Clarke, Sister Sarah

Sister Sarah Clarke, who died on 4 February 2002 at the age of 82, was described by Paddy Hill, one of the Birmingham six, for whose release from prison she campaigned, as the Joan of Arc of the prisons. Born in Eyrecourt, County Galway, in 1909, Sarah Clarke entered La Sainte Union order and trained as a primary teacher in Carysfort College in Dublin. She taught at the orders schools in Ireland and England until 1974, and studied in the Chelsea College of Art. She became involved in the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Movement and in visiting prisoners and helping their relatives: prison-related work became her full-time occupation after the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Act in 1974 led to the arrest of large numbers of Irish people in the UK. She fought to clear the names of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six before belief in their innocence became widespread and was particularly involved in the case of Guiseppe Conlon, father of Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four. The title of her 1995 autobiography, No Faith in the System, underlined her later scepticism, in contrast with the acknowledged naivete with which she began her campaigning. She did not discriminate between innocent and guilty prisoners and replied to her critics by asserting that it is possible to hate the sin but love the sinner and quoting the words of Christ: I was sick and in prison and you visited me. An advocate for justice since she first visited an Irish prisoner in Brixton Prison in 1971 at the request of a Belfast priest, she summed up her modus operandi as a civil rights activist: 'If you keep coming with little pins, some day you will make a big hole.'