This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

November 2001


21 November 1887:   Joseph Mary Plunkett, Irish patriot, born.

Often viewed as the tragic young poet of the 1916 Easter Rising, the sensitive-looking Joseph Mary Plunkett was in fact a key figure who with his friend Thomas MacDonagh shaped the strategy and drew up the operational plans for the insurrection.

Plunkett came from a family already prominent in Irish history. He was related to the Blessed Oliver Plunkett who was executed by the English in 1681, and his living relatives included Horace Plunkett, founder of the Irish agricultural cooperatives movement, and the fantasy short-story writer Lord Dunsany. His father was George Noble, Count Plunkett, who had been made a Papal count for his efforts on behalf of the Catholic church.

A noted poet and, among other things, an expert in Arabic literature, Joseph Plunkett was also a member of the secret Irish Republican Brotherhood. When in 1913 the Irish Volunteers were formed to defend the movement for Irish home rule from the obstructionism threatened by the unionists in Ulster, the IRB infiltrated the Volunteers and by early in 1915 were planning to launch an armed insurrection in a bid for a full Irish republic.

As a highly educated gentleman of leisure, Joseph Plunkett could offer the movement a lot in the way of time and resources, despite an incurable case of tuberculosis of the neck glands that threatened to eventually kill him. He soon became one of the men tasked with drawing up the actual plans for the insurrection. Apart from his wide-ranging studies of military affairs, his only hands-on military experience was from his days in an English Jesuit boarding school, when he took part in the Officers Training Corp maneuvers on Salisbury Plain.

Plunkett met Thomas MacDonagh in 1910 when he set out to learn the Irish language in order to pass the matriculation requirements for the new National University of Ireland. MacDonagh, who was then teaching at Patrick Pearse’s school at St. Enda’s, was suggested as a suitable tutor. The two soon became close friends and fellow Republicans. In 1911 Plunkett’s first book of poetry, The Circle and the Sword, was published.

Plunkett joined the Irish Volunteers at their inaugural meeting in Dublin in November 1913. Not knowing that Plunkett was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the Volunteers head Eoin MacNeill accepted Plunkett’s services mainly because Plunkett was the editor of the Irish Review. MacNeill figured that Plunkett could be useful in publicity and administration, but didn’t think his fragile health would permit him much service as an armed Volunteer.

Yet in spite of his advancing tuberculosis the IRB asked Joseph in mid-1915 to undertake a clandestine trip to Germany. Britain and Germany were then locked in World War One, but Plunkett made his way to Germany via a still neutral Italy and Switzerland. His mission was to arrange for German military assistance for the uprising now scheduled for Easter, 1916, and he was also to secure the cooperation of Roger Casement, who had gone on his own to Germany the year before with a similar intention. In Germany Plunkett found Casement despondent over his failure to recruit a viable “Irish Brigade” from Irish POWs, but Plunkett managed to secure from the Germans a committment to send a substantial shipment of arms to Ireland immediately before the Rising.

He returned to Ireland late in 1915 to complete plans for the Easter Rising and became engaged to Grace Gifford, whose sister Muriel had already married Thomas MacDonagh. As the date for the Easter Rising approached, Plunkett’s tuberculosis worsened. Grace, in all innocence, had selected the very date of the Rising, Easter Sunday 1916, as their wedding day, but an emergency neck operation the week before allowed Plunkett a fortuitous postponement.

He was still recovering form his operation when the Rising, delayed by a day, began on the morning of Easter Monday, 24 April 1916. His neck still swathed in bandages, Plunkett was barely able to manage the one-kilometer walk from the mustering point at Liberty Hall to the Rising’s designated headquarters at the General Post Office on Sackville Street. He spent most of Easter Week on a cot in the Post Office, assisted by his aide-de-camp Michael Collins, but he still managed to lend his voce to the final councils of war.

Following the rebel surrender on 29 April Plunkett was lodged at Kilmainham Gaol where along with the other rebel leaders he was tried by a British court-martial and sentenced to be shot. One of the last acts of his life was to marry Grace Gifford in the prison chapel shortly before he faced the firing squad.

It would have been a thin consolation at best, but the defense of central Dublin planned by Plunkett and MacDonagh won a grudging respect from the professional soldiers who overpowered the Rising.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2002 Celtic Calendar, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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