Barracks on 2nd May and was one of the first three rebel leaders executed by firing squad the following day, May 3 1916, at Kilmainham Jail. Clarke, widely regarded as the most single-minded of the 1916 leadership, was buried at Arbour Hill prison cemetery.
Helen Litton, 16 Lives: Thomas Clarke (O’Brien Press)