Rebel Sisters

BOOK REVIEW by Dymphna Lonergan

Marita Conlon-McKenna, Rebel Sisters, Transworld Ireland, Dublin, 20169781848271999

ISBN 97818488271999

RRP $21.40

This year is the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, a pivotal event in Ireland’s fight for independence in the twentieth century. Many books about the Rising have been published this year, mostly historical or political. The grand gesture of the 1916 Rising lends itself to romanticism, not least in the tragic deaths of the executed rebel leaders, poets and teachers among them, and memorialised in W.B.Yeats’ poem ‘Easter 1916’ with its now famous last line ‘A terrible beauty is born’.

It is surprising that there have been few fictionalised accounts of the action and the personages associated with the Rising. Marita Conlon-McKenna’s Rebel Sister is one novel that has embraced the opportunity to highlight the romantic story of Grace, Muriel, and Nellie (Ellen) Gifford. These Gifford sisters lived a privileged Anglo-Irish life in Dublin. Their father was a Catholic of Norman descent and their mother a Protestant whose ancestors were Huguenots. Two other sisters, Ada and Sidney (who preferred to be called ‘John’) are mentioned briefly in the novel. Conlon-McKenna mentions the influence of the ‘marvellous biography of the Giffords…’ in her  ‘Acknowledgements’ at the end of the novel (p. 398), and it is clear that much of the fictional narrative of Rebel Sisters has been based on events described in the 2011 book Unlikely Rebels, a true account of the Gifford sisters (see Anne Clare, Unlikely Rebels, Mercier Press, Cork, 2011).

The Gifford sisters are of interest in the history of 1916 because two were married to executed rebels: Grace

Grace Gifford, pictured not long after the loss of Joseph Plunkett.

Grace Gifford, pictured not long after the loss of Joseph Plunkett.

Gifford married Joseph Plunkett in Kilmainham jail the day before his execution, and Muriel Gifford was married to Thomas McDonagh at the time of his execution. The novel Rebel Sisters depicts the lives of Nellie, Muriel, and Grace Gifford from 1904 to 1916. Also featured, is their mother Isabella. The novel covers five periods: 1910-1902; 1904-1909; 1909-1912; 1913-1915; and 1916.

The Prologue is dated Friday, 28 April 1916, and shows the devastated city of Dublin through Nellie’s eyes as she is ‘Perched high on the roof of the College of Surgeons…’, where she has been stationed during Easter week. Her main role, as it was for many serving women in the Rising, was in making sure the fighting men had sufficient food and supplies. Although Nellie is shown to be the most actively involved sister during Easter week, even carrying a gun given to her by her sister Grace, on closer inspection we can see that her character has been carefully managed to downplay serious rebellion.  We are told that she takes the gun into the fighting, ‘…she felt the gun heavy against her hip…’(P. 321), but we do not see her use it. Indeed the gun appears to disappear in the novel.  There is one reference that might be taken to read that Nellie fired the gun: ‘Nellie took her turn on duty a few hours later with some of the other women, all with their guns at the ready at the windows of the Council Room while the men rested and slept (p. 357).  The words ‘at the ready’, however’ do not necessarily translate to firing those guns.

In the next chapter a weary rebel asks Nellie to ‘hold’ his gun while he goes for a rest , and although there is a

Nellie Gifford

Nellie Gifford

sniper firing on the rebel group, Nellie is ordered not to ‘engage him’(p. 360). We are then told that Nellie ‘was happy’ to pass the gun on later to another rebel ‘and [to] resume her duties bringing water to the soldiers.’ (P. 361). The gun that Nellie had worn on her hip and perhaps used during her time on the roof of the College of Surgeons is not mentioned again in the novel. Despite carrying a gun, Nellie appears to be unsuited to warfare. Other women use their guns as a threat, but Nellie does not: ‘Mary Hyland held up the milkcart’; Lily Kempson ‘brandishes ‘a gun at a poor bread man’ and Nellie helped to carry the bread.’ (P. 331) Nellie is clearly distressed by the violence around her: ‘Next thing, to Nellie’s horror, the man was shot (p. 331); ‘Nellie watched in horror’ ( p. 334); ‘Tears filled her eyes as she was forced to stand uselessly by and watch him die.’ (P. 334).

The second sister in Rebel Sisters is Grace Gifford whose first encounter with key people in the Rising is with Willie Pearse, brother of Patrick, whom she meets while they are both art students in Dublin’s Metropolitan College of Art. At this point in the novel, we are introduced to the Gaelic League:

Willie was very involved with the Gaelic League and he taught Gaelic language classes in the art school which were becoming very popular. Grace and her friends immediately signed up to attend them. Grace found it difficult to learn this new language, which they had never studied in school, but over time she managed to learn new words and sentences she tried to use. (P. 54)

Later, in an encounter with her sister Sidney (known as ‘John’) Grace has difficulty in pronouncing the Irish name of the women’s organisation ‘Daughters of Ireland’:

‘It’s called Inghinidhe na hEireann,’ John explained.

‘You are talking in Irish!’ Grace laughed.

‘I’m taking classes in the language.’

‘Ingi…’ Grace had no idea how even to attempt to say it. (p. 93)

As will be seen, it is highly unlikely that Grace would have had this difficulty. Grace Gifford was an artist, and it is this aspect of her life that is foregrounded in Rebel Sisters. From the outset, she seems to be politically unengaged.  At Patrick Pearse’s speech at O’Donovan Rossa’s grave in 1915, we are told ‘Grace stood tall and perfectly still, her gaze unmoving, as if she were trying to remember it all exactly like a painting (p. 239.  She does not join Inghinidhe na hEireann as ‘John’ has done because ‘…she needed to concentrate her efforts on finding work’ (p. 94). The writer takes care to paint Grace as being uninterested in politics and largely unaware of the coming rebellion. On a visit to Joseph Plunkett who is ill, she notices groups of men in the grounds. Plunkett shows her a wireless that will be used to transmit morse code signals, and she concludes that he is ‘involved in planning some kind of mission with the Volunteers…’. Her response to his query on whether she cared to join an organisation such as Cumann na mBan or the Citizen army is ‘…can you imagine me in tweeds and boots, marching and learning how to clean and store guns and use bandages.’(p. 275) Later, we are told that ‘Grace’s passion was reserved for the colourful world of art and theatre and writing’ (p. 282) and her response to Michael Collins giving her a gun from Joseph Plunkett is to hide it away: ‘Aiming at another human being and killing or injuring them…was something she could not personally contemplate…’ (p.305). She later gives the gun to her sister Nellie. These depictions of Grace as otherworldly despite her close connection with Joseph Plunkett serve to enhance her role as the romantic and tragic figure in Irish history whose plans to marry on Easter Sunday morning were thwarted. A hurried and last minute wedding in Kilmainham jail replaced them, after which she was ‘…left standing like a marble statue…unable to move or even say a word (p. 387).

Muriel Gifford and Thomas MacDonagh had been married four years and had two children by the time of the

Muriel Gifford shortly before her marriage.

Muriel Gifford shortly before her marriage.

1916 Rising. In Rebel Sisters while a probationary nurse in Dublin, Muriel meets Thomas MacDonagh at St. Enda’s College where he is deputy principal, and they meet again at a Gaelic League céilí. Finding nursing too difficult, she resigns, and thereafter keeps herself busy learning Irish and doing voluntary work with Inghinidhe na hEireann (p. 120). She receives an invitation from MacDonagh for afternoon tea and takes along her sister. During the afternoon MacDonagh and John (Muriel’s sister) discuss politics, making Muriel feel  ‘rather left out’, but she and MacDonagh are attracted to each other all the same, ‘…both chatting easily about their own childhoods and family’ (p. 134). Another time, Muriel joins MacDonagh and her sisters in a protest march against King George of England’s visit to Dublin in 1911.

As with Grace, Muriel is shown to be only vaguely aware of events leading up to the 1916 Rising.  Her husband is ‘…quiet and secretive…’, but she is aware that they have ‘…a large quantity of rifles…stashed away in cupboards and wardrobes…’, and of the frequent visits to their home of Pearse, Plunkett, Eamonn Ceannt, Sean MacDiarmada, Tim Clarke and James Connolly’. (p. 234) On Easter Saturday, Muriel learns from MacDonagh that an ‘event’ to ‘celebrate the anniversary of the battle of Clontarf’ has been called off.’ (p. 309) She becomes aware that the Rising is on when MacDonagh does not return home on Easter Monday. She goes to the GPO, and is told to go home by Pearse who tells her that her ‘place is with [her] children’ (p. 347). She is prevented from seeing her husband in prison. Her portrayal in Rebel Sisters ends with her plan to go to see MacDonagh ‘at first light’ (p. 376).

Despite having the word ‘rebels’ in the novel’s title, the sisters’ active engagement in the Rising is downplayed. While Nellie carries a gun and is garrisoned with other Citizen Army volunteers at St. Stephen’s Green, she does not use it. Grace and Muriel, despite being intimately involved with two of the Rising leaders, are shown to be largely ignorant of their men’s significant roles in the rebellion. Another curious omission is the sisters’ ability to speak Irish. The 1911 Census shows Helen, Muriel, Grace, and Sydney Gifford as having ‘Irish and English’, yet this is not mentioned in either Rebel Sisters or Unlikely Rebels.  Moreover, Muriel’s husband, Thomas MacDonagh and Grace’s husband Joseph Mary Plunkett are cited in Rebel Sisters as being Irish speakers. It is highly likely that they would have enjoyed conversing with Grace and Muriel at some level.

Admittedly, the 1911 Census does not give us an idea of how well the sisters could speak Irish, but it is significant that their interest in the language was such that they claimed to or were known to ‘have’ Irish and to have that reported in the Census. The 1901 Census has no mention of the sisters speaking Irish, so they must have attended Irish language classes as adults, or they might have learned it from the domestic servant, Julia Moore, who was also returned as having ‘Irish and English’ in 1911. This omission of Irish language ability in Rebel Sisters could simply be because it is not mentioned in the biographical Unlikely Rebels (which is also odd given the ready availability to the Census return online).

It is interesting to see the fiction writer’s choice in Rebel Sisters in what to leave out and where to place emphasis. The attractive cover shows a young women dressed in white with her head bowed, as if in prayer. Below this photograph are two tall, thin, women silhouetted in black on a hilltop, one sporting a red cap. It is likely that the woman in white is meant to be Grace Gifford, and the other two women Muriel and Nellie. The romance is certainly found in the Gifford/MacDonagh, Gifford/ Plunkett love stories, and bravery of Nellie Gifford, but the Gifford sisters were more than their romantic attachments. Although the ‘Afterward’ includes an account of Nellie, Muriel, Grace, and their mother Isabel following the 1916 Easter Rising, Rebel Sisters is best read alongside Unlikely Rebels for the optimum account of the Gifford Sisters and the role they played in Irish political life both before and after 1916.


Dymphna is an academic from Flinders University with a research interest in Irish language. She is also a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.