Lives Lost to Covid-19: Carmel Clarke campaigned endlessly for special needs

The Dubliner was born into a political family before making a new life in Waterford

This article is one of a series about people who have died with coronavirus in Ireland and among the diaspora. You can read more of them here. If you would like a friend or family member included in the series, please email

Carmel Clarke


Carmel Clarke was a hardworking and loving woman who was proud of her family and whose infectious smile lit up every room.

She was born Carmel Clarkin in 1931 into a bustling household on Herbert Avenue in Ballsbridge, south Dublin. Her father was Andrew Clarkin, lord mayor of Dublin, 1951-1953, and a Fianna Fáil senator who died unexpectedly in 1955. He had five children with his first wife, who died young, and went on to have another 10 children with his second wife, including Carmel.

“Mum would have grown up in the whole political world of Dublin,” says Carmel’s daughter Emer Quinn. “That house was the centre of everything, everyone gravitated towards it. It was an incredibly tight-knit family that was very Catholic. It was a busy home full of love.”

“The memorabilia we’ve come across is amazing. We have a menu for a dinner my grandfather was at with President de Gaulle and when mum and dad got married they got a telegram from Éamon de Valera. Every time we had a Fianna Fáil taoiseach my mum would write a letter to congratulate them.”

After finishing school, Carmel joined the civil service, where she worked at the Department of Social Welfare. She met her future husband, Tom Clarke, at a dance in the Top Hat ballroom in Dún Laoghaire, and the couple married in 1961. With the marriage bar, Carmel had to leave her government job but ran a post office and shop on Booterstown Avenue. Emer and her sister Paula were born in Dublin, before the family moved to Waterford in 1969. Four years later Carmel gave birth to her third daughter, Dearbhla, who had Down syndrome.

“Dearbhla’s birth changed the dynamic of the family. Mum and dad campaigned endlessly here in Waterford for building a new school for special-needs children. We were also very involved in the Special Olympics.”

Brain tumour

In Waterford, the Clarke family grew tomatoes and lettuce in glasshouses on three acres. “Thinking back, it wasn’t easy for my mum collecting us from school and then bringing us to pick 200 boxes of lettuce to go to Dublin. My dad would drive up that night to be ready for the market the following morning. They were seriously hard workers but yet the door was always open for a cup of tea. My mum loved the company; her infectious smile would light up a room.”

When she was 60, Carmel underwent surgery for a brain tumour. “The whole thing taught my dad to relax a bit more; we realised life was precious. She developed epilepsy after the surgery and stopped driving, but other than that life got back to relative normality. She recovered incredibly well.”

In 2005, Dearbhla died following a short illness. “The five of us were all together when she died,” remembers Emer. “She hadn’t been really sick beforehand and she went at her peak. She was 32 when she passed.”

Dearbhla’s death left a “huge void” in her parents’ lives, she adds. However, the young grandchildren in Waterford and London brought great joy to their lives.

When Tom died in 2016, Carmel refused to move from Viewmount Park in Waterford city, saying she did not want to leave her home. She loved her grandchildren in Waterford – Neil and Órla – dropping by for chats and regularly spoke to Gavin and Emma in London.

Minor stroke

Last summer Carmel suffered a minor stroke and moved into a nursing home. While the nursing home staff were “incredible”, her family were unable to visit during the restrictions, says Emer. In mid-January 2020 Carmel tested positive for Covid-19.

“Thank God mum just had a sniffle and was very tired. On the Sunday she slipped into a semi-coma and on Tuesday they asked if I wanted to come in and say goodbye. I was wrapped up in PPE and had my sister on Skype. We had a few minutes to say ‘You’re okay, Mum, we’re here with you.” Carmel died in the early hours of Saturday, January 23rd, aged 89.

Emer and Paula attended a private funeral Mass the following Monday with their partners and children. “Ordinarily if mum had passed there would have been 500 people in the church with all the cousins. She was like the matriarch of the family. But suddenly there were only eight of us. I felt I couldn’t honour her properly. But through this tribute she can be proud. At 89 you deserve to be honoured.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast