A revolutionary wife

kathleen clarke

Posted on: 13th November, 2017

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: West Cork People

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History. He also writes a Political/History Column for the UCC Express.

“The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.”
Maximilien Robespierre

Kathleen Daly came from a fiercely nationalist Limerick family. Her uncle was John Daly, an IRB man who took part in the ill-fated 1867 Rising. During a spell in Pentonville Prison, he shared a cell with another Fenian, Tom Clarke. On their release, the pair remained good friends, and it was through her uncle that Kathleen met Clarke. The pair married in New York in 1901, where Tom was involved in nationalist activity through Clann na Gael.  She and her husband only disagreed on one thing – they were still living in New York in 1907 and he wanted to come back to Ireland but she initially refused.

“I said, ‘You’ve done enough for your country, as much as any man could be expected’ and he said, ‘You can never do enough for your country’,” she said.

Mrs. Clarke said to her husband: “I don’t want to go. If you’re taking me home to a nice quiet life, I’ll be satisfied to go. I’d love to go, but if you’re going home for a revolution, I’m likely to lose you and I don’t want to lose you.”

She returned with Tom, understanding the consequences. “Once I surrendered then I went into it wholeheartedly, even though I realised I couldn’t see, (how we would win)…with the small might that we could throw up against the immense might of the Empire.”

In 1907 they returned to Dublin with three young children and opened a tobacconist shop on Parnell Street. The two immediately immersed themselves in the nationalist movement. Tom re-joined his IRB circles, although upon the formation of the Irish Volunteers he opted not to join, fearing that as a convicted Fenian felon he would bring undue police attention to the movement. Kathleen however, became involved in the corresponding women’s organisation Cumann na mBan.

In 1914, Cumann na mBan was formed in Wynn’s Hotel in Dublin by about a dozen women, including Kathleen Clarke.  Its membership grew, and within months there were over 200 volunteers in the organisation. At this time, a split occurred in the Irish Volunteers, separating into pro and anti home rule factions, with those against Redmond’s home rule stance going on to participate in the 1916 Rising. These included Tom and Kathleen Clarke. A similar split in Cumann na mBan left them with just two-dozen members by the end of 1914. Though a disappointing loss, this had the effect of focussing the energies of those who remained, and they continued their efforts in medical training, drilling, weapons and printing pamphlets. Their numbers soon recovered to pre-split levels.

Kathleen was intimately involved in the IRB’s activities through Tom, who with Sean MacDermott controlled the IRB military council. She carried messages to MacDermott while he was in prison for making seditious speeches, and was with Tom, as he planned O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral, whose body she met in Liverpool to carry home to Ireland. In planning the Rising, the IRB decided to plan for all the eventualities that may arise during and after the rebellion. One likely outcome was that all the leaders of the IRB would be arrested or killed. As such, they needed someone who could be made acquainted with all their decisions and policies, and pass on this work to those who would inherit the position. For this role, they selected Kathleen Clarke.

Very few women were privy to the plans for the Easter Rising in 1916. However, Tom Clarke was able to inform Kathleen of the upcoming Rising, and instructed her to help in the reorganisation of the IRB network in the event that all its leaders were killed or executed in the Rising. For this reason she was forbidden to take an active part in the events of Easter Week. Being so involved in the republican movement, Mrs. Clarke came to know many of the revolutionaries personally. She made clear her opinion on one of more notable rebels when given the opportunity by Fr. Louis O’Kane.

Kathleen Clarke described Roger Casement as someone who really knew nothing about Ireland and who considered himself a leader of the Irish Volunteers despite being nothing of the kind. The interview with Mrs. Clarke was recorded in 1968 by Fr. Louis O’Kane and has been stored in the Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich Memorial Library and Archive in Armagh until recently. Mrs Clarke told Fr. O’Kane that Casement had no mandate to do such a thing. “He went off to Germany and started things that the revolutionary group here didn’t want,” she said.

“They didn’t ask Germany for men. All they asked them for was arms. And he was trying to get men.” She described Casement as the “aristocratic kind and he assumed that when he went into any movement, ipso facto, he was one of our leaders, if not the leader…and what could he know of Ireland, when he was all the time out of it.”

However, Casement was successful in securing arms for the rebellion although the Aud Norge, the ship which carried the arms, was intercepted by the Royal Navy on Good Friday 1916 and scuttled.

Mrs Clarke said her husband had said, while awaiting execution in Kilmainham Gaol, that the Germans “to the last letter of the law” had sent the arms they promised and deserved credit. Mrs Clarke told Fr O’Kane her husband had made up his mind years before the first World War to start a rebellion if war broke out between Britain and Germany.

Although she didn’t participate directly in the rebellion, she was arrested in its aftermath, as a senior member of Cumann na mBán and the wife of a well known IRB man. Tom Clarke’s signature appeared first in a list of seven below the proclamation Padraig Pearse had read out the previous Easter Monday, and when the GPO garrison surrendered, he was picked out as one of the leaders and sentenced to death. While most of the participants’ death sentences were commuted, those who had put their name to the proclamation and led the men in battle were not so lucky. The night before Tom was shot, he called for his wife to be brought to him from her cell in Dublin Castle, which she shared with four other Cumann na mBán women.

She was taken under armed guard in a prison van to Kilmainham Jail, finding a scene of desolation. A derelict prison, lit only by candles, her husband Tom lying on the bare floor of a stone cell. He leapt up when he saw her, full of enthusiasm for what the rebels had accomplished during the week, despite the last minute confusion of the countermanding order and the rebels’ eventual defeat and surrender. He was to have “a soldier’s death” in front of a firing squad the following morning. He had achieved his goal, he felt, in striking “the first successful blow for freedom,” and faced his death in the belief that Ireland would go on to attain freedom, whatever the cost.

Not only did Kathleen Clarke lose her husband in the executions following the rising, she also lost her only brother too. Ned Daly was the commandant of the 1st Battalion of the Irish Volunteers, which was based in the Four Courts area. This area saw some of the fiercest fighting of the week and Ned won many commendations from his men for leading them with such ability. Due to his senior position in the fighting, he was executed. At just 25, he was the youngest rebel to meet this fate. Kathleen visited Ned before he was executed and found him in a similar state of exaltation at his deeds, and glorying in what he had achieved.

She joined Sinn Fein in 1917 and was elected to its Executive Committee, along with other prominent 1916 women such as Kathleen Lynn, Countess Markiewicz and Grace Plunkett. Although women were well represented on the party’s Executive, there were just 12 women among the thousand Sinn Fein delegates at that year’s Ard Fheis. Clarke would make women’s rights a central focus for the rest of her political career.

At this time, the British Forces singled out the Daly family, as known republicans, for regular raids. On one occasion, Kathleen’s sister Una Daly was dragged from her house in Limerick by the hair, which was then cut off. Her attackers slashed her hand with a razor, from the back to the palm, severing an artery, which almost killed her. Harassment of the Dalys continued when Kathleen was arrested in the 1918 German Plot, in which Irish leaders were imprisoned for their alleged conspiracy with Germany to start another armed insurrection in Ireland, thus diverting the war effort. On her return, she became a District Judge in the Republican Courts, which were intended to undermine the British legal system in Ireland. She was also elected as a TD for the Dublin Mid constituency, and supported the anti-treaty forces during the Civil War.

Kathleen Clarke was openly highly critical of Eamonn De Valera on his publication of the Irish Constitution. She, along with Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, felt that it afforded women a much lower place in Ireland than they had been given in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Despite this however, she became the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin. The first thing she did when elected was to remove all the paintings of British monarchs from the Mansion House. She also helped to found the Irish Red Cross. She stood in the 1948 general election for Sean McBride’s Clann na Poblachta party, which espoused views of a more Social Democratic leaning than Fianna Fail. She failed to be elected and retired from politics.

In 1965, Kathleen moved to Liverpool to live with her son, Emmet. She returned to Ireland for the 1966 50th anniversary commemorations of the Rising, and was conferred with an honorary doctorate of laws by the National University of Ireland. Kathleen Clarke died in Liverpool in 1972, aged 94. Despite her differences with Fianna Fail, who were in power at the time, she was given a state funeral out of respect for the vast and wide-ranging political achievements of her career, and her close personal link with the Easter Rising. A life that was thrown into turmoil at a young age by the deaths of those closest to her had become intrinsically linked with the burgeoning Republic, and advanced the cause of its most vulnerable citizens.

“We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.” 
Winston Churchill

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