Thomas James “Tom” Clarke, Irish republican revolutionary leader and arguably the person most responsible for the 1916 Easter Rising, is born to Irish parents on March 11, 1858 at Hurst Castle, Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire, England opposite the Isle of Wight. Clarke’s father, a sergeant in the British Army, is transferred to Dungannon, County Tyrone, in 1865 and it is there that Tom grows up.
In 1878, following the visit to Dungannon of John Daly, Clarke joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and soon becomes head of the local IRB circle. In August, in retaliation to the killing of a man by a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), Clarke and other IRB members attack some RIC men in Irish Street but are driven back. Fearing arrest, Clarke flees to the United States.
In 1883, Clarke is sent to London to blow up London Bridge as part of the Fenian dynamite campaign advocated by Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. He is arrested along with three others and tried and sentenced to penal servitude for life on May 28, 1883 at London’s Old Bailey. He subsequently serves 15 years in Pentonville and other British prisons. In 1896, a series of public meetings in Ireland call for the release of Clarke and the other four remaining Fenian prisoners.
Following his release in 1898, Clarke moves to Brooklyn, New York where he marries Kathleen Daly, 21 years his junior and niece of John Daly. Clarke works for the Clan na Gael under John Devoy. In 1906, the couple moves to a 30-acre farm in Manorville, New York and purchases another 30 acres in 1907 shortly before returning to Ireland.
In Ireland, Clarke opens a tobacconist shop in Dublin and immerses himself in the IRB which is undergoing a substantial rejuvenation under the guidance of younger men such as Bulmer Hobson and Denis McCullough.
Clarke takes a keen interest when the Irish Volunteers are formed in 1913 but takes no part in the organisation feeling that his criminal record would lend discredit to the Volunteers. With several IRB members taking important roles in the Volunteers, it becomes clear that the IRB will have substantial to total control of the Volunteers. This proves largely to be the case until John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party, demands the Provisional Committee accept 25 additional members of the Party’s choosing, giving IPP loyalists a majority stake. Though most of the hard-liners stand against this, Redmond’s decree is accepted, partially due to the support given by Bulmer Hobson. Clarke never forgives him for what he considers a treasonous act.
Following Clarke’s falling out with Hobson, Sean MacDermott and Clarke become almost inseparable. In 1915, Clarke and MacDermott establish the Military Committee of the IRB to plan what later becomes the Easter Rising. The members are Patrick Pearse, Éamonn Ceannt, and Joseph Plunkett, with Clarke and MacDermott adding themselves shortly thereafter. When Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa dies in 1915, Clarke uses his funeral 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 is added to the committee. Thomas MacDonagh is added at the last minute in April. These seven men are the signatories of the Proclamation of the Republic, with Clarke as the first signatory.
Clarke is stationed at headquarters in the General Post Office during the events of Easter Week of 1916, where rebel forces are largely composed of Irish Citizen Army members under the command of Connolly. Though he holds no formal military rank, Clarke is recognised by the garrison as one of the commanders and is active throughout the week in the direction of the fight. Following their surrender on April 29, Clarke is held in Kilmainham Gaol until his execution by firing squad on May 3 at the age of 59. He is the second person to be executed following Patrick Pearse.
Before his execution, Clarke asks his wife to give this message to the Irish People:
“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.”