Clerke, Ellen Mary (1840–1906), journalist and writer, was born 26 September 1840 in Skibbereen, Co. Cork, elder daughter among three children of John William Clerke (1814–90), manager of the Provincial Bank, and his wife Catherine Mary, sister of lawyer Rickard Deasy (qv). Brought up in a highly cultured family, her father a classical scholar, graduate of TCD, and interested in science, and her mother a gifted musician, she was well educated by her parents and private tutors. In 1861 the family moved to Dublin, in 1863 to Queenstown (Cobh), Co. Cork, but owing to the poor health of her sister Agnes Mary Clerke (qv) extended visits were made to Italy from 1867/8, the sisters subsequently settling in Florence before being reunited with their family in London (1877).
While living in Italy she became fluent in several European languages, wrote a pamphlet in German, Das Judenthum in der Musik (1869), immersed herself in contemporary affairs and Italian history and literature, and contributed articles and stories in Italian to Florentine periodicals, including a long series of stories, ‘Sotto le sette stelle’. In London she established herself as a journalist; her erudition, wide-ranging interests, and versatility were expressed in numerous articles published in various magazines throughout her life.
From 1878 she was a regular contributor to the Dublin Review, and wrote essays on subjects ranging from the poetry of Michelangelo and Dante to religious and social affairs; more than thirty articles on anthropological and geographical subjects, her main interest; book reviews; and from 1885 a regular column, ‘Notes on travel and exploration’. Her lively pieces were based on a wide reading of current literature, papers submitted to geographical societies, parliamentary papers, reports from catholic foreign missions (particularly in Africa), and accounts from travellers and explorers. Topics included the opening of canals and railways for international trade; a review (1866) of petroleum resources, predicting the age of oil; and the development of gold and diamond mines in southern Africa. She joined the staff of The Tablet c.1885 and wrote a weekly leader for twenty years, reporting mainly on missionary activities and German and Italian politics, and also undertook editorial duties.
She had a great love for Italy and contributed six delightful articles to the Cornhill Magazine (1879–81) on Italian life and literature. She translated Italian poems for Richard Garnett's A history of Italian literature (1898; reprinted 1970) and in 1899 published Fable and song in Italy, a collection of essays, which traced the influences on Italian poetry and included translations of poems by M. M. Boiardo (c.1441–1494), Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), and Allessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), graceful compositions in which she adhered closely to the original works in line and metre. Poetry was her great delight and she published The Flying Dutchman and other poems (1881) and one novel, Flowers of fire (1902), a romance in which she vividly described the eruption of Vesuvius, which she had witnessed in 1872.
A member of the Manchester Geographical Society, she contributed articles to its journal and attended meetings of the Royal Institution, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Astronomical Society. Fascinated by astronomy, she became a member of the British Astronomical Society, contributed articles to its journal, and published popular astronomical monographs, Jupiter and his [sic] system (1892) and The planet Venus (1893), which were well received. Her knowledge of Arabic was demonstrated in a short unsigned article, ‘Sirius and Algol in Arabic’ (The Observatory, xv (June 1892), 271), where she demonstrated that the variability of the star Algol had been noticed by Arabian astronomers. She contributed articles to Encyclopaedia Britannica and three entries to the DNB on the astronomer R. A. Proctor (1837–88), science writer Mary Somerville (1780–1872), and surgeon William Somerville (1771–1860).
She never married, and lived with her family at 68 Redcliffe Square, Kensington. She managed the household, cared for her elderly mother, and was always protective of her frail, much loved sister Agnes, whose literary, musical, and scientific interests she shared and who invariably accompanied her to scientific meetings. Ellen was a gifted guitarist and a fine oarswoman and loved riding. Sociable, hospitable, and deeply religious (a catholic, like her mother; her father was a protestant), she undertook many charitable activities. Her brother Aubrey St John Clerke (1843–1923), a barrister at the chancery court, wrote treatises on land law, and a foreword to an appreciation of his sisters, written by their family friend, astrophysicist Margaret Huggins (qv), who regretted that so many of Ellen's articles had passed into ‘magazine oblivion’ (Huggins, 40).
Ellen died (2 March 1906) at home from pneumonia after two days' illness and was buried in Brompton cemetery beside her parents. In 1999 a plaque with portraits of the sisters was placed in Bridge St., Skibbereen, to mark their birthplace.