John Clarke and his grandparents

Written on hearing of the sudden death of John Clarke, April 2017

By Val Noone

Like many, many people, I am terribly sad to hear the shocking news of the death of our wonderful friend John Clarke. Our sympathies go to his wife Helen and their family.

John will be missed by Australians and New Zealanders especially because of his comedy and satire. In addition, he deserves to be remembered for much more. I wish to mention one aspect of John which I have come to appreciate in depth over the past two years.

John had an extraordinary knowledge of and enthusiasm about his Irish family tree. He was proud of having four Irish-born grandparents and was very well informed about Irish history. ‘Three of my grandparents’, he used to say, ‘were Protestants from Ulster, while one on my mother’s side was a Catholic from Dublin’.

On Good Friday last year (2016), as part of its coverage of the centenary of the Easter Rising in Ireland, the ABC ran an interview with John about his connection to, and admiration for, the painter Kathleen Fox, a well-educated Dublin cousin of his grandmother on the Catholic side. The historical point of interest was that Kathleen painted the only known eye-witness image of the Rising, showing the arrest of Countess Constance Markiewicz. 

The interview with John is available as a text and podcast

On 9 April 2016 John also discussed Kathleen Fox and her painting during a forum at the State Library of Victoria, coinciding with the premiere of Eoin Hahessy’s film, Michael, They’ve Shot Them. The film is about the impact of the Easter Rising in Australia and John linked the Australian response to the experience of Kathleen Fox, who, he said, was ‘changed utterly’ by the Rising.

To state the obvious, John has said much more about his family history on other occasions and throughout his life he has spoken on many varied topics. However, writing this piece a couple of hours after hearing the news of John’s death, I am taking the liberty of singling out for immediate mention one part of his life which I happened to share in recent times.

With John’s death a bright light has gone out, but judging by the reactions around the town it is likely that John’s light will burn even brighter in death.

Val Noone is the author of Hidden Ireland in Victoria and a fellow of the school of historical studies at the University of Melbourne.