Kathleen Clarke née Daly was born on 11 April 1878 in Limerick. She was the third child of the ten children born to Edward Daly and his wife Catherine née O’Mara. The Daly family had a strong history in Nationalistic circles. Her father was a Fenian who had taken part in the Fenian Rising in 1867. His uncle, John Daly, had also taken part in the Fenian Rising and shared a cell with Kathleen’s future husband Thomas Clarke.
Kathleen met Thomas when he came to Limerick after being released from prison. Though he was 20 years older than her, she admired his patriotism and dedication to nationalist principles. They married 16 July 1901, after she joined him in New York. They would have three children together. While Tom worked with Clan na Gael, the American branch of the Fenian movement, Kathleen joined the Gaelic League.
The Clarke family moved back to Dublin in November 1907 so that Tom could help reinvigorate the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The tobacconist shop they opened in Dublin became a front for IRB activities. Kathleen was such an intricate part of the planning for the Easter Rising in 1916 that the IRB entrusted her with rebuilding the organisation of the Rising failed. Though she was a founding member of Cumman na mBan, she did not participate directly in the Rising.
After the surrender of the Volunteers on 29 April Kathleen’s husband and brother Edward Daly were arrested, tried, and sentenced to be executed. She visited them at Kilmainham Gaol before their executions. The stress and sorrow led to her miscarriage of the child she was carrying a few weeks later.
After the Rising Kathleen worked with Michael Collins to rebuild the IRB. She joined the newly formed Sinn Féin in 1917 and was elected to its executive. As a result of the German Plot in May 1918 she was arrested and imprisoned in Holloway Prison for 11 months. During the War of Independence she was a fundraiser and was a District Judge in a Republican Court in Dublin. In 1919 she was elected an Alderman for Dublin Corporation.
In 1921 Kathleen was elected to the Second Dáil where she spoke out against the Anglo-Irish Treaty. She told Michael Collins she would support the Treaty on the basis that it gave Ireland the ‘machinery to work out to full freedom’. She supported anti-treaty forces during the subsequent Civil War, however, she tried to persuade the men who were occupying the Four Courts in 1922 to lay down their arms. It’s a challenge to Mick Collins and I know Mick well enough that he’ll only accept that challenge until such time as he can get an army together and kick you out of here. Are you going to wait for that? she told them. Liam Mellows, who was occupying the Four Courts at the time and was later executed by the Free State government, responded: ‘You’re only a woman, what would you know about it?’
Because of her anti-treaty activities, she was held in Kilmainham Gaol in February 1923. After the war she continued her political work, becoming a founding member of Fianna Fáil in 1926 and Dublin’s first female Lord Mayor in 1939. After leaving Fianna Fáil in 1941, she served on several hospital boards and the National Graves Association throughout the 1940s.
In 1965 she left Dublin to live with her youngest son Emmet in Liverpool. She returned to Dublin for the 50th anniversary of the Rising where she received an honorary doctorate of law from the National University of Ireland. She died in Liverpool on 29 September 1972 at 94. She was given a state funeral in Ireland and is buried at Dean’s Grange Cemetery in Dublin.