A Family History Feature by Mary Barthelemy
In my family archival collection is a postcard I’ve called ‘Our Lady of Dublin’. It was only in late 2022 while sorting and scanning an uncle’s photos that I paused and really looked at the ink painting, which, at first glance, appeared to reflect a simple piety. If the name Joseph Plunkett is familiar then you are well versed in that cataclysmic period in Irish history commencing with the 1916 rebellion and continuing during the Civil War in the early 1920s. Until I became curious about this fragile paper card, nearly 100 years old, I had no idea who Mr Plunkett was and even less about his wife.
What an interesting journey it has been.
A search on the internet for Our Lady of Dublin proved that the card’s humble Madonna and Child has little stylistic likeness to the famous medieval Our Lady of Dublin (the Black Madonna) in the Carmelite Church in Whitefriar Street. (Incidentally, the church chosen for Joseph Plunkett’s Requiem Mass in early June 1916.)
Instead, in the postcard, Our Lady is re-imagined with beautiful simplicity. The baby is held close to his mother’s heart, protected by her cloak but reaching out an arm to the children. A gentle and peaceful mood characterises the work. The supplication to ‘bless our home’ applies to Éire as much as to the children’s dwelling. The artist uses the white space within the clothing of the praying children to suggest colour which, on reflection, can be seen to be painted in old Irish national colours: gold, white and green, forming a tricolour.
As to the children’s clothing:
….at that time some of those involved in the Irish revival movement were wearing this distinctively ‘Irish’ costume in many formal situations. The outfit the little boy wears of kilt and ‘brat’ (that’s the scarf/cloak attached to his jacket) was the optional uniform of Patrick Pearse’s school and you do find images of girls and women wearing these kind of clothes, particularly at céilís and other Irish cultural gatherings …. in the 1900s-20s they were worn a bit more widely including by Thomas MacDonagh …those who saw the postcard when it was first published would not have assumed that the children were Irish dancers, but they would have read them as being Irish children (for this information I am indebted to Brian Crowley, Heritage Services, National Monuments, at OPW/Kilmainham Gaol).
It is easy to understand the sentimental appeal of this picture to an Irish-Australian visiting Dublin. The note at the bottom reads: ‘Mrs Doyle this is real hand-painted. There is a History attached to the painter will tell you about it later.’ The message on the reverse is: ‘To the Doyle Family from the Amour Family who are in Dear old Ireland with love and wishes.’ Mrs Amour’s promised update presumably came via letter.
From other documentation, I knew that the Amours were family friends and that one son, Cliff, was a great friend of my mother’s older brother, Fred Doyle. Cliff and his younger brother Fred comprised a child vaudeville act – ‘The Amour Brothers’. In 1926, the family left Australia for South Africa where they performed, later moving to England.
I also have my uncle’s photo album dating from 1928 which contains several photos – many captioned with 1928 or 1929. Included are some photos sent by Cliff taken during his family’s travels in England, Scotland and, on their return from Ireland, as noted by Cliff: All coming back from Ireland by road. A glorious trip. We all had a good time too.
There is also a second postcard from the Amours. Cliff remarks they have arrived in Belfast after being in Dublin and that this is their second time working in Irish theatres. Significantly, it places the family in Dublin either in 1928 and 1929 or twice in 1929. The postmark is Belfast 5.15 pm Sep (it seems) 29.
‘Dear old Ireland’ supposes a shared sentiment existed in the Doyle household. As indeed, it did. Nationalist sympathies were strong too. Michael Doyle emigrated from County Kerry with his family at the age of 3. Both he and his father, Patrick, were members of the Hibernian Society at St Benedict’s – a central point for the Irish in Sydney. Among the family papers is a poem Patrick wrote in honour of the Irish delegates’ visit in 1906 and a program for an Irish National Association concert in the mid-1920s. Agnes Doyle’s maternal uncles were Fenians in Tipperary in the 1860s.
Who then was the artist, Mrs Joseph Plunkett, the painter with a ‘History attached’?
I imagined a rather staid, perhaps middle-aged, lady producing what appeared to be a conventional, pious image, perhaps one of several for sale at the back of a church. It would be hard to be further from the truth!
Since I was unfamiliar with the name Joseph Plunkett, my enquiries became a journey of discovery about this crucial period of Ireland’s history and provided the opportunity to learn about his background, story and read his poetry. Similarly, Mrs Plunkett – aka Grace Gifford – exploring her background and life and viewing examples of her work on line. It became my way into the story of the Easter Rising (1916).
Figure 7: Grace Plunkett and Joseph Plunkett. Note the Celtic design on her jacket (images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons).
In some ways the story of Grace and Joseph’s romance was a sub plot or perhaps a parallel plot to that of the secretive push for an Irish revolution. Joseph (1887-1916) was an Irish nationalist, a separatist Republican, intellectual, poet and militant. Grace Gifford (1888-1955) too was a nationalist and by training an artist and cartoonist. This attempted revolution, with its proclamation of an Irish Republic in the midst of World War I, was suppressed harshly by the British Government. Joe and Grace’s relationship was to have culminated in a marriage planned for Easter Saturday but deferred because of the new date of the Rising (originally Easter Sunday). At a court martial following their surrender and capture, 15 of the leaders, including Joseph Plunkett, were executed.
Grace obtained permission from the military authorities to marry Joe, on the eve of his execution by firing squad, in Kilmainham Gaol’s chapel – 3 May 1916. She saw him briefly once more, just hours before his death the next day.
Their tragic story captured people’s imaginations worldwide, and into the decades since, and was just one element of the sea-change by which urban guerrilla fighters became nationalist heroes in the new Free State and later Éire.
As early as 1917 Grace considered emigrating to America to find work as there were few opportunities. However, she remained and became an active Republican (on the side of the losing anti Anglo-Irish Treaty faction). Her involvement in Sinn Feín during the Civil War resulted in her imprisonment in Kilmainham. The following years were hard for her, both socially and financially, as the Plunkett family did not initially recognise her as their son’s wife. In 1932 she was granted a civil pension by Eamon de Valera’s republican government.
Poverty was hard to avoid in the post-Civil War economy. During the 1920s, Grace made her living in part by creating pictures and selling them. No doubt this postcard fits into that category – a rare example of her ‘bread and butter’ work.
Grace used a number of variations of her name and often adapted the appearance so it matched the style of hand-drawn font she had created for a title. Her handwriting style, too, was artistic with Gaelic influences. After viewing her political and satirical cartoons and other pictures online, the similarity in style with other pious signed pictures, the resemblance in technique between this little card and these is clear. Even more striking is its similarity to the original image of the Madonna of Kilmainham.
The artist’s signature in a picture of Christ as the Sacred Heart in the Gaol collection is almost exactly the same style as Mrs Amour’s postcard. All three religious images radiate gentleness and calmness, in strong contrast to the political and personal upheaval of the Rising and subsequent years and the crisp and incisive style of the satirical and professional theatre images. There is little doubt the postcard was created by Grace Gifford Plunkett.
In the copy made by Grace of her painting of the Madonna and Child at Kilmainham Gaol (see figure 10), the tender and maternal protectiveness is again evident – this is possibly related to a miscarriage she was believed to have suffered early in her widowhood (see All in the Blood by Geraldine Plunkett-Dillon (2012) edited by Honor O Brolchain, p.245). This copy of the original comes from an Autograph book of one of her fellow prisoners (thanks to Kilmainham Gaol for these images).
Arrested in February 1923, she painted the walls of her small cell, creating a large Madonna and Child – her most famous picture. (Unfortunately, the current one is a restoration.) One hundred years ago, on the seventh anniversary of the Easter Rising, Sunday 24 April, a group of 270 female inmates gathered in the yard at Kilmainham. Grace unfurled the tricolour, laid a laurel wreath where Joe had been executed and spoke about him. Ellen Humphries, sister of a 1916 revolutionary killed near the GPO, led the Rosary in Irish. The evening concert featured Joe’s poem ‘Treason’, and Patrick Pearse’s play The Singer. It ended with ‘The Soldier’s Song’ (later a song the British proscribed, which became in time the national anthem). She was released from jail in May after the Civil War came to an end (M O’Neill Grace Gifford Plunkett and Irish Freedom, 2000).
In finding Mrs Plunkett, I have come to admire Grace and her work as an illustrator, caricaturist and religious artist. She deserves to be better known. As an artist she certainly had the gift of compressing a wealth of meaning within the smallest of frames and economy of style – a secret wisdom. This one little picture has led to so many questions – and answers!
While Grace lived and bore his name – Joseph too lived. Intentionally or not, her married name recalled the memory of her husband’s love and sacrifice for Irish freedom and independence. I wonder how many more treasures such as this modest card, an extraordinary link to the Easter Rising, might be hidden, somewhere, awaiting discovery?
Mary has a BA (Hons) and Master of Medieval Studies, University of Sydney. She is a qualified librarian, editor and proofreader. She has an interest in family and local history as well as Irish-Australian history and has had articles published in recent issues of Heritage – the Journal of the Marrickville Heritage Society. She is also a member of the Aisling Society, Sydney.
The author wishes to thank the following: Dymphna Lonergan for her interest and suggestions; Brian Crowley from OPW/Kilmainham Gaol for his generous assistance; and especially Frances Devlin-Glass for her interest in the topic, suggestions and help.