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James Clarke
Until the opening of the Tom Clarke Rooms in 1967, few people connected Tom Clarke with Carrigallen. True, he never set foot here or for that matter in any part of Leitrim. But this district of low flat-backed hills which divide the ancient lands of the two Breifnes can lay claim to his father, James, who was born and reared in the shadow of the little village.

Not only Carrigallen but all Leitrim feels proud to have supplied the name and sent forth the man who fathered the great Irish patriot. James was born and reared in the picturesque townland of Errew, parish of Carrigallen, in 1829. From the records available we know that his father, also James, shared the small farm of four acres there with his brother, Owen, in 1834. The family then, as in later years, was also known by the name Clerkin and at this time belonged to the then established church.

Then came the black years of 1847 and the famine horrors which sent young James Clarke, then 17 years of age, and many other youths like him, scurrying to any exit that led to survival. Without money for his passage to America, the only port in the storm for him was the British army. On September 1st 1847 he joined the Royal Artillery, in whose ranks he was to endure for many years the hardships and privations that were then the lot of the Irish soldier of fortune in the service of an Empire whose far flung had a continual crop of trouble-spots. In 1854 he was in the Crimea, fought at the battles of Alma and Inkerman, and took part in the siege of Sebastopol. In this madcap enterprise, a mere matter of prestige for Britain, the English soldiers, ill-clad and ill-provisioned for the rigours of a Russian winter, perished in thousands from frostbite and cholera. However, James Clarke survived the ordeal and returned in 1856 to barracks in Clonmel where he was soon promoted to the rank of bombardier.

On May 21st 1857, James Clarke married Mary Palmer of Clogheen, Tipperary. She was a Roman Catholic and her father, Michael Palmer, worked at the local Bridewell jail. The marriage was what is known as a mixed marriage, for James Clarke was a devoted Protestant and remained so during his life. Mrs Kathleen Clarke has recently testified that James Clarke 'would now be what is known as Church of Ireland and was a devout member, going to church every Sunday'. Mother Benignus of the Convent of Mercy, Dungannon, Co Tyrone, daughter of Billy Kelly, lifelong friend and school companion of Tom Clarke, has given the similiar testimony.

However in the following year, 1858, when their first child, Thomas James Clarke, the future Irish revolutionary, was born at Hurst Park in the Isle of Wight on March 11th, he was in deference to his mother's wishes baptised a Catholic. In April 1859, the Clarke family left for South Africa where James served at various military bases in Natal and the surrounding territories for six years. Here young Tom began school and a second child, Maria Jane, was born. Here, too, James continued to climb the ranks to corporal and battery sergeant in quick succession. It is a striking tribute to his high intelligence and aptitude for learning that from a raw country lad in a poverty-stricken, education-lacking rural environment he rose to the high position that led to his being granted, in 1865, an easier and more secure post. He was promoted to sergeant of the Ulster Militia with headquarters at Charlemont Castle, Co Tyrone. In the nearby historic town of Dungannon, the Clarke family settled down in a house near St Patrick's Chapel. Here a third child, Hanna Palmer, was born in August 1868, and a fourth, Alfie Edward, in May 1870.

Here, too, young Tom continued his education, attending St Patrick's National School where he was taught by Francis Daly and later by Cornelius Collins. The rich Celtic atmosphere of the O'Neill country gradually caught the mind of this apt young scholar and his education-conscious parents saw to it that he received all the education then available. He proved such a brilliant pupil that having reached the age of 16 years, he was made an assistant teacher under the old monitorship system, a post he held until he left for the USA in 1881. James Clarke, despite his more comfortable and secure position in his own country, did not serve the British Empire for many more years. In 1869 he claimed and was granted his discharge at the of 39 years, having served 22 years in the army. And so this native son of Carrigallen, driven to soldiering by dire necessity, made his exit from the imperial service.

Tom Clarke left his father's house for the USA in October 1881. He was accompanied by his companion, Billy Kelly. Both had already been active in the re-organised IRB secret society in Dungannon and it is therefore only natural that on arrival in New York they became enrolled in the Clan na nGael. Tom's subsequent Fenian activities with Clan na nGael, his mission to England under the assumed name of Henry Hammond Wilson, and his arrest and imprisonment for life in June 1883, were for many years unknown to his family in Dungannon. Tom never saw his father alive again, because he had less than half his sentence completed when this honest, upright and kindly man passed away in Dublin to where he had moved with his wife and daughter, Hanna, in the later years of his life.

What greater tribute can we finally pay to two noble parents, James Clarke from Carrigallen and his Tipperary-born wife, than to quote from a letter Tom Clarke wrote from prison to an old pal named Paddy Jordan in Dungannon: 'Here we are in 1893 with the first half of January gone. Time goes rapidly enough for you, I dare say; for me it creeps slowly enough, dear knows. By April 3rd I shall have been in prison 10 years, almost a third of my lifetime. Can you realise what this means? Ah no, Paddy, you cannot. No one can understand all the hardships, but you canrealise that I do know that notwithstanding it all I am from the heart's core to the fingertips Irish. Always proudly Irish as in the old days. That though my clothing from the top of my cap to the bottom of my boots be marked with the Government's broad arrow, what does it matter when I know within myself, thank God, that there is no broad arrow, not even a suspicion of a broad arrow stamp, on this Celtic heart of mine'.
Last Updated: March 27, 2012
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