Terence 'Cleeky' Clarke - Death of a hero

Danny Morrison pays tribute to fifty-three-year-old Belfast republican, Terence Clarke, who died of cancer last Tuesday


Ten days after the SAS killings in Gibraltar, I stood with Richard Behal, a republican from Kerry, and the journalist Mary Holland, beside the hearses which had borne the coffins of Mairead Farrell, Dan McCann and Sean Savage to the republican plot in Milltown cemetery.

Gerry Adams had just began his oration when, suddenly, grenades began exploding around us and there was gunfire. Pandemonium broke out as people fell bleeding and screaming. Among those killed by the loyalist Michael Stone was my friend, IRA Volunteer Kevin Brady. Three days later, we were burying Kevin. I was carrying his coffin on the Andersonstown Road when, once again, there were screams and panic among mourners as a car sped towards us at high speed. It careered into a cul de sac, reversed quickly but found itself blocked by a taxi. Once again we were being attacked by loyalists and the people were terrified. The driver of the car produced a gun and began firing as a crowd surged around the vehicle, caring little for their own lives.

One of those who disarmed the driver was Terence 'Cleeky' Clarke. The two men were dragged from the car and the passenger was found to be armed as well. The IRA intervened and took the two gunmen away. As we continued with the funeral we heard more shooting. Of course, it later turned out that the men were not loyalist paramilitaries but plain-clothes soldiers. To this day, their presence at Kevin's funeral has never been explained. They were very badly beaten by some of the crowd before the IRA shot them dead.

Most television viewers saw the brutal deaths of these two soldiers as akin to a lynching. Cleaky Clarke and those others involved in disarming the two men were crucified by the media. Peter Brook, the secretary of state, daubed the people of West Belfast, 'the terrorist community'.

Actually, Cleaky Clarke was a hero who courageously risked his life tackling the unknown - two gunmen, just three days after another gunman at another republican funeral, had killed three mourners and wounded sixty men, women and children. For this, Cleaky was sentenced to seven years in jail. And it was while in jail in 1990 that he was diagnosed as having cancer. I myself was on remand in Crumlin Road Jail when we heard the bad news.

Republican humour can be very black and Cleaky, who specialised in gallow's humour, knew not to expect any exceptional treatment. Comrades would come up to him and say, "Cleeky, leave us you denim jacket," or, "Leave me your shoes, we take the same size."

After I was sentenced I was often on the same H-Block as him. Sometimes at night, before we were locked up, he gave me soup that he was on as part of his diet. One night I had no appetite so he offered it to another prisoner who had only recently arrived. This young fellow hesitated taking the bowl of soup and quick as a shot Cleeky said, "It's only cancer I have, not leprosy!" The young fella was embarrassed until Cleeky and I burst out laughing. On the day that he left H-5 another prisoner came up to him and solemnly shook his hand in case he never saw him again and Cleeky, in that droll manner of his, said, "Christ, thanks!"

I imagine it is very difficult for readers unacquainted with the republican experience in the North to appreciate what makes republicans tick. There is a media version of the conflict, then there is the truth - the actual story of our lives, so surreal, passionate, serious, tragic, so incredible in drama that sometimes its wonder even amazes us.

In 1971 Cleeky was arrested in possession of a gun and was on remand in the dirtiest jail in Europe, 'The Crum'. Cleeky said, "The Crum's so bad it would put you off going to jail." He was there a short time. A rope ladder came over the wall while remand prisoners were playing football and a whole team, Cleeky included, escaped. He was on IRA active service on the South Armagh border for several months and in Derry after Bloody Sunday, but was caught in August 1972.

He was sentenced to five years by Lord Justice McGonagle. Cleeky shouted to him, "There'll come a day when I'll be sitting where you are and you'll be down here charged with war crimes." McGonagle, a former SAS soldier, doubled his sentence. In Long Kesh Cleeky unsuccessfully attempted to escape, along with several other prisoners dressed as British soldiers. His escape trial was held in Newry courthouse from where - yes - he escaped, before being caught on the border.

He was returned to Cage 11 where he was the life and soul of the camp. Here, he met Bobby Sands, during Bobby's first round in jail, and Gerry Adams, who had been interned but was now convicted for attempting to escape. In 1978 a prisoner returning from a visit was involved in a fight with prison warders. Cleeky and several others scaled the fence to go to the stricken man's aid. Over this incident he and IRA leader Brendan Hughes had their political status withdrawn and were sent to the H-Blocks where they joined the blanket protest. Cleeky's two brothers, Gerard and Seamus (who was to escape in the mass break-out in 1983), which meant that all of Maggie Clarke's sons were now on the blanket.

In 1984, after Gerry Adams was shot by loyalists, body-guard teams, drawn from ex-prisoners, were assigned to protect republican leaders. Upon his release from jail in 1993 Cleeky became the co-ordinator of these teams and was himself in charge of Adams' personal security. It was in this capacity that he came to be well-known and well-regarded by journalists. It was an indication of his determination that for ten years he fought the cancer that racked his body until his death last Tuesday. His comrade, Martin Meehan, who had been on active service with Cleeky after their escape from 'The Crum', said, "He fought many battles with courage and commitment but his last battle was fought with dignity."

Cleeky married Mary Doyle, herself an ex-prisoner and former hunger-striker, whose own mother Marie was killed in a loyalist bomb attack on a North Belfast bar in 1975. They have two children, Marie and Seamus.

There is a grainy photograph of a group of prisoners in Cage 11, taken with a smuggled camera, on a summer's day in 1975. The prisoners are wearing jeans, vests, some are bare-chested, and they are strikingly happy and smiling. Among them are Tom Cahill (brother of Joe); Tommy Tolan (who had escaped from the prison ship Maidstone and who would be killed by the Official IRA within two years); Brendan Hughes (who had escaped from internment and who would be the leader of the 1980 hunger strike), his arm resting on the shoulder of a long-haired Gerry Adams; and Cleeky Clarke, with his left arm around Bobby Sands who was due for release a few months later - none of them seemingly aware of the freight of history they carried in life, and in death.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison