Born in Rush, Dublin, Clarke worked for the Sinn Féin Bank, and was active in the Easter 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 Dún Laoghaire. 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. They were intercepted by British soldiers. Upon being searched, Joe Clarke, was found in possession of a revolver, and placed with his back to a door. With his own revolver he was fired upon, the bullet pierced the door just above his head and the door was immediately thrown open, an indignant doctor rushed out, having narrowly escaped being shot as he attended one of the many wounded British soldiers; and, after an almost miraculous escape, Joe was led away, with 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.
Following his imprisonment in Liverpool Prison, Wakefield Prison and Frongoch Internment Camp, Joe returned to Ireland, 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.
Clarke was a founder member of Comhairle na Poblachta in 1929. In 1937, he worked with Brian O’Higgins to establish the Wolfe Tone Weekly as a light-hearted party newspaper. In August 1939, Clarke was interned at Arbour Hill, then later at Cork County Jail.
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 nurse of the GPO Garrison who had delivered news of Pearse’s wish of terms to surrender 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. Clarke was ejected. He vowed to outlive de Valera, in which endeavour he succeeded by a year.
Clarke was elected as a Vice-President of Sinn Féin in 1966. In the split of 1970, he supported the provisional wing, remaining Vice-President. The Dublin South West Inner City cumann of Sinn Féin is named for Clarke.
Joe Clarke died in April 1976.
Image | Joe Clarke, selling Easter Lillies in 1966