JJ or Jack Clarke (1878-1961) was a GP from Castleblayney. While a student in Royal College of Surgeons at the turn of the 20th Century he regularly photographed street scenes in Dublin, Bray, Castleblayney and Bundoran amongst other towns. These photographs are notable for their aesthetic quality, candid nature, as social documentary, and for their technical prowess. They are a superb record of Edwardian Ireland and the Clarke Photography collection is considered amongst the most valued collections in the National Library of Ireland.
The majority of photographs in the collection span a 10-year period between 1900 and 1910 and while Clarke is known to have had a lifelong love of photography, sadly very little else remains. He travelled widely – having worked as a ships doctor with the Blue Funnel Line shipping company – collecting many fine objects and ephemera from the Dutch East Indies, Japan and Africa amongst other places. It is very likely that he took photographs while on his travels abroad, but sadly we haven’t found any.
There are still some in the community who remember Dr JJ Clarke and recall a kind reserved gentleman with a very dry wit. He was renowned for his love of cars and used to drive a Ford Zephyr down the middle of York Street at a leisurely pace, a habit which earned him the nickname ‘Fangio’.
In 2019 an exhibition of Clarkes photographs was produced by Íontas Arts in Castleblayney along with a theatrical outdoor recreation of scenes taken from photographs in Castleblayney – Streets of JJ Clarke – and a short one act play ‘Dr Jack’. This programme of work was supported by The Arts Council and Creative Ireland programme.
Once referred to as ‘Clarkes Corner’ at the junction where York Street meets Thomas Street, the preferred site is at the gable end of the house where Jack grew up in the late 19th Century. Clarke would ultimately retire to this house in the late 1930s after years of living abroad eventually dying of pneumonia in 1961 at which point the house was gifted to his half-sister ‘Birdy’ Duffin. After Birdy died, the house was sold in 1973 and the contents within auctioned. Such was the extent of valuable objects in the house, help was sought from Sotheby’s auction house in London to properly value items. It was around this time that the photographs and glass plates were retrieved from the house by extended family members. These would eventually be gifted to the National Library of Ireland in 2000 and number about 300 items in the Clarke Collection.
One of the most eye-catching photographs taken by JJ Clarke happened outside his home on York Street. Positioned looking back towards the centre of town, Clarke captured a fascinating image of a group of children, some barefoot making their way up York Street in the direction of St Marys Church, possibly on their way to school see FIG 3.