Thomas James "Tom" Clarke (Irish: Tomás Séamus Ó Cléirigh; 11 March 1858 – 3 May 1916) was an Irish revolutionary leader and arguably the person most responsible for the 1916 Easter Rising. A proponent of violent revolution for most of his life, he spent 15 years in prison. Following his release he organized the Easter Rising, and was executed after it was quashed. Clarke was born on the Isle of Wight to James Clarke from Carrigallen, Leitrim, and his newly married bride, Mary Palmer from Clogheen Tipperary. His father was a soldier in the British Army and was based there. His father was transferred to South Africa when Thomas was one. The family moved with him. They did not return to Ireland until he was seven. He grew up in Dungannon, County Tyrone.
Dungannon, in the heart of east Tyrone, was a part of the country that had witnessed constant resistance to English interference in Irish affairs from the early modern period. It was a hotbed of paramilitary organization, some of which was agrarian located, other of which was politically motivated. The famine had afflicted that part of Ireland well into the early 1850s, and was very much within living memory during Tom's youth. This was a stronghold of the United Irishmen in times past, and became a center of Fenianism. Dungannon–Coalisland was a bastion of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which in 1867, had risen in arms in various parts of Ireland. Clarke was drawn into this type of activity. When he was old enough to join, he became a member of the IRB in Dungannon.
The IRB was a secret oath-bound society committed to ridding Ireland of English rule and establishing an Irish Republic through physical force. In 1878, its national organizer, John Daly, visited Dungannon, and Clarke attended the meeting. He was captivated by Daly, and very soon afterwords was initiated into the IRB by Daly himself From the late 1870s onward, Clarke was totally committed to the cause of Irish republicanism. Before long, Clarke was playing a central role in local IRB activities.
In 1880, riots erupted in Dungannon between locals and the police. Clarke, armed with a rifle, proceeded to fire at police, and the crowd then proceeded to attack the constabulary. The authorities took this violence very seriously, and Clarke decided to leave the area in fear of his life. Friends of his were emigrating to America, and he decided to join them. He arrived in New York in later that year, at the age of 22. He managed to find work almost immediately as a hotel porter, but more importantly, he made contact with the American arm of the Fenian Movement, Clan na Gael.
Clan na Gael was as significant as the branch in Ireland; they had more freedom in America and could foster republicanism and collect money for the cause. Many of the events of the 1880s were instigated by Clan na Gael. It was Clan na Gael who planned a bombing campaign in England. This followed a series of failed uprisings in Ireland, and marked a change of tactics as the IRB and Clan na Gael decided to strike at the heart of the British Empire, embarking on a campaign designed to put the issue of Ireland at the forefront of British politics.
Clarke was sent back to England to participate in a dynamite campaign, in which bombs were being set off across London in places like the Tower of London and the Underground. The operation was riddled with informers and the police were actually following Clarke as he was engaged in surveillance missions.
The experience of being betrayed by an infiltrator in England when Clarke was on active service for the Fenians in Britain added greatly to his awareness of personal security. It contributed to his desire to be always in the background—a shadowy figure, a manipulative figure, involved, but removed. In his later revolution career, he was never directly betrayed by any close associate.
Before he was able to carry out his mission, Clarke was arrested and tried at the Old Bailey in London in May 1883 under the assumed name of Henry Hammond Wilson, a pseudonym he adopted during the course of the dynamiting campaign. He was found guilty under the treason felony act and sentenced to penal servitude for life.
Clarke was stationed in the headquarters at the General Post Office during the events of Easter Week, where rebel forces were largely composed of Irish Citizen Army members under the command of Connolly. Though he held no formal military rank, Clarke was recognised by the garrison as one of the commanders, and was active throughout the week in the direction of the fight, and shared the fortunes of his comrades. Following the surrender on April 29, Clarke was held in Kilmainham Jail until his execution by firing squad on May 3 at the age of 59. He was the second individual to be executed, following Patrick Pearse.
Before execution, he asked his wife Kathleen to give this message. Message to the Irish People, 3 May 1916.
‘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. '
Tom Clarke 1916 commemorative plaque at the junction of Parnell Street and O’Connell Street, Co. Dublin
His widow Kathleen was elected a TD in the First and Second Dála, notably speaking against the Anglo-Irish Treaty.
In 1922, a collection of his prison writings, Glimpses of an Irish Felon's Prison Life, was published. All 13 chapters of the book had previously appeared as articles in the newspaper "Irish Freedom" in 1912-13. The book is a direct and honest account of the harsh treament he received in various British prisons.