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Thomas James Clarke

leader of the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood

Thomas J. Clarke

Thomas James Clarke was born to Irish parents on the Isle of Wight on March 11, 1857. Soon after Thomas's birth, his father, a sergeant in the British Army, was transferred to South Africa, where the family spent ten years. Returning to Ireland in 1867, the family settled in Dungammon, County Tyrone, where Thomas attended Saint Patrick's national school.

In 1878, Clarke joined the Fenian Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a secret revolutionary organization dedicated to gaining Ireland's independence from Great Britain. In 1881 he joined many other Irish revolutionaries and emigrated to Brooklyn, New York, where he became active in Clan Na Gael, the American branch of the Fenian Movement. His first job in the U.S. was as a night porter in the Mansion House Hotel in Brooklyn.  After that he worked as an explosives operative on construction projects where he learned to handle and set explosives.  His expertise in this area was recognized by the leadership of Clan na Gael as a valuable asset, and in 1883, Clarke was sent to London to join an active service unit deployed there to bomb high profile sites in London and elsewhere throughout England. He and three others were subsequently arrested, tried for treason, and ultimately sentenced to life in prison. He and all other Fenian prisoners were granted a general amnesty and released in 1898 after a Court of Enquiry investigation revealed gross mistreatment of Irish prisoners.

After his release from prison, Clarke returned to Ireland and was made a freeman of the city of Limerick. It was there that he met Kathleen Daly, niece of Fenian leader John Daly. Unable to find work in Ireland, he returned to Brooklyn in 1899 with Kathleen, whom he married in 1901. The couple ultimately had three children. Resuming his work with Clan Na Gael, Clarke soon became one of its most trusted members. He became a U.S. citizen in 1905. In September 1907, he moved to Suffolk County, New York, where he purchased two plots of land totaling 60 acres in the Town of Brookhaven.

In December 1907, Clarke was asked to return to Ireland and help rejuvenate the IRB, which by then was being led by a younger generation. Settling in Dublin under an assumed name, he established a tobacconist and newsagent shop, which served as a center of the IRB organization for the next decade. In 1910, he published Irish Freedom, a militant anti-English journal with Sean Mac Diarmada.  In 1912, he organized the first pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone’s grave at Bodenstown, County Kildare, as a counter to a royal visit of the new king of England, George V.  That pilgrimage was the first in what is now an annual unbroken pilgrimage to Wolfe Tone's grave, the founder of modern-day republicanism.

As the IRB's strongest advocate of revolutionary action, Clarke set the course that led to what is now known as the Easter Rising. In May of 1915, Clarke established a Military Council of the IRB, and by year's end had set a date for a rising. Clarke brought labor leader James Connolly into the Council, thereby insuring the support of the Irish Citizen Army, a group formed to protect workers during strikes. In February, he informed the Clan that a rising would take place in Dublin on Easter Sunday that would signal the start of a nationwide rebellion. The confusion of events caused by the Volunteer Chief of Staff MacNeill's late discovery of the secret plans upset the original schedule, however, and caused the historic decision to rise on the following day, Easter Monday.

On April 24, 1916, when the Easter Rising started, Clarke was stationed at the General Post Office in Dublin, where he remained until the rebel forces surrendered, on April 29, 1916. Following the surrender, Clarke was held in Kilmainham Jail until his execution by firing squad on May 3rd; he was the oldest person to be executed for participation in the Rising.

Easter 1916

George V

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The Robinson Library >> General and Old World History >> British Isles >> Ireland

This page was last updated on October 07, 2017.