Thomas James “Tom” Clarke (Irish: Tomás Séamus Ó Cléirigh; 11 March 1858 – 3 May 1916) was an Irish revolutionary leader and arguably the person most responsible for the 1916 Easter Rising. A proponent of violent revolution for most of his life, he spent 15 years in prison. Following his release he organized the Easter Rising, and was executed after it was quashed.
Clarke was born on the Isle of Wight to James Clarke from Carrigallen, Leitrim, and his newly married bride, Mary Palmer from Clogheen, Tipperary. His father was a soldier in the British Army and was based there. His father was transferred to South Africa when Thomas was one. The family moved with him. They did not return to Ireland until he was seven. He grew up in Dungannon, County Tyrone.
Dungannon, in the heart of east Tyrone, was a part of the country that had witnessed constant resistance to English interference in Irish affairs from the early modern period. It was a hotbed of paramilitary organization, some of which was agrarian located, other of which was politically motivated. The famine had afflicted that part of Ireland well into the early 1850s, and was very much within living memory during Tom’s youth. This was a stronghold of the United Irishmen in times past, and became a center of Fenianism. Dungannon–Coalisland was a bastion of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which in 1867 had risen in arms in various parts of Ireland. Clarke was drawn into this type of activity. When he was old enough to join, he became a member of the IRB in Dungannon.
Irish Republican Brotherhood
The IRB was a secret oath-bound society committed to ridding Ireland of English rule and establishing an Irish Republic through physical force. In 1878, its national organizer, John Daly, visited Dungannon, and Clarke attended the meeting. He was captivated by Daly, and very soon afterwords was initiated into the IRB by Daly himself. From the late 1870’s onward, Clarke was totally committed to the cause of Irish republicanism. Before long, Clarke was playing a central role in local IRB activities.
In 1880, riots erupted in Dungannon between locals and the police. Clarke, armed with a rifle, proceeded to fire at police, and the crowd then proceeded to attack the constabulary. The authorities took this violence very seriously, and Clarke decided to leave the area in fear of his life. Friends of his were emigrating to America, and he decided to join them. He arrived in New York in later that year, at the age of 22. He managed to find work almost immediately as a hotel porter, but more importantly, he made contact with the American arm of the Fenian Movement, Clan na Gael.
Clan na Gael was as significant as the branch in Ireland; they had more freedom in America and could foster republicanism and collect money for the cause. Many of the events of the 1880’s were instigated by Clan na Gael. It was Clan na Gael who planned a bombing campaign in England. This followed a series of failed uprisings in Ireland, and marked a change of tactics as the IRB and Clan na Gael decided to strike at the heart of the British Empire, embarking on a campaign designed to put the issue of Ireland at the forefront of British politics.
Clarke was sent back to England to participate in a dynamite campaign, in which bombs were being set off across London in places like the Tower of London and the Underground.The operation was riddled with informers and the police were actually following Clarke as he was engaged in surveillance missions.
The experience of being betrayed by an infiltrator in England when Clarke was on active service for the Fenians in Britain added greatly to his awareness of personal security. It contributed to his desire to be always in the background—a shadowy figure, a manipulative figure, involved, but removed. In his later revolution career, he was never directly betrayed by any close associate.
Before he was able to carry out his mission, Clarke was arrested and tried at the Old Bailey in London in May 1883 under the assumed name of Henry Hammond Wilson, a pseudonym he adopted during the course of the dynamiting campaign. He was found guilty under the treason felony act and sentenced to penal servitude for life.
“Nothing in [the rules and regulations] startled me like the one that stated, “Strict silence must at all times be observed; under no circumstances must one prisoner speak to another.” When I thought of what that meant in conjunction with another paragraph, “No hope of release for life prisoners till they have completed twenty years, and then each case will be decided on its own merits,” and remembered with what relentless savagery the English Government has always dealt with the Irishmen it gets into its clutches, the future appeared as black and appalling as imagination could picture it.”
– “Early Prison Thoughts”
Clarke was one of “The Special Men”. He did 15-1⁄2 years in what was the British equivalent of Devil’s Island. It was a calvary of suffering, in which he endured physical hardship, mental desolation, and emotional deprivation in a regime that was designed to crush the prisoners physically and spiritually.
Harassing morning, noon, and night, and on through the night, harassing always and at all times, harassing with bread and water punishments, and other punishments, with “no sleep” torture and other tortures. This system was applied to the Irish prisoners, and to them only, and was specially devised to destroy us mentally and physically—to kill or drive insane.
– “Early Prison Thoughts”
Clarke saw people around him go insane, and year after year he had to battle against slipping into depression, because he knew that if that happened, that way madness lay. He was determined to get through his imprisonment:
Clinch your teeth hard and never say die.
Keep your thoughts off yourself all you can.
Guard your self-respect (if you lost that you’d lose the backbone of your manhood).
Keep your eyes wide open and don’t bang your head against the wall.
– “The Golden Rules of Life for a Long Sentence Prisoner”
Among the new prisoners to arrive at the prison during Clarke’s sentence was John Daly. Daly was the man who had recruited him into the IRB originally. They managed to make contact. They had a system in place whereby they knocked on the walls of the prison a code of communication with each other. They hid messages in different places in the prison. They kept in touch and kept one another’s spirits up.
He was able to rely on the friendship and protection of a few people like Daly, but Daly was eventually amnestied after almost starving himself to death in a hunger strike, and then, essentially, Clarke was left on his own.
Here we are in 1893 [and I] have been in prison 10 years, almost a third of my lifetime. … No one can understand all the hardships [but myself, but] notwithstanding it all, I am from the heart’s core to the fingertips, Irish. Always proudly Irish as in the old days.
– Letter to Paddy Jordan
Finally, after spending over 15 years behind bars, word came through that Clarke was to be released as part of a general amnesty on Fenian prisoners. Clarke left prison a damaged individual in one sense: he was physically aged—he looked much older than he was. He was filled with an absolute hatred directed toward the people and the system which he blamed for robbing him of the best years of his life. One day, he would have his revenge on those people and that system.
Tom Clarke was released from Portland Prison in the winter of 1898. The following spring he made a trip to Limerick to visit his old friend, John Daly. He stayed with the Dalys on into the summer and formed a close bond with Daly’s niece, Kathleen.
He was 41 years of age, Kathleen, 21. The last thing the family expected was that there was going to be romance between one of the Dalys and Tom Clarke. Kathleen was very determined to be together with him.
Even with the age gap, they believed in the same principles. She was involved in republican activities throughout her life.They couldn’t get married until he found a job. He failed to find a job in Ireland and returned to America, where they married.
Clarke migrated to the US in 1899 and immediately became reintegrated into the Clan na Gael structure. He became the right-hand man of the great John Devoy, the most important surviving Fenian in North America, placing Clarke into the leadership hierarchy. Clarke applied for and received US citizenship in 1905, and in 1906, obtained two fairly substantial farm properties in New York state. He did not immediately intend to return to Ireland, but he did so in 1907. The IRB was essentially being refounded in Ireland, predominantly by Bulmer Hobson, Denis McCullough, Pat McCartan, and rising figures like Seán Mac Diarmada. Devoy sent Clarke back to Ireland to head up the American interest in the IRB revival.
Tom Clarke arrived back in Ireland, and moved with his family to Dublin city, where he immediately set about establishing a front for his revolutionary activities. Once Clarke had set up the front for the IRB on Parnell Street, he was in almost daily contact with nearly all the leading players, most notably Bulmer Hobson, whom he would have encountered on his lecture tours in the United States. Among those who came into his milieu was Seán Mac Diarmada, who became the closest thing to an adjutant that Clarke would ever have. These were the people who collectively produced 1916.
Seán Mac Diarmada was one of the first of many converts to Clarke’s cause. He traveled the country spreading the revolutionary gospel, even continuing his work on behalf of the cause after he suffered a bout of polio that left him crippled. Many of the converts Mac Diarmada brought into the fold were drawn from a range of nationalist cultural organizations like the Gaelic League and the GAA, which were set up during the language and cultural revival in Ireland at the beginning of the century.
The Irish Volunteers
From the very beginning, the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood decided that it was essential that they should control, though secretly, the Irish Volunteers. At this time the executive of the Council consisted of Seamus Deakin as President and Chairman, Sean MacDiarmada as Secretary, and Tom Clarke as Treasurer. They instructed Bulmer Hobson not to accept any position in the Volunteers, or appear to be in any way connected with the force. Despite this, he accepted the Secretaryship of the Provisional Committee. From the beginning of the Volunteers, there was according to Louis N. Le Roux, ‘a germ of internal conflict in the air’, however it did not become a matter of concern to the IRB leaders until May–June, 1914 when John Redmond demanded control.
John Daly (18 October 1845—30 June 1916)
In a letter to John Daly, dated April 29, 1914, Clarke outlined the situation. Redmond, he said, was ‘thoroughly alarmed’ at the spread of the Volunteer movement, and they were prepared for some attempt to ‘make peace with the influential ones of the Provisional Committee.’ This, he said, proved to be the case, with Redmond offering Eoin MacNeill to finance the Volunteers if his Party would be allowed to have a controlling ‘say’ on the movement. To this MacNeill would not agree. Clarke also notes that Joe Devlin, in an interview with Roger Casement, would make practically the same offer, and meeting the same response, concluded the interview by outlining the situation:
the young men of the country are flocking into the Volunteer Movement, and, of course, as a consequence are being drawn away from the Party; this is going on at such a rate that it means the smashing of the Party—unless, we smash the Volunteer Movement.
The IRB instructed all their officers that Redmond must not be ‘allowed to get his tentacles’ on the Volunteers. On Sunday, June 7, MacNeill, Casement and Patrick McCartan met in Dundalk to discuss the response they would have to give to the demand by Redmond, John Dillon and Devlin. McCartan obeyed his instructions, telling how dangerous it would be to allow Redmondites in, and both MacNeill and Casement dreaded the dilemma. On June 10, Redmond’s ultimatum appeared in the Press. While the IRB Executive and the Supreme Council would remain irreconcilable to the idea of surrender to Redmond, Hobson, despite his instructions, took an opposing course. Writing in An t-Oglach (Free State Army monthly), March 1931, he wrote “I set to work and … succeeded in convincing a majority of the Committee of the necessity of our giving way for the moment.” When Clarke was told about Hobson’s exertions, and that the decision to accept Redmond’s nominees would not have been possible but for Hobson, he nearly broke down.
Seán McGarry who was with Clarke when Hobson’s actions were reviled recalled:
I was with Tom when the news came and to say he was astounded is understating it. I never saw him so moved. He regarded it from the beginning as cold-blooded and contemplated treachery likely to bring about the destruction of the only movement in a century which brought promise of the fulfilment of all his hopes.
Planning the uprising
Following Clarke’s falling out with Hobson, MacDermott and Clarke became almost inseparable. The two of them, as secretary and treasurer, respectively, de facto ran the IRB, although it was still under the nominal head of other men, Seamus Deakin, and later McCullough.
In 1915 Clarke and MacDermott established the Military Committee of the IRB to plan what later became the Easter Rising. The members were Pearse, Ceannt, and Joseph Plunkett, with Clarke and MacDermott adding themselves shortly thereafter. When the old Fenian, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, died in 1915, Clarke used his funeral (and Pearse’s graveside oration) to mobilise the Volunteers and heighten expectation of imminent action.
When an agreement was reached with James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in January 1916, Connolly was also included on the committee, with Thomas MacDonagh added at the last minute in April. These seven men were the signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic, with Clarke as the first signatory. It has been said that Clarke indeed would have been the declared President and Commander-in-chief, but he refused any military rank and such honours; these were given to Pearse, who was more well-known and respected on a national level.
The Easter Rising
Clarke was stationed in the headquarters at the General Post Office during the events of Easter Week, where rebel forces were largely composed of Irish Citizen Army members under the command of Connolly. Though he held no formal military rank, Clarke was recognised by the garrison as one of the commanders, and was active throughout the week in the direction of the fight, and shared the fortunes of his comrades. Following the surrender on April 29, Clarke was held in Kilmainham Jail until his execution by firing squad on May 3 at the age of 59. He was the second individual to be executed, following Patrick Pearse.
Before execution, he asked his wife Kathleen to give this message: .
‘I and my fellow signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for Irish freedom. The next blow, which we have no doubt Ireland will strike, will win through. In this belief, we die happy.’
– Message to the Irish People, 3 May 1916
His widow Kathleen was elected a TD in the First and Second Dála, notably speaking against the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
In 1922, a collection of his prison writings, Glimpses of an Irish Felon’s Prison Life, was published. All 13 chapters of the book had previously appeared as articles in the newspaper “Irish Freedom” in 1912-13. The book is a direct and honest account of the harsh treatment he received in various British prisons.
Thomas Clarke Tower in Ballymun was named after him. The top floor was used as a short stay hotel before its demolition in April 2008.
Dundalk railway station was given the name Clarke on 10 April 1966 in commemoration of Clarke’s role in the 1916 Rising.
He also featured on postage stamps in 1966.
Dungannon Thomas Clarkes, a Gaelic Football team from County Tyrone in Northern Ireland are also named after him.
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