Being that it is near St. Patrick’s Day, let’s have some Greenpoint Irish history. Thomas Clarke occupies a prominent place in the pantheon of Irish Revolutionaries. He lived for a few years in Greenpoint, but eventually his attachment to rebellion called him back to Ireland where he played a prominent part in the Easter Rising that led to the creation of the Irish Republic. By virtue of his seniority and his contribution over many years, Clarke was given the honour of being the first signatory of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. During the Rising he remained in the General Post Office with most of the other members of the Provisional Government. He opposed the surrender to the British forces., but was out- voted. He was tried by court-martial. Tom Clarke was one of the first three rebels executed by firing squad at Kilmainham Jail on 3rd May.
Like many Irish Republicans Clarke had a mixed Protestant Catholic background. 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. Clarke always called Dungannon home.
At the age of 18 he joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and fighting against British domination of Ireland would become his life’s work. Clarke became a leader in the Fenian movement, which sought to liberate Ireland through violence and even terrorism. Like many Irish revolutionaries, he emigrated to Greenpoint in 1881 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 on Engert Street in Greenpoint, which was a hotbed of Fenianism.
Shortly after his arrival in Greenpoint Clarke became part of a terrorist cell that planned to dynamite key buildings in London. The cell was run by a Scottish born Greenpoint medical doctor called Thomas Gallagher and one of the other members was Gallagher’s brother Bernard.
Dr Gallagher first went to Great Britain during October 1882 visiting London, Dublin and Glasgow before returning to America in December. These visits were most likely designed to set up relationships with local I.R.B. circles, to scout targets and to learn the lie of the land prior to the arrival of other cell members. Gallagher and Clarke arrived in England on 26 March 1883 signalling that preparations were near ready to activate the cell. Unbeknownst to Clarke one of the members of the cell was a British double agent. Clarke and the others were apprehended before they could begin their bombing campaign. Along with three others, Clarke was tried and sentenced to penal servitude for life on 28 May 1883 at London’s Old Bailey.
Clarke and the other conspirators were singled out for especially brutal punishment in prison. He was one of “The Special Men” who did 15 1⁄2 years in what was the British equivalent of Devil’s Island. It was a calvary of suffering, in which he endured physical hardship, mental desolation, and emotional deprivation in a regime that was designed to crush the prisoners physically and spiritually. He described the hell he went through. “Harassing morning, noon, and night, and on through the night, harassing always and at all times, harassing with bread and water punishments, and other punishments, with “no sleep” torture and other tortures. This system was applied to the Irish prisoners, and to them only, and was specially devised to destroy us mentally and physically—to kill or drive insane.”
Clarke said,” Nothing in [the rules and regulations] startled me like the one that stated, “Strict silence must at all times be observed; under no circumstances must one prisoner speak to another.” When I thought of what that meant in conjunction with another paragraph, “No hope of release for life prisoners till they have completed twenty years, and then each case will be decided on its own merits,”
His fellow dynamiter Dr. Gallagher was driven mad by the brutal prison regime. Clarke survived, but prison aged and weakened him for he was often asked to do hard physical work on a diet of bread and water. Prison must have filled him with a steely resolve to avenge himself against Britain. Finally, Clarke 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. Her parents objected to the marriage of the couple’s age difference. Clarke was twenty-one years Kathleen’s senior, but she married Clarke against her parents’ objections. Unable to find work in Ireland, he returned to Greenpoint in 1899 with Kathleen, whom he married in 1901. The couple settled on Russell Street and ultimately had three children. Resuming his work with Clan Na Gael, Clarke soon became one of its most trusted members. He prospered and became a U.S. citizen in 1905. In September 1907, he moved to Suffolk county, where he purchased two plots of land totaling 60 acres in the Town of Brookhaven.
Clarke, However, always considered himself an Irish patriot first. Despite his material wealth in the states, he chose to return to Ireland hoping to foment revolution. In Ireland he opened a tobacconist shop in Dublin and immersed himself in the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which was undergoing a substantial rejuvenation under the guidance of younger men such as Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough. Clarke had a very close kinship with Hobson, who along with Sean MacDermott, became his protegé.
In 1915 Clarke and MacDermott established the Military Committee of the IRB to plan what later became the Easter Rising. When the old Fenian Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, died in 1915, Clarke used his funeral (and Pearse’s graveside oration) to mobilise the Volunteers and heighten expectation of imminent action. When an agreement was reached with James Connolly and the Irish Citizen Army in January 1916, Connolly was added to the committee, with Thomas MacDonagh added at the last minute in April. These seven men were the signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic, with Clarke as the first signatory. It has been said that Clarke indeed would have been the declared President and Commander-in-chief, but he refused any military rank and such honours; these were given to Pearse, who was more well-known and respected on a national level.
Clarke was stationed in the headquarters at the General Post Office during the events of Easter Week, where rebel forces were largely composed of Irish Citizen Army members under the command of Connolly. Though he held no formal military rank, Clarke was recognised by the garrison as one of the commanders, and was active throughout the week in the direction of the fight, and shared the fortunes of his comrades. Following the surrender on April 29, Clarke was held in Kilmainham Jail until his execution by firing squad on May 3 at the age of 59. He was the second person to be executed, following Patrick Pearse.
Before execution, he asked his wife Kathleen to give this message.
Message to the Irish People, 3 May 1916.
‘I and my fellow signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for Irish freedom. The next blow, which we have no doubt Ireland will strike, will win through. In this belief, we die happy. ‘