Why you should care
Because even revolutionaries need love.
Mr. Stoker was about to close the Grafton Street jewelry shop when an attractive young lass rushed in to look at some wedding rings. It was clear the woman had been crying. “You should not cry when you are going to be married,” he advised. And with tears still running down her cheeks, Grace Gifford quickly bought one of the most expensive rings in the shop and left. She had an appointment to keep.
Those events, as recounted in Grace Gifford Plunkett and Irish Freedom: Tragic Bride of 1916 by Marie O’Neill, took place the evening of May 3, 1916, at 6 p.m., as Gifford was whisked into Kilmainham Gaol to marry her fiancé, Joseph Plunkett, in the gloomy precincts of Richmond Barracks. When Gifford finally saw her husband-to-be at midnight, he was smiling and unafraid. He was eager to marry; he was also ready — but far from eager — for what was to come: death by firing squad. As Plunkett was brought down the steps to the prison chapel, the guard removed his cuffs, and a chaplain performed the ceremony. Vows were exchanged, but Grace wasn’t allowed any time with her new husband before being hurried out of the prison.
She became a symbol of the Republic after the Rising and during the subsequent War of Independence.
—author Sinead McCoole
At 2 a.m., she returned to see him a final time. They were given 10 minutes, with plenty of guards in tow, according to Anna Clare in Unlikely Rebels: The Gifford Girls and the Fight for Irish Freedom. A few moments to get married and a few more to say goodbye, having been husband and wife for four short hours. The bridegroom, a leader in the Easter Rising, was to face a firing party in the barracks courtyard at dawn. It was “such a tragic way for any bride to get married,” says Marita Conlon McKenna, author of Rebel Sisters. “In a prison chapel in near darkness, unable to talk to each other. Joe unshackled briefly. It was so romantic, sad and tragic for any woman to marry the man she loved knowing within an hour or two he would be shot.”
The news quickly jumped the pond. On May 7, 1916, The New York Times told readers that few tales in the Irish tragedy “have so wrung the hearts of those who witnessed it as did this hurried joining together” of this politically passionate couple — thus romancing the tale, humanizing the rebel leaders and bringing worldwide attention to the Irish plight.
“Her marriage by candlelight — the gas supply had been cut during the Rising — did change public opinion,” says author Sinead McCoole, who has written about the rebellion. She was portrayed as a wife and widow and “became the subject of ballads — a sure way of spreading the story,” she says, referring to a popular 1980s tune called “Grace” by Jim McCann.
The wedding certificate designated Plunkett a “bachelor” and Gifford a “spinster,” listing their occupations as “gentleman” and “artist.” Grace was born in Dublin in 1888 and raised as a Protestant — one parent was Catholic, one Protestant — in the suburb of Rathmines, the second youngest of 12 children. Plunkett, the youngest of the Irish rebels, was a journalist and poet from a wealthy home — a flamboyant young man known for wearing a silk scarf and carrying a saber.
When Plunkett started courting Grace, he was the editor of The Irish Review, a nationalist publication, and was secretly helping plan a rebellion against British rule. Grace’s parents didn’t approve of Plunkett due to his health — he had contracted tuberculosis as a child — but they fell in love and made plans to marry at St. Stephens Green on April 23, Easter Sunday, 1916. There are differing accounts as to why the marriage was postponed — accounts point to Plunkett warning of the pending rebellion, while others question whether a miscommunication meant the reading of the banns (the required public proclamation of marriage) did not take place in time . Either way, the sound of gunfire drowned out any chance for hearing church bells as street fights got underway on Easter Monday.
Gifford, once painted by William Orpen as “symbolizing the youth of Ireland,” evolved, McCoole says, into a “fantastic cartoonist with a sharp eye, a fine artist and a nature wit.” She often attended the theater in Dublin that Plunkett had formed with another of the leaders, Thomas MacDonagh, who married Grace’s sister Muriel; both Gifford sisters were widowed within 24 hours of marriage.
“Art and theater were where [Grace] belonged and outside of that she was less confident,” says McKenna, noting how Gifford was bored with things that didn’t interest her and was not at all political. “She did not join Cumann na mBan, the women’s council that formed in 1914, nor the Irish Citizen Army formed by workers whose members also took part,” McCoole points out. But after her husband’s execution, all that changed: Grace got politicially involved, using her heartbreak to rally people to the Republican cause.
“She became a symbol of the Republic after the Rising and during the subsequent War of Independence,” McCoole says. Elected to a position as a Sinn Féin executive in 1917, Grace used her position and artistry to create propaganda for the fledging government party. But after the Treaty debates in 1921–1922, “she rejected the Anglo Irish Treaty and was imprisoned in Kilmainham in 1923 during our Civil War,” says McCoole. While incarcerated, she painted a picture of the Madonna and Child in her cell that is still visible today.
She was released after just a few months, but when the hostilities ended, she found herself on the losing side of public opinion as an anti-Treaty Republican. This meant she was ostracized and struggled to find work. Never remarrying, Grace had to rely on her art to make ends meet, drawing cartoons for newspapers and magazines. She died in 1955, and President Sean T. O’Kelly attended her funeral at St. Kevin’s Church, paying tribute to the Irish heroine.