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.

George Washington’s Irish

In this month (July) when we celebrate America’s independence, it would be good to recall the part played by the Irish in that watershed in history. The Father of our country had a great deal of respect for the Irish. It was a respect born of admiration for their dedication to the revolutionary cause. Early Irish settlers in America fled English tyranny in the old world and were determined it would not follow them to the new. Its no surprise therefore, that when separation from England was first proposed, the Irish were its most enthusiastic supporters. When the issue finally came to rebellion, that support became the backbone of Washington’s army. Charles Beard in The Rise of American Civilization, wrote, “Native Irish who came by the hundreds, if not by the thousands, bearing the scars of age-old conflict with England, flocked to the American Army when the standard of revolt was raised.”  When British forces left Boston to destroy the rebels at Lexington and Concord, their Major Pitcairn declared, “We will drive the Yankees and Irish to cover. ”  Not only were there 147 Irish among the minutemen that fateful Apr 19, but when the `Shot Heard Round the World’ was fired and the smoke cleared at Old North Bridge, among the dead were 22 Irish who had routed Pitcairn’s redcoats and given their lives in America’s initial bid for independence.

In July, 1775, when the Continental Congress was in need of finances, a plea was sent to the people of Ireland seeking support for the Irish in America. While Henry Gratten pleaded the cause in the Irish Parliament, funds collected in Dublin, Cork, and other cities were sent to America. Irish-born Oliver Pollack personally raised over $300,000 to help finance the revolution, and ended up in debtor’s prison for his efforts. War journalist George Clarke noted of him, “Pollack knew the British in Ireland and that was enough for him.”

The largest ethnic group to sign the Declaration of Independence were those with Irish roots, Charles Dunlop of Co Tyrone printed the first copies, and the first man to read it before Congress was Charles Thomson of Derry – Secretary of the Continental Congress. With the revolution underway, the Irish swelled the ranks of Washington’s rebel force in record numbers.

Dr. Davis Ramsey noted, “The common soldiers of the state were, for the most part, Irish.” British General Clinton wrote to his Secretary of War, “Immigrants from Ireland were to be looked on as our most serious antagonists”, and a letter from Ambrose Serle to the British Secretary of State went as far as to say, “Great numbers of Irish are in the rebel army”, and recommended that they be prohibited from leaving Ireland because “they add strength to the rebel army.” Even the Royal Gazette estimated that Washington’s forces were about half Irish.

The tenacity of the Irish was a great asset to the patriot cause. Froude, the eminent British historian, noted, “Washington’s Irish supporters were the foremost, the most irreconcilable, and the most determined to push the quarrel to the last extremity.” According to Major General Marquis de Chastellux, “On more than one occasion Congress owed their existence, and America possibly her preservation to the fidelity and firmness of the Irish.”  General Henry Lee’s memoirs noted that the Pennsylvania line, “might have justly been called the Line of Ireland.”  What more gallant group could Washington have asked for than John Brady, revolutionary scout; or Major John Kelly who destroyed the bridge at Stony Point saving the American retreat from Trenton; or Capt. William O’Neill who held the British in check at Brandywine. Ranked among Washington’s most trusted officers were Irish-born Generals Wayne, Sullivan, Irving, Shee, Lewis, Butler, and Commodore John Barry. Washington’s personal Secretary was Major Charles McHenry and his Irish Aides de Camp included Joseph Reed, Joseph Carey, Stephen Moylan, and John Fitzgerald indicating just how deep that trust was. When General Montgomery was killed leading the attack on Quebec, Washington publicly mourned his trusted and valued Irish friend.

After the war, Lord Mountjoy stated in the British Parliament, “America was lost through the action of her Irish immigrants.” George Washington acknowledged America’s debt to the Irish in a letter thanking them for the part they played in winning America’s independence. He wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette that “the people of Ireland need that critical moment to shake off the badges of slavery they have so long worn.”

On the day of the British evacuation of New York, Washington sought out a man whose contribution was known to very few. Generally considered a collaborator, he was in fact Washington’s highest intelligence agent, and had been living an extremely dangerous existence in the middle of the British as a tailor to their officers and gentry. He was a daring Irishman with the unusual name of Hercules Mulligan; Washington revealed his identity and service by publicly taking Mulligan to breakfast.

Washington and the founding fathers continuously demonstrated their trust in America’s adopted Irish sons and daughters. The first President wrote of his pride in accepting membership in the Friendly Sons of St Patrick, and when Thomas Jefferson campaigned for President, he selected Thomas Addis Emmet – Irish rebel and brother of Ireland’s martyred patriot, Robert Emmet – as one of his campaign managers.

Ireland gave America soldiers to win her freedom, and those soldiers left another legacy in true Irish fashion. Alan Lomax, renowned American collector of folk songs noted the presence of the Irish in Washington’s continental army by the songs those soldiers sang. He wrote, “If soldier’s folk songs were the only evidence, it would seem that the armies that fought in the early American wars were composed entirely of Irishmen.”