Remembering Grace Gifford
Grace was born March 4th 1888 in the Rathmines area of Dublin city. Her parents Frederick & Isabella had twelve children, Grace was the second youngest of the family. The boys were baptised as Catholics and the girls as Protestant, but effectively the children were all raised as Protestants – the girls attended Alexandra College in Earlsfort Terrace, and the boys attended the High School in Harcourt St.
At the age of 16, Gifford went to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art where Willie Pearse, Padraic Pearse’s younger brother, was training to be a sculptor. She studied under the Irish artist William Orpen who regarded Grace as one of his most talented pupils, Opren often sketched her and eventually painted her as one of his subjects for a series on 'Young Ireland'.In 1907 she attended the course in Fine Art at the Slade School of Art, London
Grace returned to Dublin in 1908 and, with great difficulty, tried to earn a living as a caricaturist, publishing her cartoons in The Shanachie, Irish Life, Meadowstreet and The Irish Review. Around this time Grace and her sisters began working with several groups founded to help improve the lives of the Irish poor, including the Daughters of Erin founded by Maud Gonne. The Gifford sisters also assisted with supplying school meals for inner-city children, a project instigated by James Connolly, then a Labour leader, and strongly supported by Maud Gonne.
The sisters also became strong supporters of the Irish Women’s Franchise League, a militant organization working to obtain voting rights for women. In 1911, Grace was part of a group of women protesting outside City Hall against a planned “Loyal Address” from Dublin Corporation to King George V and Queen Mary.
In 1913, her friend Mrs Dryhurst brought Grace to the opening of the new bilingual school Scoil Éanna in Ranelagh, Dublin. It was here that she met Joseph Plunkett for the first time. He was a friend of her brother-in-law, another of the future leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, Thomas MacDonagh, who was married to Grace's sister Muriel.
Plunkett proposed to her in 1915; Grace accepted and took formal instruction in Catholic doctrine. She was received into the Catholic Church in April 1916. The couple planned to marry on Easter Sunday that year, in a double wedding with his sister and her fiancé. Her parents were not in favour of her marrying Plunkett, due to the precarious state of his health – he was extremely ill at this time.
After the Rising, her brother-in-law Thomas MacDonagh was shot with PH Pearse and Thomas Clarke by firing squad on May 3rd. That day, Grace heard that Joseph was to be shot at dawn. She bought a ring in a jeweller's shop in Dublin city centre and, with the help of a priest, persuaded the military authorities to allow them to marry. She and Joseph were married on the night of May 3rd in the chapel of Kilmainham Gaol.
As there was no electricity the wedding service was conducted by candlelight. There were no family nor friends in attendance with the exception of British soldiers. It was also recorded that outside “twenty other soldiers lined the corridor with bayonets fixed.” After the ceremony, they were allowed ten minutes together before Plunkett was taken back to his cell. A few hours later, Grace was allowed in to see him for the last time before he was executed.
Grace Gifford (June 1st, 1949): “I saw my husband in his cell for ten minutes. During the interview, the cell was packed with officers and a sergeant, who kept a watch in his hand and closed the interview by saying, ‘Your ten minutes is now up.’”
Grace and her sister Muriel were now widows of two leaders of the rising just 24 hrs apart, Grace was made an heir to Plunkett’s estate to the disgruntlement of his family, especially his sister, Geraldine who refused to honour his will.
Grace Plunkett decided to devote herself through her art to the promotion of Sinn Féin policies and resumed her commercial work to earn a living. She was elected to the Sinn Féin executive in 1917.
Her sister Muriel, widow of executed 1916 leader Thomas MacDonagh, died of heart failure while swimming in 1917. Grace shared the care of Muriel's two children, Donagh MacDonagh and Barbara with their eldest sister, Katherine, until 1919. She was a loving aunt to both throughout her life.
During the Tan War, Grace is one of the people seen buying a bond in John MacDonagh's newsreel of Michael Collins signing the first issue of Republican Bonds outside St Enda's, Rathfarnham in 1919.
Grace took the Republican side during the civil war and in 1923 paradoxically found herself imprisoned in the very same Gaol where she had been married a few years earlier. While in Kilmainham Gaol Grace painted pictures on the walls of her cell, including one of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child which can still be seen today.
Upon her release, she had no home of her own and little money, she found it very hard to gain employment as the Free State establishment ostracised those who were anti-treaty. But her cartoons were published in various newspapers and magazines, including Dublin Opinion, the Irish Tatler, Sketch, and on one occasion in 1934, Punch. She illustrated W. B. Yeats' The Words upon the Window Pane in 1930.
Her material circumstances improved in 1932 when she received a Civil List pension from Éamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil government. This freed her from financial worries and enabled her to make the occasional trip to Paris where she delighted in visits to the galleries and exhibitions. She lived for many years in a flat in Nassau St, with a balcony overlooking the sports ground of Trinity College.
From the late 1940s onwards, Grace's health declined. In 1950 she was brought to St Vincent's Hospital, then in the city centre. She convalesced in a nursing home, which she did not like, mainly because it restricted her freedom.
Grace Gifford Plunkett died suddenly on December 13th 1955 in her apartment in South Richmond Street, Portobello. Her body was removed to St Kevin's Church, Harrington Street and among the attendees at her funeral was President Seán T. O'Kelly. She was buried with full military honours close to the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.
In 1985 Frank and Seán O'Meara wrote the song "Grace" which in recent years has become very popular especially with Glasgow Celtic supporters. In 2014 Paddy Gillard-Bentley wrote a play "Blood Upon the Rose" about Grace & Joseph Plunkett.