Pegeen O’Sullivan pays tribute to the humanitarian work of a tireless and compassionate campaigner for the human rights and welfare of Irish prisoners in Britain and their families, Sister Sarah Clarke, who died earlier this year.
SISTER SARAH Clarke, who died this February aged 82, was a truly great Irishwoman. It is therefore fortunate that she wrote her own ‘obituary’ in the form of an autobiography based largely on the diary which she kept on the advice of Fr Raymond Murray who, early on in work with Irish prisoners, told her to keep a detailed account of her activities and never to throw anything away.
It was a great relief to her when, in her last years, his archive was up and running and crates of her papers could be entrusted to it.
Her book, No Faith in the System, published in 1995 when Sister Sarah was already 76 years old and blind, had to be put together with the help of two assistants.
She was already middle-aged when she joined the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), having first sought the advice of her Mother Provincial and then her confessor. “I felt I needed to do more than just pray for peace,” she explained in No Faith in the System.
She was an ardent opponent of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, recording in detail the multiple breaches of human rights inflicted upon Irish people as a result of this draconian legislation, rushed through parliament as a ‘temporary measure’ in the wake of the Birmingham pub bombings. The hated legislation was to remain on the statute book until 1998 when it was superseded by the equally draconian Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act.
Her campaign work on behalf of miscarriage of Justice victims, especially the Birmingham Six, The Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, won her recognition and respect as a fearless and dogged champion of justice. As Paddy, one of the Birmingham Six so aptly put it, she became “the Joan of Arc of the prisons”.
For 30 years Sister Sarah worked tirelessly for republican prisoners and their families during their visits to Britain. The latter were often not only deprived of their bread-winner but who also suffered great hardship in meeting the expenses of prison visits, in insults from prison staff and from of landladies who were unwilling to take them in.
Sister Sarah brought resourcefulness to her task. No-one was too great to suffer her relentless demands on behalf of prisoners and no-one was too insignificant to find a place in her compassionate heart. She made no distinction between innocent and guilty, maintaining when questioned for a television documentary how she could justify visiting people who had planted bombs and were responsible for the death of civilians that it was possible “to hate the sin, but love the sinner”.
She was also pleased that Albert Reynolds, while still taoiseacht, wrote the forward to her book.
She suffered to achieve what she did. Being barred by the Home Office from visiting prisons at the age of 65 on the absurd, and unspecified, grounds that she was ‘a security risk’ came as a devastating blow to her.
Typically, when in her 70 the police appeared at her flat and took her finger prints, her reaction was that had any of her families allowed the police in and let then take their finger prints she would have scolded them. The experience enabled her to see how hard it was not to be cowed by a visit from the police.
She also suffered frequent bouts of ill health. While working for on behalf of Irish prisoners Sister Sarah was afflicted with kidney stones, cancer, TB, polymyalgia, pleurisy and, after becoming blind, was knocked down by a car — resulting in several broken bones and a shattered knee. In was typical of her that while in hospital being treated for cancer she had a telephone by the side of her bed and, in effect, turned the hospital into her office.
Sister Sarah’s life holds many lessons for us all. The most important being that it is perfectly possible for an Irish person living in Britain to serve the interests of Ireland and her people. We should remember too that she was led to this work by a nameless man with whom she shared a train journey who told her what life was like for Catholics in the six counties in 1970. To this day, this man is probably unaware of the force for good that he unleashed.
Then again we each have a tongue.
Sister Sarah pushed every door in sight and, to compensate for the many hurts and disappointments that she suffered on the way, she also experienced many happy surprises such as help from the occasional Tory MP.
We should be grateful to her community, grateful to her Mother Provincial who directed her to work with NICRA after the conversation with the anonymous man on the train, grateful to her community for enabling her to have a flat in which she could give hospitality to families and, finally, grateful to them for allowing her to publish her autobiography. And all this done in spite of the fact that not all of Sisters Sarah’s sisters shared her views.
A giant has walked among us: may we keep her memory for the time to come.
No Faith in the System by Sister Sarah Clarke is published in paperback by Mercier Press, price £9.99. Copies can be obtained from the Four Provinces Bookshop, 244 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1X 8JR and all good bookshops.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2002 Connolly Publications Ltd