Clark, Wallace (1926–2011), yachtsman, writer and businessman, was born in Upperlands, Co. Derry, on 20 November 1926, one of three children, two boys and a girl, of Harry Francis Clark, of Rockwood in Upperlands, and his wife Sybil Emily (née Stuart). His father was a director and later chairman of the long-established family linen firm, William Clark and Sons. His mother, who was an international golfer and a gifted gardener, was descended from Antrim gentry. Wallace was brought up conscious of his family history, including the Scottish origins of his maternal grandfather, which he was told entitled him to wear the Royal Stuart tartan. He inherited his mother's charm, his father's firmness of will and the basic conservatism of both parents; but these traits were combined with a periodically rebellious streak and a passion for the sea, whose origins were not obvious.
He was sent to boarding schools in England from the age of eight – first Moorland House in the north-west midlands, then Shrewsbury School. His early aptitude for classics helped win him a scholarship to Shrewsbury, but by the time he left in 1944 he was bored with study and keen to join many members of his extended family in contributing to the war effort. He joined the Royal Navy in October 1944 and reached the rank of lieutenant, specialising in bomb and mine disposal and serving in naval stations on the English south coast.
After a season of adventure in 1947 as a merchant seaman, he settled down to work in the family business. His relationship with the firm and its environment was ambivalent: he loved the south Derry bogs and hills, the strong local characters and the twenty-two acres of dams, which served the works. However, frustrated by a top-heavy management, dominated by relatives whose watchword was caution, he sought release by plying the Irish and Scottish waters in small wooden boats, teaching himself to sail in all conditions and acquiring a huge knowledge of the tides, rocks and local lore of remote places. He bonded with islanders and fisherfolk who shared his instinct for negotiating difficult waters. Gaining confidence, he sailed to Brittany, Norway and around Ireland, becoming a prominent figure in the Irish Cruising Club, and later in the Royal Cruising Club. In 1956 he acquired Wild Goose, a ten-tonne, thirty-five-foot yawl built in 1936, which became his best-known boat, eventually capsizing at the mouth of the river Bann in 1998.
On 28 August 1957, he married June Elisabeth Lester Deane (1933–2017), who had grown up in Belfast, but had strong Dublin connections and studied languages at TCD. She had worked at Heathrow as a ground hostess for British European Airways, and as a model, and would use her skills as a linguist and entertainer to help Clark's business career. They had two sons and settled in Gorteade Cottage, Upperlands, a small Georgian house where American founder Charles Thomson (qv) was born. Extending and improving this property was a lifelong project.
Continuing to sail exuberantly into the early 1960s, he based Wild Goose in the Riviera for a couple of seasons after traversing the French canals in 1961. In 1963 he led an expedition from the north of Ireland to Iona, retracing the voyage made by Saint Colum Cille (qv) fourteen centuries earlier in a curragh. Sponsored by the Church of Ireland, the voyage was considered a major event in the annals of Christianity in the British Isles, and the dozen oarsmen were greeted by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Many described the voyage as a spiritual experience.
From 1965 onwards, his work life became more testing as he realised that the survival of his family's business was in question. Along with partners in the United States and the Netherlands, he developed new technology for linings, which could be chemically sealed to a garment rather than sewn in. As well as sailing and selling, Clark chronicled his life and the history that lay behind it. Apart from co-written sailing directions for the Irish coast, issued by the Irish Cruising Club, his first real book was Guns in Ulster (1967). It describes the IRA campaigns of the early 1920s and from 1956 to 1962 within his locality, as observed by his grandfather, his father and himself: all had served part-time in the Ulster Special Constabulary. The book is modest in scope but offers a revealing micro-history. Clark then shared the hope, widespread among liberal Unionists that relations between Ireland's communities would improve.
Both he and his brother Henry Maitland Clark (qv), by that time an official Unionist MP for North Antrim, had faith in the cautiously reformist agenda advanced by Prime Minister Terence O'Neill (qv), and later by their relation James Chichester-Clark (qv). They were caught off guard both by the burgeoning civil rights movement and the ensuing hard-line Protestant backlash, which allowed Ian Paisley (qv) to take Henry's seat in the 1970 election. That year Wallace Clark was awarded the MBE for the constructive role he played in the peaceful disbandment of the Special Constabulary. As violence escalated, he joined and helped to organise the local company of the Ulster Defence Regiment, serving for seven years (1970–77) as a major. This was an exhausting time in his life, combining business by day with patrols late at night, which he would eventually describe in a book called Brave men and true (2003). At least nine part-time soldiers and six policemen were killed in the district during his involvement with local security matters, and he often faced the duty of breaking the news of a death to the deceased's family.
He found time for his sailing and maritime history passions, focusing on the sea routes connecting Ireland and Scotland. His book Rathlin, disputed island (1971), traced the island's history as a bone of contention between rival clans and between Irish and Scottish territorial claims. In 1976, he produced his best-loved work; Sailing round Ireland. Drawing on memories of the 1950s, it uses a notional circumnavigation in Wild Goose to describe the history and ongoing settlement of remote islands and ports: places like Tory Island, where he had forged personal bonds across barriers of language, politics and religion.
Then he turned his literary focus inland, to describe the history of the linen business in which his family had been engaged since around 1700. Drawing on the scant available evidence, he reconstructed the life of forebears like Jackson Clark (c.1695–c.1756) a land-dealer, corn-miller, wine-importer and entrepreneur who added the finishing and marketing of linen to his activities. He also used his feel for the physical world to recreate the sights, sounds and smells of early linen machinery. Linen on the green (1982) became a useful resource for academic historians.
As the British clothing trade to which the firm was a significant supplier went into near-terminal decline, his job as a director had become a rear-guard action by the 1980s. The company accepted help from the Industrial Development Board in the form of a £175,000 injection of capital, which diluted the family's influence over management. By 1986, he had stepped aside from full-time involvement but continued to exercise influence as a non-executive director, always urging that jobs, then numbering around one hundred, be given priority. (As of 2019 the company was still in existence, operating in association with the larger Evans textiles group based in Manchester and employing about thirty people.)
Withdrawal from full-time business activity allowed him to focus on raising sponsorship for the construction of a medieval-style galley, the Aileach, which was built at the MacDonald boatyard in Moville, Co. Donegal, and designed by Colin Mudie. Its launch and successful maiden voyage in 1991, from Galway to the Outer Hebrides, gained much media attention. Clark used his charm and his standing as a mariner to put together a coalition of people, from Connaught islanders to Anglo-Scottish grandees to members of the Scottish diaspora, who all helped the enterprise.
He suffered a devastating blow with the suicide in April 1993 of his younger son Miles (aged thirty-two) who had accomplished an historic voyage through Russia, from the White Sea to the Black Sea, in the Wild Goose. Wallace had helped with logistics for the journey, joining Miles and his crew for the final leg of the trip. In a difficult labour of love, he published an account of that voyage, Sailing round Russia (1999). He also penned a colourful account of the Hibernian galley project, simply called The lord of the isles voyage (1993). But that too was a hard book for him to finish, given that much of the work was done after the death of Miles, who had been photographer for the expedition.
The final decade of Clark's life was a time of affliction, including grief over Miles and the obligation to care for his wife, June, who became confined to bed by acute arthritis. Meanwhile sailing, and socialising with fellow sailors, provided solace. He worked hard for charities like the Royal British Legion and Royal National Lifeboat Institution and was a popular figure on the Irish social scene. The Irish branch of the seafarers' dining club the 'Frères de la côte' became one of his great enthusiasms. He penned the short texts for two attractive books on the Donegal islands (2003) and the Connaught islands (2005), adorned by the paintings of Ros Harvey, an accomplished landscape artist. This project was an excuse to visit beloved coastal haunts in Agivey, a fibreglass ten-tonner which was the last boat he owned.
Although he made no secret of his protestant Ulster origins, he enjoyed some unlikely relationships that can exist in the small world of provincial Ireland, especially if sailing provides the social glue. He was suspicious of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, but enjoyed the intensified contact with southern friends that the new order facilitated and re-established contact with a maverick family member on his mother's side: the novelist Francis Stuart (qv) who had shocked his relatives by becoming a nationalist.
In the writings of his final years, Clark teased out some of the paradoxes of his own personality. He was called to be a fighter, feeling an affinity with every generation of Irish and Scottish people who had fought on land and sea, but was also a man of personal gentleness, who retained the innocence, naivete, mood swings and mischievous humour of an unruly schoolboy. Capable of responding intuitively to moments of triumph and disaster, he liked to live each second of life with great intensity. He was deeply loyal to the institutions which formed him, including the family business, the armed services and the Church of Ireland; but part of him yearned for an absolute freedom from all worldly ties, which only the sea, and a small boat, could provide. He passed away on 8 May 2011, at the Mid-Ulster Hospital, Magherafelt and was buried at St Lurach's Church, Maghera, Co. Derry. A memoir, Call of the running tide: 60 years at sea (2012), was posthumously published