On the corner of O’Connell Street and Parnell Street today stands a Londis shop/Subway premises, which isn’t the only combination of newsagents and Subway restaurants on O’Connell Street, with a new one popping up every ten minutes it seems. The location of this shop was one of two newsagents and tobacco shops owned by the veteran Fenian Tom Clarke in the early twentieth century. At the time of its operation as a newsagents by Clarke, the street was known as Great Britain Street.
Born in the Isle of Wight in 1858, but spending much of his formative years in Dungannon, County Tyrone, Clarke was active in the radical Fenian movement from a young age. This was somewhat unusual, giving that his own father had been a bombardier in the Royal Artillery of the British armed forces. Having emigrated to the United States in the early 1880s, he involved himself in Clan n Gael, and was sent to Britain in 1883 on a dynamiting mission. Shane Kenna, author of an entertaining and informative history of the Fenian bombing campaign of Britain in this period, has written that “Clarke was lucky to survive the journey – the ship on which he was traveling hit an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic.” Arrested and sentenced for his role in the attempted bombing, Clarke would later recall being “driven away at a furious pace through the howling mobs that thronged the streets from the Courthouse to Milbank Prison. London was panic stricken.”
Clarke would spent fifteen years in British prisons for his actions,becoming one of the last Fenian prisoners in British institutions. One of those who visited him in prison, to see the conditions in which he was being held, was the prominent constitutional nationalist John Redmond. Redmond would comment that ” I have seen day after day how his brave spirit was keeping him alive … I have seen year after year the fading away of his physical strength.” Following his eventual release he returned to the United States, where he married Kathleen Daly, before returning to Ireland in 1907.
In Dublin, Clarke would open two tobacco shops and newsagents. One at Amiens Street, the other on Great Britain Street. It is not surprising given his history that these shops were closely monitored by the authorities. The shop sold Irish nationalist and radical newspapers, and advertisements for papers such as Irish Freedom were often to be found outside the shop.
Sidney Czira, a republican activist in Dublin who later became secretary of Cumann na mBán in New York, remembered dropping into this shop to buy Irish nationalist newspapers:
I knew Tom Clarke very well and often called at his shop for a chat. The first time I saw him was when I went in to his shop to buy one of the nationalist papers that were advertised on a billboard outside his shop.I tried to involve him in a conversation by making some remark about national affairs, but he shut up and assumed a real business manner. He obviously thought that I was probably sent by Dublin Castle to extract some information from him.
The presence of nationalistic posters and advertisements outside the shop could, at times, provoke authorities. In her biography of Clarke for the Sixteen Lives series of books, Helen Litton has noted that in 1911 a huge reception was held in the Phoenix Park to coincide with the visit of King George V to Ireland. Litton has noted that “as a group of British soldiers and sailors returned from the Phoenix Park through Sackville Street, they were confronted by a huge Irish Freedom poster outside the Clarke shop which read: ‘Your concessions be damned. England!!! We want out country.’ A large and angry crowd collected, and the poster was taken down and thrown into the shop.” Kathleen Clarke, Tom’s wife and later Lord Mayor of Dublin, simply hung the poster up again!
An advertisement for the shop that appeared in a Sinn Féin Christmas special in 1910 listed the shop under the name Thomas S. Ó Cléirigh, and noted that it was a “Tobacconist: All makes of Irish tobacco stocked” it went on to describe the shop as the “Agent for Irish Freedom and The Gaelic American.”
As much as it was a shop, the premises became a sort of social space for republicans in the city, who would drop in. Countess Markievicz recalled that the shop was “handy”, given its central location, remembering years later that ” His advice was always so well thought out and so sound, and the little shop at the corner of Parnell Street so handy, that one could always find a moment to run in and hear what he had to say on any trouble or complication that might arise.”
Clarke not alone took part in the Easter Rising of 1916, but he put his name to the rebel proclamation, which would ensure his execution. Following the collapse of the Easter Rising, Clarke was among the rebels who were gathered in the grounds of the Rotunda Hospital, not far from where the decision to surrender had been made at Moore Street. One rebel who was there was Joe Sweeney, who remembered a humiliating ordeal for Thomas Clarke:
Anybody who put his foot out of line got a whack of a rifle butt. We were kept there all night and a British officer amused himself by taking out some of the leaders. He took out poor old Tom Clarke and, with the nurses looking out of the windows of the hospital, he stripped him to the buff and made all sorts of disparaging remarks about him. ‘This old bastard had been at it before. He has a shop across the street there. He’s an old Fenian,’ and so on, and he took several others out too. That officer’s name was Lee Wilson and I remember a few years later I happened to be in the bar of the Wicklow Hotel and Mick Collins in his usual way stomped in and said to me, ‘We got the bugger, Joe.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Do you remember that first night outside the Rotunda? Lee Wilson?’ ‘I do remember,’ I said, ‘I’ll never forget it.’ ‘Well we got him today in Gorey.’
The shop is today marked by two plaques. One of the plaques, dating from the fiftieth anniversary of the Rising, is far too high to read on the Parnell Street side of the shop. Below it, and closer to the ground, is a newer plaque from the National Graves Association.