Immortalised in song

Posted on: 11th December, 2017

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Shane Daly

Shane Daly is a History Graduate from University College Cork, with a BAM in History and an MA in Irish History. He also writes a Political/History Column for the UCC Express.

“There can be no greater delusion than to imagine that a language can be kept alive alone by teaching. A language can have no real life unless it lives in the lives of the people.” – Eoin MacNeill

Joseph Mary Plunkett married his fiancée, Grace Gifford, in his prison cell on May 4, 1916, the night before he was executed. He was 28, the youngest signatory of the Proclamation to die. On the last day of the Rising – or the “sixth day of the Irish Republic”, as Plunkett described it – he left a letter for Grace in the ruins of a house on Moore Street. “This is just a little note to say I love you and to tell you that I did everything I could to arrange for us to meet and get married, but that it was impossible.” He wrote the letter “somewhere in Moore Street” about “midday”, which says a lot about the chaotic circumstances. “We will meet soon”, Plunkett adds, probably more in hope than in expectation.

The love affairs between the Gifford sisters, Grace and Muriel, and two of the seven signatories, Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh, are one of the great subplots of the Rising. MacDonagh was a married man with two children when the Rising took place. His wife, Muriel, would drown in an accident a year after the Rising; Grace Plunkett joined the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War and died in 1955.

On July 9, 1917, just over a year following the execution of Thomas MacDonagh for his part in the Easter Rising, the MacDonagh family would be rocked by another tragedy with the sudden death of Thomas’ widow, Muriel, that would leave both their children suddenly orphaned.

Muriel’s sister Grace is immortalised in song by Jim McCann as Joseph Plunkett’s wife. However, she had other prominent but less talked about sisters. Her sister Nellie fought with the Irish Citizen Army in St. Stephen’s Green, while her sister Sydney would become a prominent journalist and activist for the movement in Irish-America under the pen-name ‘John Brennan’.

Thomas McDonagh was born in 1878, originally from Cloughjordan, Co. Tipperary and had studied to become a priest, before eventually opting to become a teacher, a profession shared his parents. Muriel left behind an account of the last time she saw Thomas before the outbreak of the Rising:

“For about a fortnight before the Rising my husband did not sleep in our house, No. 29 Oakley Road. There had been some detectives watching the house for some time previously. For the last week he would run in in the morning and say that he would not be able to stop for breakfast. I saw him for some time every day.… On Saturday my husband took a whole suit-case of things with him, including his uniform and emergency rations.

I saw my husband on the following day (Easter Sunday) about four o’clock. He came to the house at that hour. Five minutes after he came the two Pearses arrived and remained with him for about twenty minutes. After that my husband got a taxi and went to John (Eoin) MacNeill’s. He came back about eight o’clock. I only saw him the presence of friends who were with us. He left the house about 10 o’clock. He had the taxi waiting for him at the door. He said: ‘I may or may not see you tomorrow – if possible, I will come in the morning.’ He did not say anything about the Revolution. I never saw him afterwards.”

After the surrender of the rebels, in the early hours of May 3, from his cell in Kilmainham Gaol, Thomas composed a final statement. Towards the end of this document, he addresses Muriel directly;

“My dearest love, Muriel, thank you a million times for all you have been for me. I have only one trouble in leaving life – leaving you so. Be brave, darling, God will assist and bless you. Goodbye, kiss my darlings for me. I have sent you the few things I have saved out of this war. Goodbye, my love, till we meet again in Heaven. I have a sure faith of our union there. I kiss this paper that goes to you. I have just heard that I have not been able to reach you. Perhaps it is better so…. God help and sustain you, my love. But for your suffering this would be all joy and glory. Goodbye. Your loving husband, Thomas MacDonagh.”

Joseph Plunkett proposed to Gifford in December 1915. When she accepted, Plunkett was joyous. “Since yesterday everything is different . . . You know what my sort of love is. It is a poor thing beside the splendours of your heart. But such as it is you have. I do love you . . . By the way, I am actually a beggar. I have no income and am earning nothing.”

In the lead-up to the Rising Plunkett was preoccupied with the military planning for the Rising – which is something of a mystery, given his lack of military skills. He was also preoccupied with his pending wedding – on Easter Sunday, of all days – to Gifford.

His protestations of poverty were at odds with his upbringing, which was wealthy by the standards of the time. His father, Count George Plunkett, would go on to be a leading figure in Sinn Féin. Plunkett attended Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit school in England for well-to-do Catholics.

Although weak and frail in boarding school, he could be roused to righteous anger. He wrote to his parents: “I had a fight with a big boy about twice my weight. His name was Quin. He had been kicking the football at me (which hurts) up in the field where there was no one to see fair play. He thought he could do what he liked, so he came over and called me a liar. Then I went for him. He hit me on the chest, so I gave him three for myself.”

Plunkett was plagued by ill health for most of his short adult life. The National Library has an extraordinary photograph of Plunkett in Germany in 1915. He had made an arduous and dangerous journey from Ireland to raise an Irish brigade among German prisoners of war and to organise shipments of arms for the Irish Volunteers. He failed at the former but was successful at the latter. His German passport shows an almost skeletal figure with a notable lump on the side of his neck, a result of glandular tuberculosis.

Despite the Romantic nature that common knowledge of these events would suggest, relatively new evidence has come to light in recent times to suggest that events may have been viewed through rose tinted glasses.

Honor O’ Brolchain is a grand-niece of Joseph Plunkett and has recently written a book on the topic using primary sources that would have been handed down through generations of the family. Honor is noted as saying;

“However, I find that people see the wedding as romantic – as if their last moments were filled with candlelight. In fact, it was sordid and tragic. They couldn’t speak to each other, or touch each other, they didn’t know their witnesses and had the constant company of many armed soldiers in the chapel and, later in the cell.”

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 Protestant, but the boys were baptised Catholic. However, Grace became a Catholic with all the devotion of a convert.

“Joe was on the rebound when they met,” says Honor. “He’d spent five years infatuated with Columba O’Carroll, the subject of much of his poetry, but eventually she told him no more. He 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 2 and announced it in February. She was baptised a Catholic on April 7…. 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,” says Honor. “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. Honor comments;

“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 times, and my grandmother’s papers indicate that Grace was pregnant. It also explains why the jail governor allowed them to marry,”

Grace Gifford died suddenly, and alone, in Dublin on December 13, 1955. She never remarried.

“As we gather in the chapel here in old Kilmainham Jail

I think about these last few weeks: Oh will they say we’ve failed

From our schooldays they have told us we must yearn for liberty

Yet all I want in this dark place is to have you here with me.


Oh Grace, hold me in your arms, let this moment linger

They take me out at dawn and I will die

With all my love I place this wedding ring upon your finger

There won’t be time to share our love for we must say goodbye

Now I know it’s hard for you, my love, to ever understand

The love I bear for these brave men, my love for this dear land

But when Padraig called me to his side down in the G.P.O.

I had to leave my own sick bed, to him I had to go


Now as the dawn is breaking, my heart is breaking too

On this May morn as I walk out my thoughts will be of you

And I’ll write some words upon the walls so everyone will know

I loved so much that I could see his blood upon the rose.”
– Seán and Frank O’Meara


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