by Celine Naughton
It’s a love story that’s been romanticised out of history and into legend and song.
Following a whirlwind courtship, Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett married in his prison cell just hours before he was taken out to the Stonebreaker’s Yard in Kilmainham Jail and shot for his part in the Easter Rising. When the late Jim McCann immortalised the star-crossed lovers in his famous ballad ‘Grace’ with those lyrics, ‘Oh Grace, just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger…’ it brought a tear to the collective eye.
The song stirred emotions again when a live performance by family trio Danny O’Reilly, Róisín O and Aoife Scott in Kilmainham Gaol was a highlight of this year’s acclaimed RTE Centenary concert. Yet in spite of its almost mythic status, there were no lingering embraces or touching of any kind during the actual wedding ceremony. Joseph and Grace were accompanied by an armed prison guard for the whole ten minutes they had to marry and say their final goodbyes. Consequently, the executed leader’s family has mixed feelings about the song.
‘I was embarrassed by it when it first came out,’ says Honor O’Brolchain, author, musician and grand-niece of Joseph Plunkett. ‘However, everything it says is true and you grow fond of it after a while, and the Centenary performance was very beautiful.’
In her book, All in the Blood, Honor reaches into the journals of her grandmother, Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, to bring to life a full-blooded, warts-and-all account of the relationship between Joseph and Grace.
Grace was one of six girls and six boys born to a wealthy Unionist family, with a Catholic father and Protestant mother. All the children were brought up as Protestants, although the boys were baptised as Catholics. However, Grace became a Catholic with all the devotion of a convert.
Joe was on the rebound when they met. He’d spent five years completely infatuated with Columba O’Carroll, the subject of much of his poetry, but eventually she told him no more, and put and end to it.
He then started working on a military plan for the Rising. His expertise in this area was respected by the older leaders, and it was he who devised the strategy for the successful Battle of Mount Street. During this time, September 1915, he met Grace and fell in love with her. They became engaged on December 2nd and announced it in February. She was baptised a Catholic on April 7th.
‘Joe asked her to marry him in Lent, but she said it didn’t suit, as she’d be doing a Lenten ritual known as the ‘Seven Churches.’ She suggested Easter. He replied, ‘I think we’ll be running a revolution then.’
There was another reason for Joseph’s rush to the altar – he knew he was on borrowed time. Joe had glandular tuberculosis since the age of two or three. Shortly before the Rising, he had an operation and doctors gave him only a few weeks to live. For him, going out to be shot for Ireland was a far better end than dying of illness a few weeks later.
But there may have been a further compelling explanation why they ended up marrying hours before his execution.
Fr Eugene McCarthy, the chaplain of Kilmainham, was said to have asked Grace: ‘Do you have to get married?’ She’s supposed to have said yes.
There was only one reason a couple had to get married in those days, and my grandmother’s papers indicate that Grace was pregnant. It also explains why the jail governor granted permission for the wedding ceremony to take place.
Joseph may have hinted at their union in his poem, New Love, which begins:
The day I knew you loved me we had lain
Deep in Coill Doraca down by Gleann na Scath.
But it was his sister Geraldine who left the most telling clue to Grace’s condition; she believed that her widowed sister-in-law was pregnant when she married Joseph, and had a miscarriage shortly afterwards. After the wedding, Grace was disowned by her mother, and Geraldine gave her a place to live in Larkfield, an estate in Kimmage owned by the Plunkett family.
My grandmother wrote how she visited Grace in her bedroom one morning and found a large chamberpot full of blood and foetus. Neither woman said a word to each other about the matter.
Whether the miscarriage was induced, as some have speculated, we will never know. Shortly afterwards Grace went to America. In her book Easter Widows, historian Sinead McCoole notes that ‘six weeks after the wedding, Grace posed for a photograph in Chicago’s New World newspaper wearing a white dress and fancy wristwatch, and holding a kitten. It was not the mournful air of the other Easter widows in their black weeds… but she goes down in the pantheon of Irish heroines as the great love of his life.’
Their relationship aside, Joseph was an astute military strategist, and profoundly aware of the power of propaganda. It was at his behest that his father, Count George Noble Plunkett went to Rome to visit the Pope before the Rising.
Rome had bestowed the papal title on George when he donated a house to an order of nuns. This gave him the right to an audience with the Pope, which he did not to seek the Pope’s blessing for the Rising, but to ask him not to condemn it.
George’s wife, the Countess, handled domestic matters. She was known to be a strong, formidable woman, and she denied Grace the inheritance she felt she was due as Joe’s widow. In 1935, Grace took a case against the Plunketts, which they settled out of court for £700.
Grace Gifford, a talented artist and cartoonist, never remarried. She died suddenly, and alone, in Dublin on 13th December 1955, and was given a military funeral attended by President Sean T. O’Kelly.
On May 4th this year, the Plunkett family unveiled a plaque to Joseph Mary Plunkett at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, where he grew up.
From My 1916: What the Easter Rising Means to Me, by Celine Naughton, available on Amazon