Modern by a young generation of Republicans

Modern Irish history will forever remember the legacy left by
Thomas Clarke and everything he did for the freedom of Ireland. Historian,
Desmond Ryan once said that 1’in a sense, Thomas Clarke is a man of one
small book, a few letters and his signature in the 1916 Proclamation’. He was
often referred to as the ‘Old Fenian’, Clarke was aided by a young generation
of Republicans whom he galvanised towards one of the most important events in
Irish history. Clarke was a man of a reserved
nature, someone who worked diligently behind the scenes. As a result, he was
often overshadowed in the Easter
Rising by the other leaders, but the work he produced was highly influential
and did not necessarily get the credit it warranted.G1 G2 G3 

 Thomas Clarke was amongst the seven
signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic and the oldest of the
executed leaders of the Easter Rising. He was born at the British Army barracks
at Hurst Castle, Isle of Wight, on 11 March 1858. Clarke did not receive a great formal education, yet he found supreme comfort and
solace in the literary arts, particularly writing. Clarke attended national school in the town where he was later
appointed a monitor, a specific role given to older pupils who showed
leadership qualities. Even at a tender age, Clarke showed promise, it can be
said this was the start of Clarke’s legacy.G4  Although Clarke, unlike many of the other leaders of the 1916 Rising, was not an
academic, he devoted his life to a Gaelic Ireland and supported many of the
literary and cultural movements of the late 1800s and the early 1900s. It was
clear from a young age Clarke understood the importance of literature,
certainly from a cultural point of view. He had a keen interest in literature
that coupled with the dramatic arts, providing a platform from which he and
others could create a sense of nationalism amongst the greater Irish population.
Thomas Clarke didn’t write collections of poetry, nor did he compose plays, yet
his understanding of the importance of literature and writing lead to informing
mass amounts of people on the nationalist ideologies. This is highlighted in
his affiliation with the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

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As a child growing up, Thomas often witnessed the inequality
and discrimination carried out by the British. He believed that British rule
was destroying Gaelic Ireland, and must be cast off. Clarke had contrasting
views to that of his father, James, an ex-British soldier. In Dungannon,
Tyrone, Clarke first engaged with radical nationalist politics. In 1878, IRB
organiser, John Daly who later played a prominent role in Clarke’s life,
visited the town. Clarke was in awe of what Daly had to say and the well-known
Fenian swore him into the IRB. After joining, Clarke was promptly appointed
First District Secretary of the Dungannon IRB Circle. Here, he thrived,
improving on his literature in the hopes of a changing Irish culture and
society. William Kelly, a fellow classmate of Clarke’s at the national school
in Dungannon, was initiated into the IRB two years after him, in 1880. At this
point, Kelly noted that Clarke was at the centre of the IRB circle in
Dungannon, which consisted of twenty-three members.G5 

The greatest insight into the mind of Thomas Clarke comes in
the form of the letters sent back and forth between his wife Kathleen and
himself as seen in her memoirs. These letters are pivotal to not only
understanding Thomas Clarke but give a greater understanding of the Rising as
well. As historian Michael Foy notes, 2’in Kathleen, Clarke found a perfect
soulmate whose ferocious political commitment matched his own, who worshipped
him and gave him the support that sustained him for the rest of his life’. His
nationalist ideologies and beliefs coupled with the support of his fellow
associates who shared the same passion for a free and liberal Ireland changed
not only Irish history but world history. What is meant by this is G6 simply,
that nothing would remain the same after Clarke and his fellow signatories 3’struck the first
significant blow for Freedom’. Letter-writing cannot be underestimated in comprehending
Irish cultural nationalism and in turn the Rising. The letters from Clarke,
Pearse, Connolly and the other leaders provide a clear insight by which the
readers, have not only the opportunity but the responsibility to read, analyse
and try to understand Irish nationalism. This would be the first time in
history that British forces faced resistance within their own empire, and
subsequently paved the way for other oppressed states under British rule such
as India to rise as one for liberty. G7 

On June 14th, 1883 Clarke, along with three other
Fenians, were found guilty of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. He
was first held at Millbank Prison, before being transferred to Chatham Prison
in December 1883. Here Clarke experienced the Victorian prison regime, where
prisoners were subjected to particularly harsh conditions, especially those
convicted of treason. He later wrote about his experience in his memoir
‘Glimpses of an Irish Felon’s Prison Life’, which recounted the relentless
monotony of the system of silence and separation:G8 

4’Had anyone told me
before the prison doors closed upon me that it was possible for any human being
to endure what the Irish prisoners have endured in Chatham Prison, and come out
of it alive and sane, I would not have believed him, yet some have done so, and
it has been a source of perpetual surprise to me that I was able to get through
it all’.

1 Helen, Litton, 16 Lives: Thomas
Clarke. (Dublin, 2015), p. 15

2   Michael
Foy, The Easter Rising, (Dublin, 2011) p. 13

3 Piaras F. MacLochlainn, Last
Words: Letters and Statements of the Leaders Executed After the Rising at
Easter 1916. (Dublin,1990)
p. 5

4 Thomas J. Clarke, Glimpses of an
Irish Felon’s Prison Life, (Dublin, 1922)

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