Clarke, Sr Sarah (1919–2002), nun and civil rights campaigner, was born 17 November 1919 in Eyrecourt, Co. Galway, daughter of Michael Clarke, farmer, and Brigid Clarke (née Claffey). Her father was injured in a fall from a horse and was confined to a wheelchair before succumbing to TB and dying when she was 8. Her mother took charge of the farm and of her own family pub and shop, and married Tim Cosgrave, horsebreeder and brother of the Galway TD (1923-June 1927), James Cosgrave. Sarah was educated locally and at the St Raphael convent, Loughrea, Co. Galway. Her generation was much influenced by the eucharistic conference of 1932, and she claimed half her class entered convents. Her own vocation was to the sisters of La Sainte Union, whom she found less remote than the Sisters of Mercy who had educated her. She entered the Sainte Union convent at Killashee, Co. Kildare, in September 1939 and after her noviciate took the name of Sr Mary Auxilius. Thirty years later, when she had a more public role, she found that people had difficulty pronouncing it, so reverted to her baptismal name. In 1941 she was sent to Carysfort training college, Dublin, and took a bilingual certificate in Irish and English. Her first job was at Our Lady's Bower school in Athlone, where she remained for sixteen years. She took particular pleasure in teaching art and used advanced methods, but found the school very strictly run. In 1957 she was transferred, at her request, to England, where she began teaching in the Sainte Union convents at Southampton, at Herne Bay, Kent, and Highgate, London.
In the mid 1960s, benefitting from the more liberal climate after Vatican II, she was permitted to attend Chelsea Art School, where she enjoyed the bohemian scene. She then went to Reading University to study typography and ergonomics, but in 1970 discovered the cause that was to occupy the rest of her life: the Northern Ireland civil rights movement, and specifically the rights of republican prisoners. Her reverend mother allowed her to join NICRA and she was briefly the movement's London secretary before becoming disillusioned with it, and leaving to work alone for many years, liaising with activists such as Fr Denis Faul (qv). After her 1973 visits to the Price sisters and others accused of the Old Bailey bombings, she was not permitted to meet category A prisoners, but would bring letters and parcels for them, act as a contact for their families, and lobby politicians about their conditions. In 1976 her order released her from teaching duties and allowed her to buy a car. A few years later she helped set up the Relatives and Friends of Prisoners Committee, which had as its principal aim the repatriation of republican prisoners to Ireland.
From the late 1970s she achieved renown because of her leading role in the campaigns to clear the names of the Guildford Four, Maguire Seven, and Birmingham Six. In 1978 the prison authorities gave her permission to visit Giuseppe Conlon and she was one of the last people to see him alive before his death (23 January 1980). A BBC programme about her was broadcast 1 July 1981, and she also helped the journalists Chris Mullen and Ronan Bennett in their books on the cases. When the Guildford Four's convictions were finally quashed (October 1989), Paul Hill was asked to pose for the Observer newspaper. He agreed on condition Sr Sarah pose with him, and the photo appeared on the front page. Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six called her ‘the Joan of Arc of British prisons’.
The public vindication of these high-profile prisoners helped to validate Sr Sarah's work, but she herself was always adamant that she did not discriminate between the guilty and innocent. This sprang from her understanding of Christ's message, which she often quoted: ‘I was sick and in prison and you visited me’, but she was also influenced by her nationalism. Her autobiography, No faith in the system (1995), shows some sympathy for republicanism: she blamed the IRA bombings on grave injustices in the six counties and wrote that until 1994 ‘the British government did not take Irish nationalists seriously enough to enter into talks with them’ (Clarke, 32), which ignores the many talks held with the SDLP and the meetings between William Whitelaw (qv) and the IRA in 1973.
After 1995 she was cleared to visit three category A prisoners and, although she went blind in old age, she continued her work. In December 2001 she was awarded the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice cross by the pope, and three months later she died (4 February 2002) in London. The Irish ambassador to Britain, Daithi Ó Ceallaigh, and four MPs including Ken Livingstone, mayor of London, attended her requiem mass in Camden Town on 11 February, after which her remains were brought to Ireland, where the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, a former taoiseach, Albert Reynolds (qv) (who had provided the introduction to her autobiography), and Paul Hill joined relatives and friends at the airport mortuary before her burial near the River Shannon in Co. Galway.