‘Grace Gifford Plunkett’ by Joe O’Connell
As we gathered in the chapel, here in old Kilmainham Gaol,
I think about the past few weeks, will they say that we failed?
From our school days, they have told us we must yearn for liberty,
But all I want in this dark place is to have you here with me.
Oh Grace, just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger,
They’ll 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 good-bye
Those memorable and most poignant words of the ballad “Grace”, written in 1985 by Frank and Seán O’Meara, of course commemorate the marriage of Grace Gifford to Joseph Mary Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol on the night of 3 May 1916, just hours before he was executed.
But who was Grace Gifford, and what happened to her just after the wedding, and then for the rest of her life?
Grace was the second youngest of twelve children. Her sisters, Nellie and Muriel, were also avid nationalists as well as converts to Catholicism.
Muriel married Thomas MacDonagh, who was executed in Kilmainham earlier on the day Grace married Joe Plunkett.
It was said of the Gifford girls: “whenever those vivacious girls entered a gloomy Sinn Féin room, they turned it into a flower garden”
Fr Eugene McCarthy of St James’ Church in St James’ Street officiated at the wedding in Kilmainham Gaol just before midnight on May 3rd, 1916.
On their wedding certificate, Joseph Plunkett was listed as a bachelor with an occupation of ‘gentleman’ and Grace Gifford was listed as a spinster with an occupation of artist.
The two British soldiers who were “witnesses’ were John Smith and John Lockerby – Sgt 3rd Battalion, The Royal Iniskillen Regiment). (See wedding certificate below)
In 1949, Grace completed a Witness Statement (number 257) in which she recounted her memory of the wedding.
On the evening of May 3rd, 1916, she was, she said, taken to Kilmainham Gaol at 6.00 pm and kept waiting until around 11.30 pm.
“When I saw him, on the day before his execution, I found him in exactly the same state of mind. He was so unselfish he never thought of himself. He was not frightened, not at all, not the slightest.
I am sure he must have been worn out after the week’s experiences, but he did not show any signs of it – not in the least. He was quite calm.
I was never left alone with him, even after the marriage ceremony. I was brought in and was put in front of the altar; and he was brought down the steps; and the cuffs were taken off him;
and the chaplain went on with the ceremony; then the cuffs were put on him again. I was not alone with him – not for a minute. I had no private conversation with him at all. I just came away then”.
Immediately after the wedding, Fr McCarthy took grace back to 53 James’ Street, which was the home of Mr Byrne, bell-ringer at St James’ Church.
Grace Plunkett rested here until she was awakened at 2 am as the military had sent a car for her to take her back to Kilmainham. Here she saw Joe for the last time, on the morning of his execution. The couple had just ten minutes together, but they were never alone:
“There would be a guard there, and you could not talk. …… I was just a few moments there to get married, and then again a few minutes to say good-bye that night; and a man stood there with his watch in his hand, and said: ‘Ten minutes'”.
Grace always claimed she knew nothing of the plans for the Rising, and that she and Joe never talked about it:
“I shall have to read a book about the Rising as I know nothing of the military history of it”.
However, after Joe’s execution, Grace became much more politically active and 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.
The following song ‘Grace’ was written to immortalize this tragic love story!