By 1973, Joe Clarke was one of a dwindling band of 1916 veterans to be found in Dublin.
While others had become Government Ministers or even made it to the Áras, Joe remained a political radical, and at 92 years of age he was still an active member of his local Sinn Féin Cumann, and indeed a senior figure within the party structure.When he walked down the steps of an Aer Lingus plane at Heathrow Airport in April of that year, he was destined to make it no further. Refused entry to Britain, he was quickly deported and sent home. In its own way, it was a fitting tribute to the 1916 veteran who never gave up the fight.
Joe Clarke’s revolution:
Joe Clarke was born in Rush on 22 December 1882. Before he became active in the separatist movement, he worked a host of jobs in the city. He was “knocking about in the kitchen” of a hotel at 11, later working in a boot shop and as a harness maker. He was driver of a horse-and-van for a Grafton Street firm at the time of the insurrection. As an Irish Volunteer, he was fortunate not to die during the course of the Rising. Located in the vicinity of Northumberland Road and Mount Street Bridge, he took part in some of the fiercest fighting of the week, in an area where the Sherwood Foresters famously marched into a waiting party of Volunteers, who had taken up strategic positions in the hope of ambushing men marching into the city from Dun Laoghaire. Captain A.A Dickson of the Sherwood Foresters remembered:
It was a baptism of fire alright, with flintlocks, shot-guns, and elephant rifles, as well as more orthodox weapons. And 100 casualties in two days’ street fighting was a horrible loss to one battalion: the more so since my one friend from the ranks, commissioned same day, was shot through the head leading a rush on a fortified corner house, first day on active service, and it was my job to write and tell his mother, who thought him still safe in England.
In truth, the numbers were worse than Captain Dickson recalled; in total, the Sherwood Foresters took 240 casualties in the vicinity of Mount Street Bridge. An eyewitness recalled that “They lay all over Northumberland Road, on the house steps, in the channels along the canal banks and in Warrington Place…the place was literally swimming with blood.”
Joe was with a small band of men in the Parochial Hall building on Northumberland Road, who caused havoc for British troops advancing towards Mount Street Bridge. When the Volunteers eventually ran out of ammunition, they attempted to escape by sneaking out into Percy Place behind the building. Here, they were intercepted by British soldiers. According to one detailed account:
Joe Clarke, on being searched, was found in possession of his revolver, and placed with his back to a door, hands up. With his own revolver he was fired on, the bullet piercing the door just above his head.
“Immediately, the door was thrown open, an indignant doctor rushed out, having narrowly escaped being shot as he attended one of a yardful of wounded British soldiers; and, after an almost miraculous escape, Joe was led away, his hands bound behind his back.
Joe remained bitter in later years towards Éamon de Valera, who commanded a sizable force of men at the nearby Boland’s Mills, remembering that “there was any amount of men in Boland’s Mills, and although we sent for reinforcements, we didn’t get any.” In one interview, he went as far as to say he always looked on Dev as “a dictator” within the movement.
After the Rising:
Following a period of imprisonment in English jails and the Frongoch internment camp in Wales, Clarke returned to Dublin and worked at the Sinn Féin premises on Harcourt Street, serving an important and dangerous role as courier to Michael Collins and other leading figures in the separatist movement. He took the Republican side in the Civil War split, and was brutally interrogated by former comrades, remembering that they sought information in relation to who was coming and going from Sinn Féin HQ, as well as the whereabouts of prominent Anti-Treatyites. Among the men who physically assaulted him were former members of ‘The Squad’, the close-knit unit of men founded by Michael Collins:
Frank Bolster and Dolan (with coat off and sleeves turned up) twisted my arms and kicked me on the legs and body, tore my moustache off with a scissors; razor and some other torture instruments. Dolan did most of the torture, assisted by Bolster. They also twisted my ears with a pliers. They also threatened to use a hot iron if I did not give them information. Dolan made a blow at me with a large black bottle. I dodged the blow. Bolster said I should be shot. There were six or eight men in the room during the torture, including Lieutenant Tom Scully. I was told I would be taken to the torture room again in an hour’s time if I did not give the information wanted. All my money (over £6), a fountain pen and a knife were taken from me by Dolan. I was then taken to a cell off the guardroom and left there with seven others without bed or bedding of any sort.