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.
Joe remained with Sinn Féin through the turbulence of the following decades. Though the party maintained a policy of abstentionism towards the Dáil, Joe was an elected Councillor to Dublin Corporation. He was later interned in 1939, first at Arbour Hill and later Cork Gaol, at a time when he had been editing the republican Wolfe Tone Weekly.
Throughout his time in Sinn Féin, he witnessed a number of splits in the ranks. The party lost much with the foundation of Fianna Fáil in 1926, but Joe was still active when the 1970 split saw the emergence of ‘Provisional’ and ‘Official’ wings to the movement, and the emergence of two separate Sinn Féin’s, who would come to be refereed to in the press as Sinn Féin (Gardiner Place) and Sinn Féin (Kevin Street). A traditionalist, Joe was politically hostile to what he saw as comrades who had “become Communistic”, though “while he disagrees profoundly with them ideologically, they are still his friends.”
He had little time for state commemorations of the revolutionary period, regarding them as hypocritical. When he was sent his 1916 participatory medal in 1966 for the Golden Jubilee, he thought of returning it in the post or binning it, though his wife suggested “some anonymous civil servant might get it and hold on to it.” Joe sold the medal instead, for the humble sum of only £10. He was a founding member of the National Graves Association, and prominent in republican commemorations for decades, alongside friends like the historian Éamonn MacThomáis and Brian O’Higgins, another 1916 veteran with a keen interest in republican history. In their hostility to the state, Joe and Brian were not entirely unique among 1916 veterans. Elizabeth O’Farrell, the famed nurse of the GPO Garrison who had delivered news of Pearse’s wish to discuss surrender terms to British leaders, refused to give her recollections of the revolutionary period to the Bureau of Military History, on the basis that “all governments since 1921 had betrayed the Republic.”
Joe made a rare exception to his policy of boycotting state events, when he showed up at the Mansion House in 1969 to disrupt the fiftieth anniversary commemorations of the sitting of the First Dáil. On that occasion, he denounced de Valera from the floor, and drew attention to the imprisonment of activists from the Dublin Housing Action Committee. One journalist who met him noted that in relation to the Mansion House protest:
He tells this with many a chuckle and he says, with anticipatory relish, that whenever the occasion presents itself, he will be on the streets again, crutches and all, to add his indomitable weight and years to Republican protest.
Deported from England:
At Easter 1973, Clarke was invited to address a Sinn Féin commemoration in London. This was to be his first visit to England in five decades, and he was joined by his wife Eilis. According to the deportation order pressed into his hand, his entry to Britain would not be “conducive to the public good”. Other prominent republicans had been turned away from Britain in the months before Clarke, including representatives from both Sinn Féin’s. The Irish Press felt that by being turned away, Clarke had perhaps achieved more than had he been allowed speak:
Whatever British official was responsible for the decision not to allow Mr. Joe Clarke, the 1916 veteran, into England to attend Easter ceremonies there yesterday, must surely be guilty of idiocy of the first order…who in their right mind could see the presence at a commemoration ceremony of a 91-year-old semi-invalid as constituting a danger to the safety of the State? All in all, the refusal won far more publicity for Mr. Clarke than if he had been admitted and it showed up British tolerance in a very unflattering light.
Joe Clarke died in April 1976. Though crippled by arthritis, he was still a familiar face on the streets of the capital in the final years of his life. When questioned about his continued presence at protest meetings, he told one reporter:
My wife says they keep me alive. Why shouldn’t I continue to stand for what I believe in so long as I can? When old men sit down they wither away and die. Activity is the secret of youth and for old men it is the secret of life.
His funeral was attended by around a thousand people, and as his cortege moved through the city, it stopped at the General Post Office, where three Fianna Éireann buglers played The Last Post. At Glasnevin Cemetery, his friend and comrade Éamonn MacThomáis delivered the oration, in which he described Joe as the “backbone of the Provisional movement” and an “uncompromising Fenian.” It was the end of a long life and struggle.
For more on Joe Clarke, see this An Phoblacht feature from earlier in the year, which includes numerous interesting sources.