‘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.’ Thomas Clarke, ‘Message to the Irish People’
Thomas J. Clarke, the first signatory of the 1916 Proclamation, was born on the Isle of Wight to Irish parents on 11th March 1857. His father was a sergeant in the British Army and the family moved to Dungannon, County Tyrone when Clarke was about seven. For the rest of his life, Clarke would consider himself a Dungannon man.
Clarke was a deeply committed and seasoned revolutionary. A veteran member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood [IRB], Clarke joined ‘the Fenians’ or ‘the organisation’ when he was just eighteen. Clarke soon volunteered for active service and took part in the Fenians’ ‘dynamite campaign’. This campaign had been organised by O’Donavan Rossa to take the war for Irish freedom to England, the ‘belly of the beast’, by blowing up public buildings and infrastructure in England. In 1883 Clarke was ordered to blow up the famous London Bridge. However he was arrested before he could carry out the operation and put on trial under the alias ‘Henry Wilson’. Clarke was sentenced to penal servitude for life for his republican activities and went on to spend over fifteen years in British prisons.
Released under the general amnesty for Fenian prisoners in 1898, Clarke left prison determined to continue the fight for national liberation. He moved to Brooklyn in the USA where he worked under the great Fenian leader John Devoy as a member of the IRB’s sister organisation Clann na Gael. While in America, Clarke married Kathleen Daly, a niece of John Daly, a well-known Fenian who had sworn Clarke into the IRB and had also been imprisoned with him.
Re-organising the IRB
Clarke firmly believed in the old Fenian saying that ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’. In 1907 he sensed that a European war was inevitable and believed that republicans should use that opportunity to strike another blow for Irish freedom. He returned to Ireland and settled in Dublin, where he opened a tobacconist shop at 75A Parnell Street.
The tobacconist shop soon became a hotbed of republican activity as Clarke immersed himself in the underground work of the IRB, which by this time was lead by an old guard which lacked the required pro-activity. Clarke immediately came into conflict with this group and made it clear that he had no time for ‘armchair revolutionaries’.
Working with a younger generation of IRB activists, such as Seán Mac Diarmada and Bulmer Hobson, Clarke began a total reorganisation of the IRB. These younger men, along with Denis McCullough, had become disillusioned by the inactivity of the IRB and decided to do something about it. They established the ‘Dungannon Clubs’ as a way of attracting a new generation to the struggle for an Irish Republic. The clubs openly functioned as republican debating societies but all the while the organisers were recruiting the promising members into the IRB. To this younger generation Clarke was the embodiment of what a Fenian should be. His return to Ireland and his setting about the re-organisation was a signal to them of a change in the fortunes for the IRB.
Mac Diarmada and Hobson soon forged a close relationship with Clarke, becoming his protégés. Together the three men drew up a plan for increasing the influence of the Fenians by directing IRB members into other nationalist organisations such as the GAA and the Gaelic League.
Clarke was the engine driving the re-organisation of republican forces at this time. He was a deeply committed revolutionary, determined to ensure that a generation would not pass without striking another blow for Irish freedom.
The Irish Volunteers
In 1913, the re-organised IRB were in a position to take advantage of the rising national sentiment. In November the IRB organised a public meeting in the Rotunda, Dublin to form an open military organisation, the Irish Volunteers. Clarke took no position in the new organisation, but other IRB members such a Mac Diarmada, Hobson and Éamonn Ceannt were elected to key positions. This ensured the central influence of the IRB in the new overground organisation.
By 1914 the IRB’s supreme council was largely controlled by Clarke and the ‘young turks’ of Hobson, Mac Diarmada, Patrick McCartan, John Mac Bride and Denis McCullough. The re-organisation of the IRB which had begun in 1907 was now complete and the organisation now began to pursue all options for launching a revolution in Ireland.
Hobson’s support for a proposal to accept twenty-five members of the Irish Parliamentary Party on to the provisional committee of the Volunteers, however, led to a major falling out with Clarke who viewed the move as extremely dangerous. From that moment on Hobson became persona non grata in leading IRB circles, but remained a member of the organisation.
The Military Council and preparations for the Rising
Clarke and Mac Diarmada were by now inseparable. As Treasurer and Secretary of the IRB, the two men ran the organisation. Together they began drawing up a plan for a military rising in Ireland. Under their leadership, leading members of the Volunteers had been recruited into the IRB including Joseph Plunkett, Thomas MacDonagh and Patrick Pearse, and the IRB now dominated the Volunteer executive.
In 1915 Clarke and Mac Diarmada established a secret military council to organise preparations for a Rising and co-opted Plunkett, MacDonagh, Pearse, and later James Connolly onto the Council.
Tom Clarke’s many years of republican activism had led to this point. He more then any other of the IRB leaders can be described as the driving force behind the Easter Rising. After each setback, whether it was failure of the dynamite campaign or imprisonment, Tom Clarke had dusted himself off and started again. Now, thanks to his never failing efforts a Rising was planned that would take advantage of the European war and strike a blow against the British Empire.
When the veteran Fenian leader O’Donovan Rossa died, Clarke became chief organiser of his funeral. Clarke aimed to use the funeral to mobilise the Volunteers and heighten their expectation for imminent action. Under Clarke’s direction O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral became a rallying point for a rejuvenated revolutionary republicanism. Clarke was proposed as the main speaker but he refused. He said,‘No, the young men must come forward’, and he asked Pearse to give them main oration. Clarke had chosen wisely. In a now famous speech, Pearse set the tone for what was to come.
The Easter Rising
Clarke and Mac Diarmada took an important decision and outlined their plans for a Rising to James Connolly, who had been planning something similar. Connolly agreed whole heartedly with the planned Rising and was co-opted onto the military council. The Irish Citizen Army would now join the Volunteers and the IRB in battle for the freedom of Ireland. The date of the rising was set for Easter Sunday 1916. Orders were issued to all Volunteer and ICA companies for general maneuverers on that day. This was the signal that the insurrection was to begin.
When the news of Eoin MacNeill’s infamous countermanding order to Volunteers reached the military council on Easter Sunday morning, Clarke immediately proposed that the rising should go ahead as planned. He argued that once the fighting began in Dublin, Volunteers around the county would inevitably join in.
However the other leaders disagreed and voted instead to postpone the Rising until 12pm on Easter Monday. The next twenty four hours would be spent rallying their troops and salvaging what plans they could.
When the Rising began, Clarke was stationed in Republican headquarters at the GPO in Dublin. Clarke was chosen by the Provisional Government to be the first signatory of the Proclamation of the Republic. This was testament to the respect held for Clarke in republican circles. He was viewed as an inspirational leader, a man of action and, importantly, as a symbol of the unbreakable spirit of the republican struggle. Although Clarke held no formal military rank, those stationed in the GPO garrison looked to him for direction and he played a key role in directing the fight throughout Easter week.
Clarke was opposed to the eventual surrender of the republican forces, supporting instead a proposal by Commandant Sean McLoughlin to fight their way to safety down Moore Street. However the Military Council agreed to a proposal from Pearse to cease hostilities in order to prevent further loss of civilian life. The Rising was over, but the struggle for national liberation had been reborn.
Arrest and execution
Arrested and court martialled along with the other republican leaders, Tom Clarke was the first of the leaders to be executed by British firing squad. It is said that the largest intelligence file of all was the file on Tom Clarke, a fitting testament to a life lived in the service of Ireland. Clarke’s life work had come to fruition. He had successfully re-organised the IRB to a position where it was ready to strike a blow for Irish freedom and had seen an independent Irish Republic proclaimed in arms. Although the Rising had not been a military success, Clarke gave his life happy in the knowledge that the next generation would take up the fight for freedom and that this time it would be continued until victory.
Thomas J. Clarke, the veteran, unrepentant Fenian, and one of the main architects of the 1916 Rising was executed on May 2, in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin.
Fuair sé bas ar son na h-Éireann.
This article was borrowed from Eirigi