Brutalised by Prison, and with a Thirst for Revenge

BOOK REVIEW by Peter Kiernan

A review in the Series 16 Lives, commemorating those who were executed after the Easter Rising.

Helen Litton: 16 LIVES: Thomas Clarke, The O’Brien Press, Dublin, 2014.

ISBN : 978_1_84717_261_7

RRP: €12.99

In a sense, Thomas Clarke is a man of one small book, a few letters, and his signature in the 1916 Proclamation.

Thomas Clarke Cover

With this quote from historian Desmond Fitzgerald (who fought in the GPO in 1916), Helen Litton opened this biography. It was apt and encapsulated the accepted limited public knowledge of the subject, Tom Clarke. Litton is a grandniece by marriage of Clarke and because of that and her energetic endeavours, she was in an advantageous position to collect a vast quantity of facts and firsthand reports of this life. She writes with a strict attention to detail but also in a style that brings to life the everyday circumstances and daily experiences and emotions of those history-making times.

Thomas Clarke was born in 1858 in Hampshire, England where his Irish father was stationed with his British Cavalry Regiment after serving in the Crimean War. The father, from Co Leitrim, was Protestant but had married a Catholic in the Church of Ireland, Co Tipperary so the children were brought up in the Catholic faith but religion was not a major factor in the dramatic life of Thomas. In his later years, as a Fenian, he was excommunicated by the Catholic Church hierarchy but that did not concern him. As a child, he spent six years in South Africa where his father was stationed during the Boer War. Later he continued his education in Co Tyrone in St Patrick’s National School but as he grew he became more and more involved in Republican affairs under teachers and the rapidly developing republican movements. With similarly active friends he escaped to America and so his die was cast. Finally and inevitably, he was arrested in England with a group of ‘dynamiters’, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment which meant at least twenty years of prison. He served fifteen years until his release as a hero in Ireland but Litton puts great emphasis on this horrendous period in his life which bent and shaped him inexorably into the historic figure he became.

Chapter Two, ‘ Prisoner Number J464, 1883-98′  is the fulcrum of this book. It concentrates in detail on the British prison system of those times and Litton has done meticulous research to justify her conclusion that Clarke suffered so badly and permanently that it led to his utter thirst for revenge and a military solution against English oppression. In a prison memoir, Clarke lays down Rules for long-term prisoners:

Clench your teeth hard and never say die.

Keep your thoughts off yourself all you can

No mooning or brown studies

Guard your self-respect ( if you lost that you’d lose

The backbone of your manhood ).

Keep your eyes wide open and don’t

Bang your head against the wall.

Solitary confinement was the major element of the English prison system and it wreaked tragedy on nearly all those subject to it. Clarke lists the names of those of his colleagues in his gaol and their destinies : McGrath ‘dead; Gallagher ‘health shattered and insane; Curtin ‘health shattered; Whitehead ‘insane’;Deasy ‘dead’; Flanagan ‘insane’; McCullagh ‘discharged because of ill-health’; McCabe ‘insane now dead’; Devany ‘discharged because of ill health,insane’; Drum, Kelly and Donnelly all dead; Casey ‘insane’; Burton ‘health shattered’; Gilbert ‘discharged, health shattered; Harkness ‘dead’ and Duff ‘insane’. Our author concludes ‘It is no wonder that the man who eventually emerged from prison had a soul forged in steel and a heart that burned for revenge.’

This biography then proceeds to take us through the courtship of Thomas Clarke and Kathleen Daly, a beautiful daughter of his prison mate, John Daly. The Daly family were firmly established republicans in Limerick and it is through them and her family connections that Litton has had access to so much of her material. It is a wonderful story and history of Ireland leading up to the First World War. One gains a vivid picture of the tensions and divisions that developed, the promise of Home Rule, the 1913 Transport Workers’ Strike, Connolly and Larkin, Redmond and Murphy and all those names and influences that lead us to the Rising.

The Clarkes and their first child Daly arrived back in Ireland In December 1907 from America. Our author Helen Litton describes the Ireland they found in a passage that is well worth setting out because of its clever and succinct reduction of a complex historical situation :

Ireland was more open to nationalist ideas than ever before. A cultural revolution was informing the population about the relics of ancient Ireland which still survived – archeological remains were being studied, use of the Irish language was being encouraged, Irish music and dancing and games were being brought to the fore.

The passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829 had ushered in a resurgence of faith and devotion. Large Catholic churches were being built on main streets, leaving behind the little back-street chapels to which Catholics had been confined. A sense of Irishness, defined as Catholicism, was developing; Protestantism was equated with being English and a gap began to widen. This growing nationalism was badly set back by the disaster of the Great Famine ( 1845-49 ) which saw the destruction of hundreds of small communities, the deaths of over a million people and the emigration of at least a million more – a pattern of dispersal that encouraged more than two million others to emigrate over the next fifty years.

The Irish language, already damaged by an English system of education, was almost wiped out in some parts of the country. The call for separation was also fuelled by the apparent contempt for Irish lives; would English peasants be allowed to starve in the same way ? Separation, both political and militant, developed rapidly, but the country was not yet ready for the militant response…. A cultural revival was late in the century spearheaded by the Gaelic Athletic Association ( 1884 ) which set itself to revive old Irish games such as football and hurling instead of the English sports of cricket and rugby.

Helen Litton’s report of the Easter Rising 1916 is engrossing: it is vivid and real, it is of the time. One is aghast at the disparities and the friction, the contradictions and entrenched stances adopted by all the participants. The climax  and anti-climax of that disastrous but ultimately triumphant Easter Weekend are studiously painted for us by Litton who I can say is a master of the complex contemporaneous environment and topography of that 1916 Dublin. Alright, there were no mobile phones only useless landlines, no Facebooks or twitters or emails and need I go on? But one does need reminding I feel. How could those courageous women of Cumann na mBann carry out the vital role of communications between all the posts of the rebel forces which entailed running through rubble and mud, through cellars, tunnels and basements, up and down stairs of demolished buildings and often under fire from the British troops and their gunboat on the Liffey. It is gripping stuff.

There are two heroes in this story , Tom and Kathleen Clarke. Kathleen described her husband in the domestic context as ‘impulsive and quick-tempered ‘ but then insists he was ‘ the kindest and the most considerate of men’ but adds ‘his wife, his child, nothing counted when Ireland called .’

Do read it and all the other fifteen and be grateful to Lorcan Collins and Ruán O’Donnell, the editors of this brilliant series. They are to be issued in a boxed set in 2016 – what a year !

Peter Kiernan.

Peter has been a contributor to Tinteán since its inception, and was the inaugural President of the Irish Australian Network. He is an avid reader of history, especially Irish history.