Thomas Clarke – Review

Tom ClarkeHelen Litton China.png

The O’Brien Press (2014), 272 pages

Book Launch, Hodges Figgis, €13

Thomas Clarke is part of the 16 Lives series about the 16 men executed following the 1916 Rising.  Clarke was the first signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and was the oldest man to be executed after the Rising.  Clarke’s belief in the necessity of the violent overthrow of British rule in Ireland resulted in him joining the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).  In 1883 Clarke (under the alias Henry Hammond Wilson) was sentenced to penal servitude for life for his part in a plot to blow up London Bridge.

Litton’s description of Clarke’s time in prison is eye-opening and partly explains his lifelong hatred of the British state (although being a member of the  IRB it’s arguable that his hatred of the British state had already been fully formed).  Litton describes a prison system based on a combination of separation (solitary confinement for a certain period) followed by silence (mixing was allowed with other prisoners but absolute silence was enforced).  Prisoners were allowed visitors every six months, but this privilege was withdrawn for breaking prison rules.  I’d never heard of the silent system but its mental effects seem similar to those of solitary confinement, “The ‘silent’ system came very hard on the prisoners, with its complete ban on the most trivial of chat, or even the exchange of a wink.  Gradually several of the Fenian prisoners, notably Gallagher and Whitehead, began to show signs of mental derangement, but this was denied by the authorities.  Clarke states that he and others did all they could to draw attention to this, but that Governor Harris would not listen to them, and any letters mentioning it were censored or suppressed.  Tom quotes a letter he wrote to Redmond [a leading Irish politician] in 1895, which of course never got to its recipient, in which he describes Whitehead eating crushed  glass in the carpenter’s shop” (p. 50).  Clarke remained sane by performing mental calculations and using the paltry supply of reading materials to learn shorthand and then translate the Bible into shorthand twice!  Clarke was released in 1898 after serving 15 years’ imprisonment.

Following Clarke’s release he married Kathleen Daly and moved to New York for a while.  However he returned to Dublin in 1907 and opened a tobacconist’s shop in Parnell Street.  In 1913 the Irish Volunteers were formed and secretly the IRB took a leading role.  The Irish Volunteers were a nationalist organisation aimed at counteracting the threat from the Ulster Volunteers.  The Irish Volunteers, although organised along military lines, was supported by John Redmond’s respectable Irish Parliamentary Party. The Irish Volunteers reached a peak membership of 180,000 but the outbreak of World War I was a disaster for physical force republicans like Clarke.  Redmond implored the Irish Volunteers to join the British Army and the vast majority of them did, leaving the Irish Volunteers with only about 11,000 men.  The full details of the confusion surrounding the Easter Rising, the destruction to the city of Dublin, the surrender of the rebels, the execution of 16 of them, and the public reaction which created the groundwork for the successful War of Independence have been retold elsewhere.  Clarke, because of his age and general ill health played little role in the actual fighting but was an important father figure to the rebels.

Sackville St. (O'Connell St.) after the 1916 Rising Credit: Wikipedia

Sackville St. (O’Connell St.) after the 1916 Rising
Credit: Wikipedia

Although Thomas Clarke doesn’t go into details the book does mention the allegation that a British soldier, Percival Lea-Wilson, stripped the captured  Clarke in public in order to humiliate him.  This story has a curious link to how Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Taking of the Christ, ended up in Dublin.  Apparently the IRB took note of Lea-Wilson and the treatment he meted out to Clarke and other rebels after their capture.  In revenge the IRA shot Lea-Wilson in Wexford in 1920.  Lea-Wilson’s widow, Marie Lea-Wilson’s confessor was a Jesuit priest.  In gratitude for the priest’s support she donated The Taking of the Christ to the Jesuits in Dublin in the 1930s.  It was only when a Jesuit brought the painting to the National Gallery of Ireland for cleaning that its true value was recognised.  It is strange to note that had Lea-Wilson not humiliated Clarke on a Dublin street after the Rising it’s possible that a great masterpiece might no longer be in Dublin.

Clarke was executed by firing squad at about 4.15am on Wednesday 3rd May 1916.  Clarke, in his final visit with his wife, left her a message, “I and my fellow-signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for Freedom.  The next blow, which we will strike, will win through.  In this belief we die happy” (p.208).  Clarke’s words proved prophetic as within less than a decade Ireland would have gained independence from Britain.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Rising there has been much debate about the role of the Rising and whether it was a necessary step towards Irish freedom.  Former Taoiseach John Bruton caused much controversy when he suggested the Rising wasn’t necessary.  Much of the reaction to Bruton’s comments showed a certain lack of maturity.  I disagree with Bruton’s comments but he is entitled to make them and in making them he is no less Irish than others who hold an opposing view.  British actions following World War I showed that they were unlikely to grant Home Rule to Ireland as they had promised.  The 1916 Rising was, in hindsight, a necessary step in winning the War of Independence.  That is not to say that the methods used by Clarke in 1916 are justifiable in other times.  To say that you agree with the 1916 Rising does not necessitate that you agree with republican violence in the 1970s (or indeed loyalist or British violence) or dissident republican violence in the present day.  Thomas Clarke provides a clear picture of one of the Rising’s most important figures and the motivations for his actions.


Related Links – Excellent Griffith College website on 1916 Rising

National Library of Ireland – NLI 1916 website – Text of speech about the 1916 Rising and why Ireland should have stuck with constitutional nationalism

Irish Independent article on John Bruton’s remarks about the 1916 Rising

Irish Times article on John Bruton’s remarks about the 1916 Rising

Irish Examiner article in which Gerry Adams criticises Bruton’s remarks

Percival Lea-Wilson article from a blog critical of the War of Independence


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