This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

March 2003


4 March 1888:   Grace Gifford Plunkett, Irish patriot, born.

Grace Gifford is one of the tragic stories of the 1916 Easter Rising, but the poignancy of her brief marriage to the executed rebel leader Joseph Mary Plunkett has tended to obscure her deep commitment to the cause of the Irish Republic as well as to the memory of her late husband.

Born of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother, Grace was raised as a Protestant in accordance with a social custom of the day known as “the Palatine Pact” whereby in mixed marriages the boys would be raised as Catholics while the girls would be raised as Protestants. Both her parents, though, staunchly supported Ireland’s union with England, but under the influence, or so they later claimed, of their Irish nannies, Grace and three of her sisters grew up to become Irish nationalists. Before long the foursome became a fixture at the Dublin headquarters of the the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein. Some gallant old-timers there liked to say that the arrival of the Gifford sisters turned the gloomy old hall into a “flower garden.”

But the sisters’ devotion to the cause of Ireland was deep and genuine, and grew deeper as they made connections with the leading figures of the Irish language and independence movements. Grace met Joseph Plunkett on a visit to the Irish language school at St. Enda’s and soon developed a romance with the intense, sensitive-looking poet. The romance blossomed into a foursome when Grace’s sister Muriel married Plunkett’s friend Thomas MacDonagh.

The Irish nationalist MacDonagh somehow managed to charm his unionist mother-in-law, but what nobody at the time suspected was that he and Joseph were actively engaged in planning an armed insurrection. It was perhaps for this reason that Joseph was for a long time diffident about becoming engaged to Grace, even though the two were clearly in love. When they finally did become engaged, Joseph kept the engagement quiet for a while. The news only leaked out in mid-December 1915 when Sean MacDiarmada, who would be another leader of the planned rising, casually asked Joseph about what he thought was an “absurd story” that Joseph and Grace were going to be married.

Apparently Joseph didn’t tell Grace of the impending insurrection, nor did he tell her the full truth that the chronic problems he was experiencing with his neck glands were in fact an advanced case of tuberculosis. When Grace chose the date for their wedding, it turned out to be Easter Sunday, 23 April 1916, the very date selected for the uprising. As it was an emergency operation the week before enabled Joseph to postpone the wedding, and circumstances forced the postponement of the rising to Easter Monday instead. The first clear indication to Grace that something was going on came on the evening of Holy Saturday when Plunkett’s young aide Michael Collins dropped by to deliver her a sum of money and a small gun for her protection. Grace was horrified at the sight of the gun, but Collins left without offering her any further explanation.

By 30 April the Easter Rising had been suppressed by English forces and Joseph, along with the other leaders of the Rising, was in Kilmainham Gaol, where he was swiftly court-martialed and sentenced to be shot. Grace and Joseph were at last married by special arrangement in the prison chapel on the morning he was to face the firing squad, and just before dawn given a last ten-minute visit together, accompanied by fifteen soldiers crammed with them into Joseph’s tiny cell.

Grace never married again, and throughout her long widowhood she remained a staunch Irish Republican, serving on the reorganized Sinn Fein executive alongside Kathleen Clarke and Constance Markievicz, and was eventually thrown into Kilmainham herself for her support of the anti-treaty side in the Irish Civil War. She died, alone, on 13 December 1955.

The stories in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the 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 2003 Celtic Calendar, available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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