A lifelong fight for Ireland

kathleen clarke

Image: Kathleen Clarke, Women's Museum of Ireland website (http://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/kathleen-clarke

by Lynda Ganly

Lynda Ganly grew up in Dysart, a small village near Mullingar in Co. Westmeath. She has always been interested in history and, in 2014, began studying for a Joint Honours BA in History and Psychology. She is interested in modern history, human rights and politics, and after completing her undergraduate degree, she aims to pursue further study in one of these areas. Lynda also enjoys running and loves to travel in her spare time. She spent a semester abroad where she studied at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. 

Kathleen Clarke née Daly/Caitlín Bean Uí Chléirigh (1878-1972): revolutionary, activist, and politician

Kathleen Clarke (née Daly) was born in 1878 in Limerick and died in 1972. She came from a prominent Fenian family; her uncle John had fought in the 1867 rising, while her husband, Tom, was one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation of Ireland and was executed by the British. Kathleen’s brother, Ned, was also executed in 1916. Since the men in her family are so well-known, Kathleen’s own work has been somewhat overlooked in history. This essay will analyse the impact that she had on Irish public life in the revolutionary period, which is largely considered to span from about 1914 to 1922. Given that Clarke long outlived this period, it will also consider work she did for Ireland in later years.

The primary sources which are the focus of this essay are a collection of letters, statements, autobiographical material and legislation. The ego-documents that will be discussed are Kathleen Clarke’s own autobiography and letters that she wrote during the revolutionary period. As one historian stated in a 2010 article, ego-documents such as letters are often prejudiced. Nonetheless, they can provide insight to social and cultural life. John Tosh wrote that when examining all sources, ‘what most affects the reliability… is the intention and prejudices of the writer’.[1] Despite this, he believed that even if a source is biased, this does not make it insignificant.[2] For example, with regards to this essay, Kathleen’s autobiography was edited by one of her grandchildren. However, a number of diverse primary and secondary sources have been included to ensure objectivity in this essay.

Among historians, there is some conflict over the importance of Clarke. It seems that authors refer to her either with praise or indifference, which may indicate their view of her. For example, Ward described Clarke as ‘a woman of exceptional courage'.[3]. The authors of Women in Parliament: Ireland: 1918-2000 considered that she was ‘an important political [figure] in the early years of the state’.[4] Yet positive descriptions are not echoed in all historiography. Some historians have written of Clarke dismissively; while Maria Luddy acknowledged that Clarke objected to parts of the 1937 Constitution, she ultimately considered her to be ‘not actively involved’.[5] Similarly, Sinead McCoole considered Clarke’s work within the White Cross ‘mundane’.[6]. These secondary sources provide essential context to the contemporary sources. Draw on this variety of materials, this essay argues that Clarke's lifetime of work for Ireland was significant and should be acknowledged.

Kathleen and Tom Clarke lived together in the USA until 1907, at which point they returned to Ireland. They had heard rumours that England might soon be going to war in Europe, and this was considered an opportunity for Irish nationalists. After they came home, they devoted their time to organising a rebellion.[7] In 1914, Kathleen became a founding member of Cumann na mBan, an organisation which encouraged women to participate in the movement.[8] By 1916, they had three children and while they were committed to their duties as parents, they balanced these with preparations for an uprising. According to her autobiography, Kathleen left the children with her mother in Limerick before the Easter Rising so she ‘could be free to take on the duty assigned to me’.[9] In the months leading up to the rising, Kathleen was one of the only women in the country privy to the men’s plans for rebellion, as her husband trusted her with these.[10] Tom also left her £3,000, intended to carry on the work of the cause after the rising.[11] Considering the above details, it cannot be denied that Kathleen had an active role in preparing for the rebellion.

On 2 May 1916, Kathleen’s Dublin home was raided and she was arrested. Before soldiers entered the house, she gave the money she had been trusted with to an elderly friend who was visiting at the time of the raid.[12] Kathleen was held in a barracks until a soldier brought her to see her husband, who was detained as a prisoner. According to Kathleen, the first thing she said to her husband when she met him was 'Why did you surrender?'[13]. This clearly demonstrates her loyalty to Ireland; she had the future of the country on her mind, not only the future of her family. They spoke for hours and Kathleen discovered that Tom would be executed at dawn - and her brother Ned the following morning.[14]

Despite what must have been a traumatic loss, Clarke did not hesitate to carry on working after the deaths of her brother and husband. In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, Clarke co-founded two organisations that aimed to distribute the money her husband had left to her. These organisations also fundraised for the families of men who had been killed in the rising.[15] Clarke, who was pregnant at the time of her husband’s death, refused to stop working even when she suffered a miscarriage; she worked from her bed until she recovered.[16]

Clarke’s efforts during this time included helping Michael Collins to reorganise the Irish Republican Brotherhood and Irish Volunteers by providing him with contacts that her husband had left her.[17] She worked throughout the next two years, including as an executive at a Sinn Féin convention in 1917. While there were several female relatives of those killed in 1916 included as ‘token’ executives, Clarke was determined to take her role seriously.[18]

Clarke was arrested in May 1918 for taking part in ‘the German plot’ and was taken to Holloway Prison. The ‘German plot’ was a scheme that historians believe was fabricated so that British officials could arrest Irish revolutionary leaders. Clarke was one of many who were targeted for this. In a letter to her sister Madge on 8 June, Clarke wrote that there was no plot and the idea was ‘rubbish’. She also begged her sister to take care of the children while she was away.[19] Maud Gonne McBride later described Kathleen’s resolve when they were in Holloway Prison together.  She thought Clarke was sick and ‘looked unwell’. Yet when she said that she was going on hunger strike, Clarke vowed to join her. Gonne McBride stated: ‘I knew it would kill Kathleen and I tried to dissuade her but [she] resolved that we would all do the same thing’.[20] This is yet another example of Clarke’s courage.

Clarke was released from prison in 1919 and, over the following year, her home was subjected to frequent raids by British soldiers, often in the middle of the night. Despite this intimidation, Clarke continued to work as a County Court judge in the Republican Courts. She also completed secret tasks for the nationalist cause, such as travelling from Limerick to Dublin transporting £2,000 worth of gold on her person.[21]

In 1920, when debates on the Anglo-Irish Treaty were taking place in Dáil Éireann, Clarke was passionate about rejecting it. In a letter to her sister Madge, she wrote that she ‘did never think I’d live to see it, to see men who were the bravest, now fooled and blinded’.[22] She gave a rousing speech against the Treaty in which she stated that although it would give Ireland more freedom than it currently had, it would not give Ireland total freedom and therefore it was not enough.[23] Some historians note that Clarke’s view was not representative of all Irish women at the time, as many simply wanted peace.[24] Nonetheless it must be acknowledged that Clarke was determined to speak out on what she believed was right for Ireland, even when it was divisive - which is admirable.

After the Civil War, Clarke continued to be involved in Irish political life. In 1926, she was a founding member of the political party Fianna Fáil. In 1928, she was elected as a senator for Fianna Fáil and held this position for nine years.[25] Clarke opposed a ban on contraceptives in Ireland as she said that this would not address the issue but only cover it up.[26] This was with regards to the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, 1935. In relation to the 1936 Conditions of Employment Act, which restricted women’s ability to work, Clarke argued that it was in opposition to the principles of the 1916 Proclamation of Ireland. The Proclamation granted ‘equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’ and in two separate places emphasised equal rights for Irish men and women.[27]

As well as being enshrined in the 1916 Proclamation, the Constitution of the Irish Free State 1922 also acknowledged the rights of Irish citizens ‘without distinction of sex’ in Article 3.[28] It seemed that equal rights regardless of gender should be considered a priority in Ireland. However, throughout the 1930s, bills that undermined these rights, were passed. Clarke once again spoke of the rights that were promised in the Proclamation, when the 1937 Draft Constitution was being debated.[29]

In particular, Article 41 of the 1937 Draft Constitution was a topic of debate. This article stated that

…the State recognises that by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved… the State shall, therefore, endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.[30]

While some historians have discussed how Irish feminists and nationalist women often did not see eye-to-eye in the early twentieth century, on this matter both groups were united in their protest.[31] At a women’s meeting encouraging them to vote against the draft constitution, a statement from Clarke was read aloud which said ‘it is up to every Irish woman to see that no man or group of men robs us of our status enshrined in [the] Proclamation’.[32] Ultimately, those who protested against the 1937 Constitution of Ireland were a minority and were unsuccessful; it was largely accepted by the people. Despite this failure, the protests that took place were still noteworthy and it is important that Clarke, and the others who protested, stood up for these rights in the name of a fair and equal Ireland.

Kathleen Clarke was elected as the first female Lord Mayor of Dublin in June 1939. In this role, she established the Irish Red Cross organisation.[33] Upon completion of her term of office as Lord Mayor, Clarke resigned from Fianna Fáil. Her final service to the Irish people was to write her memoir, which is a first-hand depiction of events in Ireland during the revolutionary period and in the years following this.

Clarke’s role in preparing for the 1916 Easter Rising was vital. In the aftermath of the rising, she continued to work for an independent Ireland - even in the face of personal tragedy. Later, when involved in politics, Clarke stood up for what she felt was right time after time, even if it was controversial. Evidently, Clarke was a revolutionary figure, not only between the years of 1914 and 1922, but throughout her life. Her courage, resolve and commitment to Ireland undoubtedly had an impact on the country and she should be acknowledged better for this today.


[1] John Tosh, The pursuit of history: aims, methods and new directions in the study of modern history (New York, 2002) p. 62.

[2] Kaspar Von Greyerz, ‘Ego-documents: The last word?’ in German History, vol. 28, no. 3 (2010), p. 281.

[3] Margaret Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries: women and Irish nationalism (London, 1983), p. 117.

[4] Maedhbh McNamara and Paschal Mooney, Women in parliament: Ireland: 1918 – 2000, (Dublin, 2000), p. 15.

[5] Maria Luddy, ‘A sinister and retrogressive proposal: Irish women’s opposition to the 1937 draft constitution’ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Volume15 (2005), p. 189.

[6] Sinéad McCoole, No ordinary women: Irish female activists in the revolutionary years 1900-1923 (Dublin, 2015) p. 78.

[7] Kathleen Clarke, Kathleen Clarke: Revolutionary woman (Dublin, 1991) p. 36.

[8] Clarke, Revolutionary woman, p. 45.

[9] Clarke, Revolutionary woman, p. 71.

[10] McNamara and Mooney, Women in parliament, p. 76.

[11] McCoole, No ordinary women, p. 60.

[12] Clarke, Revolutionary woman, pp 83-85.

[13] Voice recording by Kathleen Clarke, 1950/51, Military Archives Ireland: Bureau of Military History 1913-21 (hereafter BMH), CD/227/35/1 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/voicerecordings.html) (27 March 2017)

[14] Voice recording by Kathleen Clarke, 1950/51, BMH, CD/227/35/1.

[15] McCoole, No ordinary women, p. 60.

[16] Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries, p. 117.

[17] McCoole, No ordinary women, p.61.

[18] Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries, pp 124-126.

[19] Letter from Kathleen Clarke to Madge Daly, 8 June 1918, Daly Papers, Interim Box List P/2, University of Limerick, Glucksman Library, Special Collections.

[20] Statement by Maud Gonne McBride, 1950, BMH, WS 317, p. 25 (http://www.bureauofmilitaryhistory.ie/reels/bmh/BMH.WS0317.pdf#page=25) (27 March 2017)

[21] Clarke, Revolutionary woman, pp 175-179.

[22] Letter from Kathleen Clarke to Madge Daly, 19 Dec. 1921, Daly Papers, Interim Box List P/2, University of Limerick, Glucksman Library, Special Collections.

[23] Ward, Unmanageable revolutionaries, pp 166-167.

[24] McCoole, No ordinary women, p.86.

[25] Clarke, Revolutionary woman, pp 210- 213.

[26] McNamara and Mooney, Women in parliament, pp 19-20.

[28] Constitution of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) Act, 1922, Irish Statute Book available at: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1922/act/1/enacted/en/print

[29] Luddy, ‘A Sinister and Retrogressive Proposal’ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, p. 189.

[30] Constitution of Ireland (Bunreacht na hÉireann), 1937, Irish Statute Book available at: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/cons/en/html.

[31] Louise Ryan, ‘A question of loyalty: war, nation and feminism in early twentieth-century Ireland’ in Women’s Studies International Forum, vol. 20, no. 1 (1997), p. 24.

[32] Ward, Unmanageable Revolutionaries, p. 243

[33] Clarke, Revolutionary woman, p. 221.