On this day in 1857 Thomas James Clarke was born to Irish parents at Hurst Castle in Hampshire, England. It’s more than a little ironic that one of the biggest strategists behind Ireland’s future revolution was born on English soil. In fact, his father was in the British Army and the family did not return to Ireland until Tom was seven years old. They settled in Dungannon, a Fenian stronghold that had suffered terribly during An Gorta Mor – Ireland’s Great Famine. The scars of that disaster were still all around him and from his earliest years, Tom hated the English establishment. He was determined to fight against it however he could.
Clarke joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood as soon as he turned 18. He was sworn in by a legendary Fenian whom he idolized named John Daly. Shortly thereafter, Tom emigrated to the United States where he joined Clan Na Gael, the American sister organization to the IRB. One of his missions included going to England to take part in a bombing campaign, but he was betrayed and caught before the mission was completed. Tom Clarke was sentenced to life in prison when he was still a young man in his twenties, and prison was not kind to him.
John Daly, Tom’s childhood hero, was eventually in the same prison. The two men developed an extremely close friendship that was one of the only things that made prison life tolerable for Tom. They left messages for one another and used a tapping code on the walls in order to communicate. When Clarke was finally released 15 years later under an Amnesty agreement, he traveled to the Daly home and spent a summer there. It was during that time that he met and fell in love with Daly’s niece, Kathleen.
Kathleen Daly was 21 years younger than Tom Clarke. He was a broken man and he looked even older than his age after his time in prison. A love match between the two was a complete shock to the rest of her family but Kathleen was determined to marry the man her uncle had talked so much about. When Tom went back to America to continue his work with Clan Na Gael Kathleen followed. The two were married in America in 1901 and in 1905 Tom Clarke became an American citizen. Despite his new citizenship, they moved back to Ireland only a few years later.
Clarke opened a tobacco shop in Dublin and maintained a low profile while he and a few other revolutionaries—notably Bulmer Hobson and Sean Mac Diarmada—revived the Irish Republican Brotherhood. The shop became a meeting place for the rebels while they continued to plan a revolt against the English government. They were true radicals who would fight and die for their country and they were looking for others to join them. They recruited many others, including Ned Daly, who was Tom’s brother-in-law. When Clarke decided to initiate a young headmaster into the IRB named Patrick Pearse, he was met with opposition because it was thought that Pearse was too moderate for the organization. He did not stay moderate for long.
The men set about planning a rebellion and Tom Clarke was the master of their strategy, while Sean Mac Diarmada was put in charge of the details. The two men were essentially chess masters, hand-picking and placing the perfect people in the positions that they would be best suited for. When their Proclamation of Independence was finished and the time came for signatures, Tom Clarke was the first to sign it. There are many ideas of why his signature was first – some say it’s as simple as age, since he was the oldest. Others maintain this pride of place was a sign of how much respect and admiration the other men had for him. Regardless of the reasons, it was certainly an honor that he accepted.
His age kept him from having a huge part in the actual combat of the Rising, but he was in the middle of it. He stayed with the other leaders in the General Post Office Headquarters giving orders and pep talks when needed. By the end of the week when sleep deprivation and injury had affected some of the others, Clarke and MacDiarmada took command. They continued to plan and helped keep the morale up despite the odds. They issued evacuation orders and strategies to various parts of the city where other rebels were fighting. They would have continued the fight except that the other leaders were already talking about surrender. Clarke vehemently opposed it but he was ultimately outvoted, which must have broken his heart since he would have preferred to die in the fight than go back to prison. When one of the arresting officers asked who Clarke was, another replied that “he’s the man with the largest file in Dublin Castle” – proving that even his enemies knew what a force they were up against in Thomas Clarke.
The leaders were tried in secret, but we now know that Clarke did not offer a defense or a statement during his court-martial. The leaders all knew what the authorites had in store for them and Tom was looking forward to what kind of legacy they’d leave behind. When his wife Kathleen visited his cell, she was allowed an hour with her husband. She has stated that they did not talk about themselves or their children, but rather they spoke about the future of Ireland. Clarke stated that he and the other men “believe we have saved the soul of Ireland and we struck the first successful blow for its freedom.”
Thomas Clarke was the first signatory on the Proclamation, and the second to die. Patrick Pearse, Clarke’s initiate, was the first execution. Clarke was older than Pearse and many of the other leaders by twenty years or more. Before his death, he asked his wife to deliver this message to the Irish people:
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.
The leaders are all buried together in a mass grave at Arbour Hill in Dublin and their Rising will be celebrated and remembered by many on its hundredth anniversary next year. If there was one who had an inkling that their legacy might live that long, it would probably have been Thomas Clarke. After all, he molded and designed it to survive.