Described as ‘The Conscience of his Time’, the author of poems such as The Lost Heifer and The Planter’s Daughter passed away fifty years ago, writes Hannah Huxley


When Austin Clarke died in 1974, he was Ireland’s best-known man of letters and as we approach the 50th anniversary of his death on 19 March, his is a simply fascinating life to look back on. Clarke was a man and a poet who unearthed some of the more unpleasant bones buried deeply in the far corners of an Ireland which now belongs to the past, all while battling his own demons.

Born 9 May 1896 at 83 Manor Street, Stoneybatter, Dublin to Augustine Clarke and Ellen Patten Browne, Austin was the only surviving boy of twelve children (of which three girls also survived). Educated at the Catholic boarding school Belvedere College (1905-1912), he went on to study English language and literature at UCD, followed by an MA in 1916.

In 1917, he replaced Thomas MacDonagh as assistant lecturer in English after he was executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising. Clarke subsequently lost that job after authorities became aware that his first marriage had taken place in a Dublin registry office and without a religious ceremony.

Clarke’s brief first marriage is one of the more elusive areas of his long life. On 31 December, 1920, he wed Lia Cummins – the marriage lasted just ten days and resulted in Clarke spending the next year of his life in St. Patrick’s Hospital where he was treated for severe depression and a physical breakdown. Theirs is a story which is muddied and unclear; Cummins was a shadowy figure of whom not much is known and Clarke appears have kept mum on the details of their union. What is known about Cummins, however, is that she was a minor figure in Dublin society between the wars and was herself a poet and a short-story writer.

She wrote under the pseudonym Margaret Lyster and was known to be in the company of Maud Gonne MacBride and Yeats. By the 1930s she was submitting work to German news agencies (under different pseudonyms) which included some quite unpleasant antisemitic rhetoric. Clarke’s life was to take a different trajectory; the year 1930 saw him go to England with Nora Walker where they had three children (Donald, Aidan and Dardis) and eventually married in 1945 – only after Lia Cummins had died in 1943.

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