Clarke is one of the commonest surnames throughout England, Ireland and Scotland, and has the same remote origin in all cases, the Latin clericus, originally meaning "clergyman" and later "clerk" or "scholar". In Irish this became cleireach, the root of the surname O Cleireigh, which was anglicised in two ways, phonetically as "Cleary", and by translation as "Clerk" or Clarke". Up to the beginning of this century, the two surnames were still regarded as interchangeable in some areas of the country. By far the largest number of Clarkes (with or without the final "e") are to be found today in Ulster, a reflection of the great influx of Scottish settlers in the seventeenth century. Even in Ulster, however, without a clear pedigree it is not possible in individual cases to be sure if the origin of the name is English or Irish. Austin Clarke (1896-1974), poet, dramatist and novelist, was one of the most important Irish literary figures of the twentieth century.
O Cleirigh, meaning "grandson of the scribe" is the Irish for both (O) Cle(a)ry and, in many cases in Ireland, Clarke. The surname is of great antiquity, deriving from Cleireach of Connacht, born c. 820, in turn descended from Guaire, a seventh-century king of Connacht. Cleireach derives from the same root as the English "cleric" and "clerk" and was used in the same way to describe both a priest and a scholar. Unusually, the anglcisation of the Irish name as Clark was actually quite accurate.
The first of Cleireach?s descendants to use his name as part of a fixed hereditary surname was Tigherneach Ua Cleirigh, lord of Aidhne in south Co. Galway, whose death is recorded in the year 916. It seems likely that this is the oldest true surname recorded anywhere in Europe. The power of the family in their original Co. Galway homeland, close to the modern town of Gort, was broken by the thirteenth century, and they scattered throughout the island, with the most prominent branches settling in Derry and Donegal, where they became famous as poets, in Cavan, where many appear to have anglicised the name as "Clarke", and in the Kilkenny/Waterford/Tipperary region.
. The Clery (or Clary) sisters of Marseilles, Julie and Desiree, lead remarkable lives. Descended from a Co. Limerick merchant family, they married into the elite of Napoleonic France. Desiree?s husband Bernadotte became Charles XIV of Sweden, while Julie?s husband, Joseph Bonaparte was Napoleon?s younger brother and became King of Naples for two years and of Spain for five.
In 1890 Clark was ranked 31st most common surname with 345 births of the name, while Cleary was 171st with 127; by 1996 the rankings were, respectively, 20th and 159th.