Dublin priest who helped rebuild confidence in church

Martin Clarke: Born: December 30th, 1946; Died: October 23rd, 2013

Fr Martin Clarke died as he lived, proclaiming: “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” Photograph: Frank Miller

Fr Martin Clarke died as he lived, proclaiming: “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” Photograph: Frank Miller


Martin Clarke, who has died aged 66, was a priest of the Dublin diocese, an urbane pastor who helped rebuild confidence in the Catholic Church after a period of great turbulence. His earlier experience as a lawyer served him well in his ministry, including a stint as spokesman for the Irish bishops.

His father, Peter, was a senior civil servant, married to Greta Lysaght, and they lived in Booterstown, Co Dublin, with their five children. Martin was the youngest, “into everything”, a keen amateur magician and musician, doted on by his older sisters Emir and Deirdre. As a day pupil at Blackrock College, where rugby was almost a second religion, he was uninterested in sport but enjoyed his time there nonetheless.

He considered the priesthood when he left school in 1964 but deferred to his parents’ wish that he get a degree first. So he studied law at UCD, picking up a gold medal for student oratory, and worked in the firm of Overend McCarron and Gibbons, later joining solicitors Eugene F Collins, where he became a partner. He was called to the Bar in 1970.

Outside working hours, he helped to run a boys’ club in Dún Laoghaire, and sang light opera with the Rathmines and Rathgar musical society, where he made many friends. But the call of his vocation remained very strong, and at the age of 29 he enrolled in Clonliffe College to study to become a priest.

He was ordained in 1980, when he was 33, in his home parish in Booterstown, Co Dublin. His friend, lawyer Anthony Collins, observed that when he was invited to celebrate family weddings and christenings, Clarke quietly underlined the religious significance of the event in a way that did not dampen the festivities, which he enjoyed as much as anyone else.

His first posting was as curate in Celbridge and Straffan, ministering to a mixed congregation of incoming young couples, settling down to raise families alongside more traditional rural dwellers. He enjoyed parish work but it was no surprise when he was recalled to take charge of Catholic Youth Care. This stint spanned years of significant expansion in diocesan youth work , as developing parishes in Tallaght, Clondalkin and others grew to maturity, alongside established centres of population such as Swords, Dún Laoghaire and Bray. Alongside this work he helped set up a weekly Taizé liturgy in the city centre.

His next assignment was difficult. In 1997 he was appointed as spokesperson of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference. In 2003 he became spokesman for the Archdiocese of Dublin. These appointments were – in the words of his close friend Fr Dermod McCarthy – “a poisoned chalice”.

The leadership of the Catholic Church, battered by the revelation in 1992 of Bishop Eamon Casey fathering of a child, and a similar scandal about Fr Michael Cleary in 1993, was then convulsed by allegations of tolerating clerical child sexual abuse. Martin Clarke, the first spokesman for the bishops not to be a bishop, was in the eye of a storm, as the institutional church was divided on how to react. Clarke, sensitive to the hurt felt by the faithful, was caught in the middle. Resolution of a kind came later with the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports in 2009, vindicating much of the criticism of the church.

Meanwhile, Clarke’s appointment in 2003 as parish priest in the Dublin suburb of Monkstown came as a blessed relief, in the real sense of the term. He spent five fulfilling years among his people, his childhood home, family and friends just down the road, happy to meet again middle-aged men whom he had known as boys in the club in Dún Laoghaire. And there were opportunities for sailing with his friends in the Royal St George Yacht Club.

This would be his last major service to the church he continued to love, despite its frailties. His final posting to another south Dublin parish, Donnybrook, in 2009, was cut short by a debilitating illness requiring frequent blood transfusions, culminating in his relatively early death. Martin Clarke died as he lived, proclaiming: “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” He is survived by his brother, Peter, and sisters, Deirdre Davis and Emir Dempsey; his brother, Eoin, predeceased him.