Royal Irish Academy

A Revolution in Profiles - Co. Offaly

In association with The Royal Irish Academy

Christopher/Chris/Christy/Christie Clarke 1880/82?-1922

Christopher Clarke was born in Kings County probably at Tullamore in the early 1880s. He joined the RIC in 1901 and spent most of his career in Belfast where he married a local girl. The couple had eight children.

Clarke was a well-known dog breeder and whippet enthusiast, who often acted as an official at Celtic Park track. He was also involved in the promotion of boxing in the police. A highly decorated RIC officer, he served as a sergeant at the Springfield Road station in the west of the city.

Between 1920 and 1922 Belfast was pre capita, the most dangerous place in Ireland. The death toll in the city during the period was close to 500 people.  Statistically, 53% of those deaths came from the Catholic community, at a time when Catholics comprised just 25% of Belfast’s population. Among the city’s nationalists, the period is known as the ‘Belfast Pogroms’.   

Within the RIC, Christopher Clarke gained a reputation a highly competent officer, amongst others he garnered a darker estimation. Belfast IRA man Joseph Murray alleged that Clarke inflicted ‘Brutal treatment’ on prisoners while extracting information on the shooting dead of 2 RIC men in their beds at Roddy’s Hotel in January 1921.

From September 1920 until the Summer of 1922 squads of RUC men banded together to carry out extra-judicial killings in reprisal for IRA activities. Their targets varied from IRA men to prominent Catholic families with no links to republicanism, but their killings often shared a similar modus operandi. Armed men would carry out night-time house raids, sometimes reassuring the inhabitants that they were simply a police search party before killing the male occupants.  

Republicans referred to the group as the ‘Murder Gang’ and it is sometimes labeled the ‘Cromwell Club’. It was believed to be led by RIC District Inspector John Nixon of Brown Street Barracks and County Inspector Richard Harrison. Christopher Clarke was suspected of being one of the few Catholic members of this group. 

On the night of 23 April 1921, IRA man Daniel Duffin and his brother Patrick were shot dead in their home at Clonard Gardens in reprisal for a fatal attack on two Auxiliaries, Ernest Bolam and John Bales at Donegal Place earlier that day. 

In their rush to leave the Duffin home, the killers left behind a yellow dog which was removed by the RIC the following morning. Reports linking animal to Springfield Road station and to Clarke or his superior D.I. Ferris surfaced almost immediately.

In June 1921, Ferris (whom Cork republicans linked to the killing of  the city’s Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Tomas MacCurtain in March 1920) was shot and seriously wounded by the Belfast IRA. Later that month, constable James Glover another RIC officer based at Springfield Road, was shot dead on Cupar Street.

On 9th July 1921, Clarke led an RIC detachment attacked by the IRA on Raglan Street. During the ambush a Crossley tender was destroyed, two RIC men were wounded and constable Thomas Conlon was shot dead. Clarke is mentioned a well known republican ballad commemorating the attack. On the morning of 10 July, loyalist crowds often with the support of the Special Constabulary began attacking the homes of nationalists. Over 160 houses were destroyed and at least 16 people (11 Catholics and 5 protestant) were killed in a day that became known as Belfast’s Bloody Sunday.  

In August, Clarke wounded and arrested two men who had earlier produced firearms during a row in a pub, some press reports state that both men were members of the B Specials. 

 On 13th March 1922, Clarke attended the funerals of Constables James Cullen and Patrick O’Connor, who had been shot three days previously. Returning from Milltown cemetery with another policeman, Clarke was surrounded by a group of 8 IRA men and a gun battle erupted.  Sergeant Clarke who had been wearing a bullet vest was shot and died at the scene. A bystander Daniel Rogan was wounded and died sometime later.

Christopher Clarke was buried at Milltown Cemetery close to the grave of Sean Gaynor an IRA man shot dead by the Cromwell Club at his home on the Springfield Road in September 1920.

In October 1922 Clarkes wife Alice accepted the posthumously awarded Constabulary Medal from the Lord Lieutenant at Stormont Castle.

The author wishes to acknowledge  his debt to the substantial existing research on Belfast between 1920-23 carried out by Kieran Gleenon. 

Notes

As individual biography, this profile cannot provide the full context of the violence in  Belfast between 1920-22. As a result issues like the shipyard clearances and 1921 tram attacks are omitted.  Many historians including Eamon Phoenix, Joe Baker, Alan Parkinson,  Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc and Kieran Glennon examined the period in great depth.

A week after Clarkes death, the ‘Cromwell Club’ were implicated in the Killing of of 6 men at the McMahon family home, in retaliation for the shooting dead of 2 special constables. D.I. John Nixon was awarded an M.B.E  in 1923 but was dismissed from the RUC a year later. Elected to the Stormont Parliament as an Independent Unionist, he successfully sued a number of newspapers after they linked him to sectarian killings. 

 A large number of policemen with nationalist sympathies were stationed in Belfast and a number assisted the IRA.  It is probable that information on the identities of  ‘Cromwell Club’ members came from such sources. Among those who probably received information from such sources was the  Belfast priest Fr John Hassan compiled Facts and figures of the Belfast pogrom 1920–1922.

 


Sources:

1901 and 1911 Census. Search online at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/search/

Bureau of Military History Statements.  Joe Murray Witness 0412. Search online at  https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/bureau-of-military-history-1913-1921/bmhsearch/

Military Service Pension Collection. Patrick Joseph MaCarragher. MSP34REF7576. James McDermott 24SP9856. Search online at https://www.militaryarchives.ie/collections/online-collections/military-service-pensions-collection-1916-1923

Richard Abbott. Police Casualties in Ireland 1919-1922. (Cork) 2019.

Joe Baker. The MacMahon Family Murders. (Belfast) 2003.

Daithí O Corráin and Eunan O’Halpin. The dead of the Irish Revolution. (Yale) 2020.

Kieran Glennon. ‘The dead of the Belfast Pogrom. Counting the cost of the revolutionary period’ online at  https://www.theirishstory.com/2020/10/27/the-dead-of-the-belfast-pogrom-counting-the-cost-of-the-revolutionary-period-1920-22/

Kieran Glennon. ‘Today in Irish History. July 10 Belfast’s Bloody Sunday’ online at  https://www.theirishstory.com/2015/07/10/today-in-irish-history-july-10-1921-belfasts-bloody-sunday/

Kieran Glennon. The IRA spy who joined the Specials’ online at  https://thebelfastpogrom.com/2023/08/26/the-ira-spy-who-joined-the-specials/#referemces

Kieran Glennon. ‘Facts and Fallacies of the Belfast Pogrom’ online at https://www.historyireland.com/facts-and-fallacies-of-the-belfast-pogrom/#:~:text=An%20analysis%20of%20Facts%20and,the%20Belfast%20pogrom%201920%E2%80%931922.&text=In%20the%20summer%20of%201922,before%20they%20left%20the%20printer.

Bridget Hourican. RIA Dictionary of Irish Biography profile of John William Nixon online at https://www.dib.ie/biography/nixon-john-william-a6216

Pearse Lawlor. ‘The Burnings 1920′ (Cork) 2005.

 Pádraig Óg Ó Ruairc. ‘Truce Murder, Myth and the last days of the Irish War of Independence’. (Cork) 2016.

Stephen Walker. ‘Milltown Cemetery Grave a reminder of a troubled century’ BBC online at https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-57571711

Andersonstown News. 4 March 1995.

Belfast Newsletter. 10 August 1921. 29 August 1921. 27 October 1922. 30 October 1922.

Belfast Telegraph. 28 October 1922.

Cork Examiner. 27 April 1921.

Belfast Newsletter. 10 August 1921. 29 August 1921. 27 October 1922. 30 October 1922.

Belfast Telegraph. 27 October 1922. 28 October 1922.

Ireland’s Saturday Night. 11 August 1917. 18 March 1922.

Irish Times. 18 March 1922.

Northern Whig. 27 October 1922.

The Constabulary Gazette. 31 1920. 8 October 1921.

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