One would expect there to be a wealth of writing about Tom Clarke, one of the chief architects of Ireland‘s Easter Rising. However, as AP Maginness discovered, historian Gerard MacAtasney’s new biography is just one of a few books written about the enigmatic Fenian.
” Here was a guy who had spent 15 years in an English jail and survived it – at a time when most either went mad or died – and played a huge role in the Easter Rising, yet there was nothing worthwhile written about him ” – Gerard MacAtasney.
TOM Clarke was one of the chief architects of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising. This enigmatic old Fenian was surrounded by a younger generation of republicans whom he galvanized towards one of the most important events in Irish history. However, relatively little is known of this apparently quiet and unassuming man who spent 15 years in an English jail, yet whose father served with distinction. In a new book by Lurgan-born historian Gerard MacAtasney, Tom Clarke : Life, Liberty, Revolution, Clarke is brought to life through the letters he wrote to family and friends over a 17-year period. His political correspondence begins in 1899, just after his release from prison. It terminates with a short note written hours before his execution on May 3 1916, which famously read:
” I and my fellow-signatories believe we have struck the first successful blow for freedom. ” The next blow, which we have no doubt Ireland will strike, will win through. In this belief I will die happy.” MacAtasney became fascinated by Clarke while writing a book about another architect of the Easter Rising, Sean MacDiarmada ( Sean MacDiarmada : The Mind of the Revolution, 2004 ).” There was plenty of stuff in my research for the Sean MacDiarmada book that related to Tom Clarke, so I thought, ‘ no-one has written about this guy – why don’t I ?'”, MacAtasney, who holds a PhD from the University of Liverpool, says. ” Here was a guy who had spent 15 years in an English jail and survived it – at a time when most either went mad or died – and played a huge role in the Easter Rising, yet there was nothing worthwhile written about him.”
Breton nationalist Louis Le Roux wrote one previous biography about Clarke in the 1930s but, as MacAtasney explains, it was more hagiography than biography. ” The Le Roux book was written with the consent and cooperation of Clarke’s wife, Katty. ” She was very ill at the time, so I suppose he was under pressure not to write anything negative.” The dearth of previous writing on Clarke and the wealth of material on his life, including a comprehensive collection of letters and information on Clarke’s 15 years in jail, meant that MacAtasney could draw on a previously untapped pool of primary material. ” The greatest resource that I had were his letters, which frame the story in the times, mostly, when he, his wife and family were apart – so from jail, when he was in America or when Katty was in Liverpool – which also means it is limited in that respect. ” I tried to frame the story first using the letters but I also felt that it was necessary to print the letters in their entirety – so that is the second half of the book,” MacAtasney spent long hours going through the original jail records at the National Archives at Kew, London as well as Lambeth Palace and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. ” The great thing about the British is that they kept masses of paperwork, so there is plenty of stuff there. ” I suppose, in some ways, records and maps and so on were the mechanics of empire, but they are also very useful for historians,” he explains. ” There was no talking or communication of any kind allowed, the cell was tiny and it was freezing. ” On top of that, there was the small matter of the hard labour. ” They were always being punished for trying to communicate.” The meticulous prison records detail Clarke’s offences and punishments over the 15-year period. Remarkably, after seven years in jail Clarke was offered a deal by the British: release from jail and a well-paid civil service job for life in exchange for information linking Charles Stewart Parnell ( Irish nationalist leader ) directly with violent nationalism. Clarke refused. ” Imagine being given that choice after all that time in jail and knowing that it would be at least another 13 before he might even be considered for release,” he says. ” It must have taken monumental nerve to turn that down.”
” The prison sentence in those days was meant to break people. There was no talking or communication of any kind allowed, the cell was tiny and it was freezing. On top of that, there was the small matter of the hard labour ” – Gerard MacAtasney.
Despite his extensive research into Clarke’s life, MacAtasney cannot fully explain why this son of a British soldier became such a hardened revolutionary. ” His father was a Protestant who was in the British Army and was buried with military honours,” he says. ” It doesn’t make sense and it is hard to know what turned him into a hardened republican at such a young age. ” We can only speculate that in Dungannon at that time he fell in with a crowd who were staunch republicans, or that the tensions drove him in that direction. ” But there is no definitive answer in the source material.” What becomes very clear is that Clarke believes firmly that the time for action is now. ” Clarke’s guiding idea was that the old Fenian’s had failed Ireland because they had failed to act during the Boer War – England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity – and that his generation was not going to let that happen again. ” That is why he was determined to go trough with the rising even when many close to him wanted to call it off at the very last minute,” MacAtasney says.
* Tom Clarke, Life, Liberty, Revolution by Gerard MacAtasney,
is out now published by Irish Academic Press.