Category Archives: Death
Last year after the publication of my short story SOMAT in The Long Gaze Back, I was asked to contribute to various events and public readings. I decided to say a big resounding YES to anything I was asked to write/do as an important part (for me) of being a writer is taking on the challenge of reading in public. I took part in a lot of fun events, the Barrytown Trilogy Readings in Dun Laoghaire when Colm Keegan was Writer in Residence, The Bogman’s Canon Fiction Disco, Staccato, National Concert Hall, among others. (Next Monday: 7th November, I’ll be reading a new short story at The Monday Echo at The Mezz in Temple Bar. It kinda never stops! What I learnt was that writing for public readings demands a different type of narrative, one that is less complex than, say, a short story for the page, where the reader is deliberately left thinking about what is inferred – particularly with story endings – and instead these pieces should concentrate on entertaining the audience in the moment. You have about ten minutes to make yourself understood in these kind of settings. You can do this by concentrating more heavily on dialogue, making stories easier to comprehend and to the point. Who are the main characters, what’s going on, what happens them, what changes. Simple! When I was asked to take part in the Eastrogen Rising as part of the Five Lamps Festival I wanted to write about an ‘unknown’ woman who was caught up in the Rising in some way. Lots of ordinary Dubs were left short of vital supplies (no fridges, people shopped daily for their grub) and forced to loot in order to feed their families, it’s believed now that this is how a lot of the kids who got caught up in the gunfire, died. As reported in the Irish Examiner last March, most of the looting took place in the first three days, amid the crossfire between the rebels and the British, but before the fires took firm hold in the central streets. Lower Sackville St was a focal point, with clothes, sports, and toy shops proving popular. Noblett’s and Lemon’s confectioners shops were looted for chocolates and sweets; the toffee axe may have come from one
of these. The Cable Shoe Company had its windows smashed, and contemporary newspapers reported that people were seen trying on boots and shoes, and returning for another pair if the first selection failed to fit correctly. I tried to imagine a woman whose husband was a bit of an eejit, he desperately wants to pick off some of the glory for himself any way he can while she’s left at home with some leftover veg and a baby to look after, until her friend Molly calls around and takes her looting. This show is running for the last time on December 3rd at the Annesley House in North Strand as the 1916 commemorations come to a close. It’s a fast-paced celebration of those women, from Constance Markievicz to the messenger girls, the ordinary housewives and the widows of the executed men. The multi-media show includes songs, poetry, spoken word, theatre pieces, video and recorded soundscapes. Fireworks taken from Lawrence’s Photographic and toy emporium on Sackville Street opposte the GPO were thought to have been responsible for much of the fires in that part of the city centre. It was these fires, started by looters that spread from building to building, which caused the massive destruction. Here’s my short fiction piece from the show that was Highly Commended for the The Colm Toíbín International Short Story Award. Read it fast in a flat Dub accent or come to the show in December to hear me read it instead! Tickets are available at the door on the night…
‘A woman of set purpose’, he says, ‘In these stirring times Kathleen, it’s no worse a thing you could be.’ ‘Ah right’, says I, ‘Everyone lays a burden on a willing horse Jimmy, but not every Irish woman is Maud Bloody Gonne’. He flicked the baby’s snot in the fire, and prepared to leave, carrying a piece of chair leg with him. That’s what I loved about Jimmy; he could suck out the clogged pipes of a bairn in one hand, and take on the might of the oppressor with a bit of wicker in the other, and still be home in time for a shindig supper. ‘You’re not listening, it’s on for certain’, Jimmy says, ‘The rebellion, it’s full steam on’ – the whooping outta him – ‘D’ye hear me Kathleen? It’s STARTED!’
A fella shot hoisting a flag high above City Hall…crowds gathering up around Sackville Street, fixed bayonets, people digging trenches, fires scorching from pinched fireworks, running in all directions they were. ‘Pray for me darling Kathleen, that I arrive back safe in your bosom’. As last words, no less dramatic than his ideals. ‘I will,’ I says, looking at the half a sausage, butt of carrot and scabby onion on the table, that, along with a sly sup of water, was going to magic into this week’s dinner. ‘I’m hoping for all our sakes you do come back love,’ I says. ‘Not least of all so I don’t have to explain to your employer up at the Royal Barracks that they’ll have to get a new shit shoveller when your turnip gets blown off.’
That’s what got me in all this. Half dem fellas worked for the Empire or were away fighting into the afterlife for it. It’s not like we didn’t know how bad things were at home, but how would a Republic make our lives any different? We all knew scrabblers stuck in Tenements with just one flushable piss pot for twenty people! Sickness streaming down bannisters along with the dark lung. I saw a nipper feeding two childer a wet cloth to stave off the hunger, sucking a corner each, another cradled on the stone stairs in a half rag, brown smeared down the walls would turn the guts of a carthorse. A day here a day there down the docks when it came to work. I don’t mind tellin’ ye, all across the country, the men were drunk and the women were angry.
Out the door I see him swaggering towards Sackville Street to the GPO where a ‘certain comrade’ has confided in him the Big Barney is really kicking off. But knowing Jimmy, at the first sound of gunfire, he’ll drop the wood and slip down a side street until he’s at the back of The Gresham, heading north till he can knock up a couple of his cronies holed up in some kip near Dorset Street. Saluting two flags his new Citizens’ Army chums assure him will be flying on either side of the post office before he beats a sneaky retreat. Ah sure he’ll tell himself that he’s already ‘done his bit for the cause’, chucking four Lee Enfield rifles over the wall and into a blanket the rebels have spread out on the outside of the barracks. Humming ‘God Save Ireland’ until it’s drowned by the clatter of horses hooves of the British cavalry and the crick-crack of bullets whizzing to and fro. No problem to him to whistle a grand patriotic tune right up until he’s at the boarding-house overlooking the Royal Canal, hammering on the door until those bowsies let him in and invite the chancer to their card school. It’s well I remember Palm Sunday when he squandered the wages including pennies his newfound friends from Liberty Hall handed him for services rendered in the name of the Irish Republic.
It was a bitter night in January when he first brought Maud Gonne – who I later named ‘When is she gone?’ and Connolly to our lodgings. ‘Jesus Kathleen, the neighbours would be flabbergasted if they realised our company tonight!’ Jimmy said. I was flabbergasted as he expected me to have tea and brack, a drop of porter, fat logs on the fire and whatever else, and her with an accent you’d only hear back from a wall at a séance. ‘Such pretty little houses are these,’ Maud said, taking her bonnet and swishing it about her nostrils which were halfway up in the air trying to get away from the fish heads on the table. ‘And yet the enemy is intent on the wholesale destruction of these little habitats with their big brutish battering rams.’ Jimmy all impressed at her mouth swagger. ‘You should try living in one of these little houses Maud,’ I says. ‘That’s about the best way to know what you’re talking about.’ And as for Connolly! He sat there smoking a pipe like an American Indian, saying beautiful nought.
Jimmy is out prowling them streets, trying to get himself noticed with that chair leg. He couldn’t even do the decent thing and find himself a pike. There’s a rap at the window; the plump frame of Molly Gilroy crowned with a feathered hat beyond the pane. No, she won’t stop for a sup she says, when I come to the door to let her in. She’s swinging a box with twine over it dangling on her arm all excited and nodding her head to show off the fancy thing on top of her hair and a fox stole sporting an oversized head choking her neck-line.
‘They were just lying there among the mannequins in the smashed up shop and I says to myself I says ‘Go on Molly girl, now’s your chance. Even Edward’s war pension if he was to take one for King and Empire over in France would never get you into a place like this.’ Dublin’s difficulty is Gilroy’s opportunity…and yours too Kathleen,’ Molly shrieks as the booms and the bangs go off in the distance. I grab my shawl, stick the baby in his crib at the chimney and run out after her.
Molly has one hand on her hat and the other on her hip as she tea dances all the way down to the Liffey and back up as far as the shops near the bridge with their gouged-out fronts and broken glass. Oh God those Brit boyos are not going to be put off by troops of giddy blackguards swinging hurleys and anything else they can muster. Our lot are stupid as half-reared pigs with torn ears. There’s little left to scavenge when we get near Noblett’s sweet shop as all the ragged kids are wearing oversize boots and showing off stroked rings on their fingers. One lad is parading around in a liberated Aran suit from Clery’s while a jug-eared Monsignor from the Pro-Cathedral is clipping the neck of a scamp who has a box of Everton Toffees under his arm and who wont let go of his booty.
‘Take yer hand away from that chisler Father or I’ll have ya!’, Molly Gilroy bellows as she points to a green tweed cape lying amid slivers of glass outside Clery’s pavement. ‘Has there been anymore of our ones taken?’ says I to an old white head sticking out of a wool blanket in a doorway. ‘What’s all this for?’ he crackles back, looking more the worse for wear than aware. He may have been sleeping here a fair few days, more ragged ones being put out now when there’s not enough to go around. ‘Don’t you know?’ I says. ‘The Shinners have grabbed the city by its nethers this morning and they’re not going to stop until the whole place is sunk beneath itself’. He’s straining to look around. ‘Oh’, says he…’I could hear something alright, but on account of taking de drop, I thought it might be just in the ears.’ I tell him it’s going on since eleven this morning and no doubts will get hellsbells…he’d better get himself off the streets proper. ‘The Green is full of them too I hear and they’ve captured the Castle on top, and the Post Office, look at the smoke over there’. ‘My God’, he says, ‘The buggers are stirring up trouble for all of us.’
I pick up the garment Molly flings at me, her right hand now wristletted by a thick gold chain. I pretend I haven’t seen the sparkling jade brooch you’d see on one of those elegant ladies gliding into the Abbey Theatre of an evening. I’ll hide it from Molly, I’ll hide it from Jimmy. I’ll keep it planked in the pantry, maybe in the sugar bowl. If he loses at cards again this evening I’ll have something to take to the Pawn shops in Capel Street later in the week…if there’s a Capel Street still standing after all this is over.
Molly runs over and says, ‘Jesus Kathleen, your Jimmy’s up there, squeezed into a window at the very top of the GPO, screaming his lamps off, guns blazing!’ We lash up the pathway on the other side of the road, past the fruit sellers hiding under their stalls, a bread & milk van turned over, some youngones running with tins of bully beef, soldiers from our own side shouting: ‘Qut! Out! Get out of the way, looters will be shot!’, until we’re facing the main windows at the front of the building. By Jaysus there’s Jimmy, the big wide jawbone on him, and a gun alright, along with his gunner eye, pointing up into the sky shooting at any clouds that happen to be passing by. ‘He’s lighting up the sky over Ireland!’ Molly roars, busting her sides laughing, ‘Jimmy! Jimmy! The enemy’s down here!’ But he’s off with his own heavenly army in some other direction. ‘Grab what you can Molly,’ I says. ‘These are going to be tough times ahead for the likes of us, and I’ll deal with that eejit when he lands back down in the new Republic in the morning’.
Liam faced his illness, a rare form of cancer, with the same bravery that marked his journalism. He died early yesterday morning, suddenly but ‘peacefully’ at his home. His ability to hold on for so long after the terminal diagnosis also demonstrated his formidable personal strength.
The great truth that life is sweeter, more vivid and more precious because it must end, washed over me like a wave as I looked into the anxious face of Anand Gidwani after he examined my stomach.
Even a week ago, just before his death at home at the weekend, Liam was still scooping the rest of us when it came to political stories. He got ahead of the pack for The Belfast Telegraph with the first interview with First Minister-in-waiting Arlene Foster, shortly after she was elected unopposed to lead the Democratic Unionists. This was yet another example (we didn’t know it would be his last) of Liam getting his story out first.
It is also supremely ironic that the man at the centre of one of Liam’s greatest ever scoops – Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy – is currently awaiting his fate after being found guilty just before Christmas of tax evasion in the Irish Republic.
In Dublin’s Central Criminal Court, Murphy was found guilty of failing to pay his taxes in the south. Back in 1988, no one could ever have imagined ‘Slab’ and his power being challenged through the courts of the land.
In that time, he held sway over the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade and helped through his organisational resources to smuggle tonnes of Colonel Gaddafi’s weapons into Ireland. And in the mini ‘Republic of Fear’ along the border, there was a vow of murderous silence that ensured the likes of Murphy would never be exposed… until Liam Clarke and The Sunday Times investigation team decided to probe the vast wealth of the south Armagh farmer and the allegations that he had been IRA chief of staff.
Murphy sued for libel in 1988, but the paper and Liam held firm, eventually winning the case after several years and exposing ‘Slab’s’ role in the Provisionals’ war. Liam became for a time a marked man and his journalist colleagues know of at least one IRA plot to kill him in the late ’80s.
Yet Liam’s compassion for people regardless of their politics stretched all the way from the fringes of Ulster loyalism to Sinn Fein and IRA members. I know for a fact that Liam found out about a plot to kill a senior Belfast Sinn Fein member by loyalists in the early 1990s. Liam immediately warned him, advising him to change his routine and beef up his security. The warning was heeded and mercifully the attack never took place.
His willingness to help a member of a movement that included others willing to kill Liam at one time was a measure of the man. It was also part of his political philosophy. He saw armed struggle and political violence as not only immoral but futile and counter productive.
This is probably why the young, radical, left-wing student from a Protestant background in the north west joined the post-ceasefire Official Sinn Fein/Republican Clubs, later to become The Workers Party (WP) in the 70s.
By 1980 Liam was co-editor of the WP paper The Northern People and worked alongside future Fortnight editor Robin Wilson. The formidable duo turned the paper from a dull, ideological leftist tract into an often interesting, left-leaning weekly tabloid that even broke some news stories, including, for instance, a scoop about a new plastic baton round the RUC was about to deploy.
However, Liam had ambitions to get into mainstream journalism. While he continued to sympathise with the WP line on Northern Ireland, Liam realised that journalism and political activism shouldn’t really mix. So he struck out in the local media first and quite successfully with The Sunday News, the local News Letter-owned paper that I also worked on as Dublin Correspondent in the early 1990s.
He joined The Sunday Times in 1984 and became a highly regarded member of staff. Its pioneering editor in the ’80s, Andrew Neil, in particular, was highly supportive and admiring of Liam’s work.
While arguably Liam’s greatest scoop was the exposure of Slab Murphy, there were other huge stories that he worked on. He was among the first journalists to suggest there was a super-spy at the heart of the IRA’s counter-intelligence/informer-hunter unit known as ‘Stakeknife‘.
He could be amusing too with his anecdotes, especially the one he told about being chased by Sean Mac Stiofain, the ex-Provo chief of staff, with a wheel brace after he turned up on his doorstep with a list of questions.
His prose was seamless, particularly in his columns and books. He penned one of the best books about the 1981 hunger strike and its role in the rise of Sinn Fein. His Broadening The Battlefield remains one of the most important works from the 80s for anyone studying the Provisional movement from armed struggle into democratic politics.
When I worked with him on The Sunday Times between 1996 and 1997, he broke a number of important stories about the Drumcree crisis and IRA ceasefires. He encouraged me to sniff out a few scoops of my own, including an LVF plan to foment sectarian strife in east Belfast by burning a Protestant church and then claiming Catholics from the Short Strand were behind it.
Liam was generous with his contacts and advice, often given out over a sensational bottle of red wine in Nick’s Warehouse or upstairs in the Morning Star. And when I had to have surgery to have a cancerous tumour excised from my inner thigh in that year, Liam was incredibly supportive.
As a fearless reporter, he saw no difference between standing up to tell the truth about Slab Murphy and challenging the power of the British state. He and his equally formidable wife Kathryn were arrested after they published MI5 and police covert transcripts of conversations between Dr Mo Mowlam and Martin McGuinness.
In 2003, police officers raided the Clarke family home and arrested both Liam and Kathryn over an alleged breach of the Official Secrets Act. They were questioned at Castlereagh Holding Centre for almost a day.
John Witherow, The Sunday Times editor at the time, defended them, saying that “the account of phone taps in Northern Ireland poses no threat to national security. It merely embarrasses ministers”.
The material Liam and Kathryn obtained (another classic Liam scoop) exposed a chumminess between Dr Mowlam and Martin McGuinness. The transcripts were later used in the second edition of the couple’s biography on Martin McGuinness, From Guns to Government.
And, typical of both formidable characters, Liam and Kathryn sued the PSNI for wrongful arrest and won, which was just as well as this writer was later arrested over material from the same source as the Clarkes for a ghosted autobiography of a former RUC Special Branch operative. By taking their action, Liam and Kathryn bolstered the cause of free journalism unfettered by political constraints or state control.
When he retired after his long stint as Ireland editor of The Sunday Times, Liam went back to local journalism and became the Belfast Telegraph’s political editor. He seemed to be enjoying a late boost of energy and refreshed interest in local politics. Liam was there for all the big set-piece events that have led to the current power sharing at Stormont. I recall walking with him along a beach at St Andrew’s in 2006 as our conversation oscillated between talk of our respective families and his predictions, ahead of the deal, that Ian Paisley would soon sit down in government with Martin McGuinness. Through his network of contacts, Liam was certain of this positive assessment of where the talks were going, even while the press and media were locked out of the negotiations.
He remained a man of the broad, sensible left and a trade unionist to the end. Our union, the National Union of Journalists, summed up his career in a brief but highly apposite statement about his death on Sunday.
That is how we should live our lives, anyway, remembering death and the fact that life will carry on without us. Human relationships then become more important and winning arguments less so.
Irish NUJ secretary Seamus Dooley put it thus: “On behalf of the NUJ, I would like to extend sympathy to the family, colleagues and friends of Liam Clarke, political editor of The Belfast Telegraph and a former officer of Belfast and District branch of the NUJ, who has died.
“Liam was a fearless journalist. He was never afraid to challenge authority and was always prepared to stand up for the principle of media freedom.
“In The Sunday Times and, more recently, in The Belfast Telegraph, he covered some of the most significant events in the history of Northern Ireland.
“As a columnist he was insightful, authoritative and, at times provocative. He commanded respect across the political divide and his death is a loss to journalism in Northern Ireland. ”
There is that word again – ‘fearless’ – which, combined with a formidable intelligence, knowledge and writing style, best sums up the life and career of Liam Clarke.
* *This obituary was published in The Belfast Telegraph today**