Thomas J. Clarke

Every nation honors the memory of Patriots whose personal sacrifices contributed to their freedom.  In our United States, George Washington looms up larger than life as the personification of the American Revolution, even though Samuel Adams was its architect and Nathan Hale was a martyr for its cause. In Ireland’s struggle for independence, the Easter Rising of 1916 is the landmark rising that led to today’s Republic of Ireland.  It is the Lexington and Concord of Irish history when a handful of hopefuls stood firm against the might of England for the principle of freedom.  Padraig Pearse led the men of Easter Week and is the personification of the Easter Rising in the minds of many, yet the architect of that rising, and a man who also gave his life in its cause was Thomas J. Clarke.

Thomas Clarke was born in 1858 and raised in County Tyrone where the landlord-dominated Irish population had been reduced to a condition bordering on serfdom.  In August 1878, young Tom joined the ranks of the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret revolutionary organization not unlike our own Sons of Liberty.  In 1881, his activities caused him to flee to New York where he became active in Clan na Gael, the American branch of the Fenian movement.  On a trip to England in 1883, he was captured and sentenced to life for Fenian activities.  Prison existence was so severe for Fenian prisoners that two men sentenced with him went insane under its conditions.  Clarke persevered however, and was released in 1898. The following year, he returned to the U.S., married Miss Kattie Daly and settled in Brooklyn. He returned to Fenian activities and was employed by an Irish-American newspaper edited by John Devoy, the most powerful figure in Clan na Gael.  Highly respected for the suffering he had endured for Irish freedom, Clarke became one of the Clan’s most trusted members.

In December 1907, he was sent to Ireland to rejuvenate the IRB. As the trusted link with the Irish exiles of Clan na Gael, he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Brotherhood and was one of its most powerful advocates of revolutionary action.  He plotted a course with young IRB organizer, Sean MacDiarmada, to replace inactive members of the Council with young militants and to attract new blood into the movement.  Clarke saw a young schoolteacher speak at a commemoration ceremony and invited him to deliver the 1913 oration at the grave of Irish patriot, Wolfe Tone, an annual event of considerable nationalist significance.  Within a few weeks, the young schoolteacher, Padraig Pearse, had joined the IRB.

As the most consistent advocate of revolutionary action, Clarke set the course that led to the Easter Rising.  With the start of the Irish Volunteer movement in 1913, Clarke insured that IRB men were on the provisional committee and Pearse became the critical link between the two groups.  In May of 1915, Clarke established a Military Council of the IRB; by year’s end, they had set a date for a rising. In January 1916, he brought labor leader, James Connolly, onto the Military Council, thereby securing the support of the Irish Citizen Army – a group formed to protect the workers during the great Dublin labor lock-out of 1913.  In February, Clarke informed Clan na Gael that a rising would take place in Dublin on Easter Sunday which would signal the start of a nation wide rebellion.

The confusion of events caused by Volunteer Chief of Staff MacNeill’s late cancellation of maneuvers, upset the original schedule and caused the historic decision to rise on the following day – Easter Monday.  It was not the rising that Clarke had planned, but a braver one in military terms since hope had vanished for a subsequent rising on a national scale.  Yet, it altered the course of the Irish nation, for Irish resentment to the brutality with which the rising was crushed led to her War of Independence.  The Easter Rising was led by Tom Clarke, Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Eamon Ceannt, Sean MacDiarmada, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh – all of whom were executed for their dreams.  Yet the respect and admiration of these leaders for their mentor was paramount.  Just prior to the rising, when the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was drawn up, the man given the honor of having his name affixed first was the veteran Fenian, Thomas J. Clarke.  His execution was significant because America did nothing while the Brits executed an American citizen.

In 1983, a sentence found in an old biography of Tom Clarke led to a remarkable search. The sentence referred to his relocation to Suffolk County without naming the town.  As AOH County Historian, I set up a committee to locate the homesite for its historic significance.  Intensive research through old books, records and conversations with recognized experts in the field, revealed little.  Finally, a search of deeds in the Town of Brookhaven archives produced two deeds showing that Thomas J. Clarke of Brooklyn had purchased 30 acres in Manorville in 1906, and an adjoining 30 in 1907.  The name on those deeds was verified to be the same as that found in the primary position on the historic Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

Today, a monument of Wicklow Granite stands on the site of Clarke’s Long Island homestead, erected by the Suffolk County A.O.H. and where an annual commemoration ceremony is held for Clarke and all who died in the quest for Irish freedom.  In 1996, the name of Kathleen Daly Clarke was added to the monument in recognition of her great contribution to the cause.  Thomas J. and Kathleen D. Clarke were an inspired, as well as an inspirational couple.  They prepared a whole generation for liberty and guided them through its fulfillment.  In no other nation’s history can one find a husband and wife so actively devoted to the goal of freedom.

Kathleen Daly Clarke grew up enduring the harassment of alien soldiers aimed at her nationalist family yet, she voluntarily placed herself, and her three children in the position of enduring that harassment again, for the sake of Ireland. Together,  Tom and Katty taught the Irish to be proud of who they were, and inspired leaders among them to action.  It was Tom who called the men of Easter Week to their duty, and led them to their destiny.  And when that destiny turned out to be the ultimate sacrifice, he went proudly and defiantly to the wall, and fired the fury of the Irish nation.  When he did, Kathleen Daly Clarke was waiting to lead them to the final victory with the tools that he had fashioned.  She established a network of Prisoners Defense offices around the country to assist the dependents of those in jails and when the prisoners were released in a general amnesty, she chose the next leader as she handed the names, plans and assets of the IRB to Michael Collins who converted the offices to recruiting stations.  It was too perfect to have been orchestrated by the hand of man alone – there had to be some divine intervention.

After her life of service, Kathleen recorded that her only regret was refusing to allow a memorial to be erected in honor of her late husband.  Her logic was that as long as one person in Ireland still suffered as a result of the Rising, she could not sanction putting money  into bricks and mortar.  Years later, realizing that not even one street in Dublin had been named for Thomas J. Clarke, she regretted that position.  In 1987, when we erected this memorial to Thomas J. Clarke, Sam O’Reilly, one of the last surviving soldiers of the Easter Rising, and a man who had known the Clarkes in life, said to me, “Tom would have liked this.”  In 1996, when we added the Katty’s name to the monument, there were some who said that if you listened hard enough, you might have heard a woman’s voice saying, “I like it too.”

This year’s service was attended by National, State and County Officers and members of the AOH and LAOH.  The Siol na hEireann Irish Pipe Band of AOH Div 8 opened the service with a selection of patriotic tunes and National Historian, Mike McCormack gave a short address at the monument evoking the memory of Tom and Katty Clarke.  Two wreaths were then placed: one with green, white and orange flowers for deceased Irish patriots and one with red white and blue for Ireland’s deceased American supporters.  Siol na hEireann then closed the ceremony with A Nation Once Again and as the last notes were sounding, the thunder of motorcycles punctuated the reverie as the Hibernian Riders Motorcycle Club rode by in salute with Irish and American flags flying.  It was a stirring finish to an emotional ceremony.  The spectators then retired to a local Country Club for a Communion Mass and Breakfast in memory of Ireland’s patriots.

AOH/LAOH National Convention Homily

After National Chaplain, Father Tom O’Donnell, delivered the homily at the closing Mass of the AOH/LAOH Convention, his remarks were the talk of the convention.  There were so many seeking copies of his words that President Boyle authorized their reproduction on the front page of your National Digest.  We even procured a photo of Father Tom’s father, the patriot Bartley O’Donnell, as a young man.  This is what Father Tom had to say:

It is very appropriate that we are celebrating the closing Mass of the 2010 National AOH and LAOH Convention at this beautiful Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains. Just as St. Peter was held in chains by the Romans prior to his martyrdom, the Irish people have been held in chains far too long by the British government. Today we are celebrating this Mass for the intention of Peace and Reconciliation and to pray for the many thousands of Irish martyrs who have died as a result of British tyranny – the thousands who died of starvation in An Gorta Mor, the Great Irish hunger of the 1840’s, the heroes of the 1916 War for Independence, the fourteen martyrs of  Bloody Sunday of January 30, 1972, the ten Hunger Strikers of 1981 and the hundred of other innocent men, women and children who have died as a result of the troubles over the years.  All of these brave people had these goals in common – peace and justice, faith and freedom, and One Island, One Ireland with Justice for all.

There are not too many people, let alone a Catholic Priest, who would admit that their father spent time in jail. However, I am proud to admit that my father, Bartley O’Donnell, was incarcerated and was a prisoner 0f the British. When the Irish War for Freedom and Independence began on Easter Week of 1916, my dad was not quite sixteen years old.  He was saddened by the news that the uprising was crushed after one week and that the Freedom Fighters became martyrs for the sake of Irish Independence.  My father’s desire to be able to practice his Catholic faith and be free from British oppression inspired young Bartley and his brothers to join the Galway Volunteers, a provisional wing of the Irish Republican Army.  My dad and my uncles were motivated by the symbol and the words of the O’Donnell family crest which they saw tacked above the door of their humble farm home near Woodstock, in Galway.  The family crest contains a hand holding a cross with the words: ‘With this sign, thou shall conquer.”

For several years my young teenage father and his brothers engaged in commando activities.  My dad told me how they hid in the woods near their thatched room home and destroyed several British trucks which were carrying supplies and munitions back and forth along the main road from Clifden to Galway City. Eventually, the revolutionary activity of the O’Donnell brothers was reported by informers and my dad and my Uncle Tom were arrested by the Black and Tans and thrown into the Galway jail.  Dad and Uncle Tom tried to dig a tunnel to escape but the tunnel collapsed on them and they were recaptured. My father spent a total of six months incarcerated in the Galway jail. His faith and his desire for freedom sustained him during his time in prison.

The heroic efforts of the Martyrs of the Easter Rising and many young Irishmen like my father laid the foundation for the Anglo-Irish agreement and the establishment of the Irish Free State in   1922.  However, for all the Irish people the treaty was a bitter pill to swallow since the six counties of the Northern Ireland were separated from the twenty six counties of southern Ireland and remained handcuffed and in chains to the British reigns.

On Sunday, January 30, 1972 as the residents of Derry were engaged in a peaceful Civil Rights protest, fourteen people were murdered by the British paramilitaries.  Seven of the fourteen who were killed were teenagers, including six who were only seventeen. They were innocent of any wrong doing. On that Bloody Sunday a dark cloud descended over Derry City and remained for thirty eight years until Tuesday, June 15, 2010. On that day, about one month ago, the ghost of the British Army was banished from the streets and the dignity and pride of the people of Derry returned as the Lord Saville report exonerated the Bloody Sunday martyrs of any wrongdoing. Prime Minister David Cameron offered an extraordinary apology for the 1972 killings of the unarmed demonstrators by the British soldier saying that the long awaited judicial inquiry left no doubt that the Bloody Sunday killings were both unjustified and unjustifiable. Mr. Cameron went on to relate that there was no justification for the shooting of the civilian casualties. One of the most damaging sentences in the Saville report stated that one of the victims was shot while crawling away from the soldiers and another while he was lying mortally wounded on the ground.

The young Hunger Strikers of 1981 were all martyrs for the sake of their Catholic faith and freedom for all Ireland. These heroes were confined in the H-Blocks of the Maze prison, more infamously known as Long Kesh.  These ten Republican prisoners went on a hunger strike with five demands, the most potent being that they refused to be treated as criminals. After the hunger strike was completed these ten brave Irishmen had made the ultimate sacrifice by giving their lives for what they believed in – that they had the right to practice their Catholic faith and the right to be free Irishmen.

This hunger strike of 1981 was one of, if not the most influential periods in the Irish Republican Army’s long campaign to remove Britain’s role from Irish politics. It not only thwarted Britain’s plan to criminalize the IRA prisoners in the H-Blocks, but concentrated world wide media attention on the war in Ireland, paving the way for Sinn Fein’s entrance into the political arena and the electoral successes that have followed. These ten Republican volunteers paid the ultimate sacrifice in the summer months of 1981. Their names will be forever written in the hearts and minds of all people in Ireland and abroad.

As their lives were ebbing away, the Bloody Sunday Martyrs and the Hunger Strikers were sustained by their deep and abiding faith.  They had the same faith as St. Peter. When Jesus asked Peter; “Who do you say that I am? “  Peter replied: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Christ then said to Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  The martyrs of 1916 and the martyrs of 1972 and 1981 were sustained by their faith in Christ, the Son of the Living God, and their faith in their Catholic Church, a Church that will be here till the end of time and a Church that neither hell nor the British government can destroy.  For many centuries the British oppressors have tried not only to take away the freedom of the Irish people but their Catholic faith as well. But the words of Christ will always prevail “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” All of these Irish martyrs have given their lives to preserve the faith and the freedom of the people of Ireland.

Bobby Sands wrote in the last lines of his diary “If they weren’t able to destroy the desire for freedom, they won’t break you, they won’t be able to destroy me, because the desire for freedom, and the freedom of the Irish people is in my heart. The day will dawn, when all the people of Ireland will have the freedom to show. It is then that we will see the Rising of the Moon.”

In the past thirty eight years since Bloody Sunday, there have been many significant gains and progress towards the freedom for all Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and its further implementation during the past several years is one step in the right direction. Unfortunately, sometimes with a measure of success, also comes apathy.  Some may think that the struggle for a peaceful reunification is over. However, we must remember that the dissidents will continue to fight to prevent and derail the unification process.  Therefore, it is of prime importance that we leave this convention with a new strength and purpose. We must continue to lobby our politicians on the National, State, County and Municipal levels to support the United Ireland Resolution, so that, God willing, we will have a United Ireland in 2016, the 100th Anniversary of the Easter Rising.

As Irish American Catholics and especially as members of the AOH and LAOH we must continue the peaceful fight and hope for the day when all Ireland will be free  and the six counties of the North will be  reunited to the twenty-six counties of the South and there will be a One Island, One Ireland with Justice for all, Because if even one county is not free, if one town is not free, if one village is not free, if one neighborhood is not free, if one family is not free, if one man is not free, if one woman is not free, if one child  is not free, all of Ireland remains in chains.

All of these Irish martyrs and my father, Bartley, will be forever connected by their deep and abiding faith in the cross and the belief that “with this sign thou shall conquer; with this Cross thou shall conquer.”   The Sign of the Cross has triumphed in Galway.   In 1955 the Cross rose triumphantly on top of the dome of the Galway Cathedral. This beautiful Cathedral, dedicated to St. Nicholas and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was erected on the site of the infamous Galway jail where my dad and many other brave Irish men were held prisoner by the British.  This magnificent Cathedral and its cross will forever be a sign that good will triumph over evil and that “with this Cross thou shall conquer.”  In the words of late broadcaster Paul Harvey: “That’s the rest of the story.”

Share