Tom Clarke: the leader left out of the story

The man who played a key role in organising the Rising was eclipsed for many years

Unlike Patrick Pearse – the historic face of 1916 – Tom Clarke remains a relatively unknown member of the Provisional Government that instigated the Easter Rising. Yet paradoxically Clarke’s name – at his fellow signatories’ insistence – stands first and alone on the Proclamation and, had he accepted their offer of the presidency Clarke, not Pearse, would have recited that document on Easter Monday.

The veteran Fenian John Devoy even declared that "but for him there would have been no IRB left in Ireland and no fight in 1916".

To explain this disparity one must explore Clarke’s long journey on the somewhat twisted road that eventually led him into the General Post Office and finally ended in front of a British Army firing squad.

It began on March 11th 1857 when Tom Clarke was born in Co Tipperary. Two months later his Irish Protestant father James, a British Army bombardier, married Tom's mother Mary Palmer, a Catholic servant girl. Over the next 12 years they had two girls and another boy.


After their father's lengthy tour of duty in South Africa during the 1860s, James' family finally settled in the Ulster town of Dungannon where the intelligent and well-read Tom became an assistant teacher at a local school. But his all-consuming passion was politics, and, like his hero Wolfe Tone, he gravitated towards espousing Irish independence.

When his father, a proud British soldier, warned that defying the British Empire meant banging his head against a wall, Tom simply promised to keep going until the wall fell down. His defiance stemmed not from a miserable childhood: Tom respected his father, rejecting only his uniform, while the bonds with mother and siblings stayed strong. Perhaps already naturally rebellious, he did come to regard the British Army in South Africa as an imperial garrison oppressing the Boers, Dutch settlers for whom Tom developed a lifelong sympathy.

And for centuries Dungannon had been a cockpit of bitter religious and political antagonisms between Catholics and Protestants. Then in 1878 Tom heard John Daly, a mesmerising orator and national organiser of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and realised that his life mission was to destroy every vestige of British authority in Ireland. Soon after he joined the IRB.

After a riot in August 1880 Clarke fled to New York and joined Clan na Gael, the leading republican organisation in Irish America. Single-minded, ruthless and eager to strike at the heart of the British Empire, he volunteered to join its bombing campaign in England.

As a “dynamite evangelist”, Tom seemed to have no moral qualms about killing civilians and no fear about losing his own life either through blowing himself up or execution.

Scotland Yard’s Special Branch immediately captured Tom’s bombing team in London and, although at their Old Bailey trial in June 1883 Clarke showed immense control and self-confidence in defending himself before three of the most senior judges in the land, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He recalled his time in Chatham and Portland prisons as “an earthly hell” of invasive body searches, isolation, a regime of perpetual silence and systematic sleep deprivation. “This went on night after night, week after week, month after month for years. The horror of those nights and days will never leave my memory. One by one I saw my fellow prisoners break down and go mad under the terrible strain.”

Previously impulsive and quick-tempered, Clarke survived these years through his resilience, unbreakable will and the adoption of an icy, controlled and laconic persona. His belief that he was locked in a struggle between good and evil made Clarke uncompromising, inhabiting a black-and-white world and trusting only those who stood unequivocally on his side.

In September 1898 a 41-year-old Clarke was finally amnestied, prematurely aged but determined to start again. But in Dublin his undimmed craving for action and revolutionary zeal were anathema to the IRB’s decrepit leadership.

Still, he did seize probably his last chance at happiness after meeting Kathleen Daly, the 18-year-old niece of his mentor John. Fiercely republican herself, she looked beyond the shy older man's social awkwardness and saw his strength, dignity, intelligence and courage. Their happy marriage gave Tom emotional security and someone with whom to share every secret of his secret life.

Disgusted with the IRB's Supreme Council and still jobless, he once again left for America where, in late 1902, Tom caught the break that changed his life. The Clan na Gael leader John Devoy liked his seriousness and organising ability and appointed him editor of Clan paper The Gaelic American.

Though convinced that the sword was mightier than the pen, Tom proved himself a talented journalist and his anti-British propaganda attracted 30,000 readers across America. This first taste of success boosted his confidence and endowed him with an aura of business-like authority, even charisma. And Devoy also taught Clarke techniques for managing a revolutionary organisation, manipulating people and exercising power.

Aware of younger men demanding IRB reform, Clarke returned home in November 1907 and opened a Dublin city centre newspaper shop. While the IRB was literally dying out he discovered the same political dinosaurs that had driven him away eight years earlier were still contentedly roaming the landscape. Posing as their ally Tom was promoted in early 1910 to the Supreme Council while simultaneously he secretly encouraged Young Turks to wear down his supposed friends.

Finally in January 1912 an exhausted old guard gave up and Clarke catapulted them into political oblivion. This was a masterly deception by a brilliant, pitiless conspirator and one that made him the most important republican in Ireland.

He concentrated power in himself and a small like-minded inner circle, displaying his obsessive need for total control and an authoritarian political mentality.

Clarke equated argument and dissent with divisiveness and demanded that his army march to the beat of a single drum. He also formed the greatest political friendship of his life with Sean MacDermott, a magnetic, gregarious younger man who shared his love of conspiracy and dedication to revolution.

The start of the first World War in August 1914 was Clarke and MacDermott’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and MacDermott vowed that, “If this thing passes without a fight I don’t want to live. And Tom feels the same.”

They started by establishing a Military Council of Patrick Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Eamonn Ceannt that secretly devised plans for a rising. Pearse was at the centre of events entirely because of Clarke who had inducted the twice-rejected Pearse into the IRB as a member-at-large and then sanctioned his rapid rise to the Supreme Council.

But although Pearse – and Plunkett – found appeal in the religious symbolism of a doomed rebellion’s leaders making the ultimate sacrifice to resurrect their nation, they were junior to Clarke and MacDermott. Clarke and MacDermott supervised the Military Council’s planning and ratified its recommendations and their minds were focused on this world, not the next.

They envisaged military success and a Volunteer victory parade down O’Connell Street. The Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa funeral on August 1st, 1915, was conceived by Clarke as a drama, pageant, armed propaganda and recruiting platform for separatism.

Crowds of mourners watched a two-mile procession to Glasnevin where Clarke had chosen Pearse for an electrifying graveside oration, telling him to make it a clarion call to resistance. And Clarke had devised the final coup de theatre when a Volunteer party fired three volleys over O'Donovan Rossa's grave, shots that in a sense reverberated throughout the entire country.

It was Clarke’s greatest achievement to date. For a day he had provided a glimpse of a country that could be imagined as the armed representatives of British power virtually disappeared off Dublin streets and apparently ceded them to Irish separatism with Irish flags flying everywhere.

And Clarke had also pulled off a tremendous organising feat, one that bore more than a passing resemblance to a military operation and was in a sense a dry run for a rising.

Then in January 1916 Clarke forged an alliance with James Connolly whose inflammatory threats to start his own rebellion with his Citizen Army were imperilling the IRB's project. In an inspired and audacious gamble, Clarke made Connolly an offer he could not refuse, telling him everything about the Military Council's plans, promising a seat on it and joint Volunteer and Citizen Army action in an imminent rising. It was a master-stroke and when Connolly accepted, Clarke had also secured the credible military leader he needed for the Rising.

When the Germans finally agreed on an arms shipment for a rising on Sunday, April 23rd, 1916 everything seemed in place. But on that day Volunteer president Eoin MacNeill countermanded the parades that were to precede the Rising and was convinced he had checkmated the conspirators. But he had forgotten that, unlike in chess, in real life the game continues after checkmate. Clarke and the others could not turn back now and still live with themselves.

Gamblers all, they decided to proceed on Easter Monday and hoped that the nation would respond. In the General Post Office a Volunteer saw Clarke “in civilian clothes with a bandolier across his shoulders and a rifle between his knees. He was silent and had a look of grim determination on his face. I was greatly impressed by him. It was as if he thought his day had come.”

But the country did not rally. As British artillery shells pounded the building Clarke withstood well the fires, falling masonry, mental strain and sleeplessness.

On Good Friday the Headquarters Battalion evacuated the GPO but he intended staying to the end and stood brandishing an automatic pistol, shouting, “You can all go and leave me here. I’ll go down with the building.”

Just in time MacDermott cajoled him into joining the exodus. Hoping to die by an enemy bullet, Clarke led a charge across the road under heavy machine-gun fire but he and other Provisional Government members reached a house in Moore Street. They debated surrender with only Clarke resisting – and voting against – capitulation, almost as if even now sheer force of will could rouse the nation and turn the tide of battle. Then, for only the fourth and last time in his life, he broke down in tears.

Afterwards in Richmond Barracks Clarke and MacDermott were determined to snatch political victory from military defeat by improvising a supreme sacrifice – a blood sacrifice. They acted not from any desire for martyrdom but a coldly rational calculation that only their executions could inspire survivors to resume the armed struggle.

So at his 15-minute court martial on Tuesday May 2nd a supremely indifferent Clarke just went through the motions. He made no statement from the dock, called no witnesses and only entered a plea of not guilty so that he could deny being a German agent.

Sentenced to die early the next day he was brought with Pearse and MacDonagh to Kilmainham Gaol. There, Tom had a final meeting with his wife. She found him in an “exalted, very exalted, state of mind, wild with the joy of being able to hold out the week and full of hope for the future.”

But Kathleen faced decades of widowhood raising their three sons alone and she cried out, “I don’t know how I am going to live without you. I wish the British would put a bullet in me too.”

Clarke died unreconciled to the Catholic Church after ejecting a Capuchin priest who had demanded an apology for the Rising. Shortly before 3am he entered the stone-breakers’ yard and after vainly offering to forego a blindfold, a 12-man firing squad executed him, Pearse and MacDonagh in quick succession.

The official record stated that, while his comrades died instantly, Clarke, “an old man was not quite so fortunate, requiring a bullet from the officer to complete the ghastly business”.

General Maxwell, the British GOC, rejected Kathleen's request to have Tom's body interred in a family plot, fearing that "Irish sentimentality will turn those graves into martyrs' shrines to which annual processions will be made."

So a horse-drawn ambulance carried the three corpses to Arbour Hill for burial in unmarked graves in the exercise yard of the military prison behind the Royal (now Collins) Barracks. They have lain there ever since.

For many years Kathleen was saddened that her husband had been so eclipsed in the story of 1916, but in a way this was appropriate. Self-effacing and devoid of vanity, Clarke cared nothing for fame and high position. Embodying the dictum that one should beware the fury of a patient man, he had preferred for decades to work in the shadows, biding his time, engineering his way towards the goal he had set his heart on: Irish freedom.

It cost him long imprisonment, exile and finally his life but Clarke would have had no regrets, only satisfaction that the rebellion to which he had dedicated his life had happened, even if not on the scale he had envisaged.

Pride, too, in the rebel performance and confidence that, in time, successors would complete his mission.

Michael T Foy is the author of Tom Clarke: The True Leader of the Easter Rising, The History Press Ireland