Grace Eveleen Gifford (4 March 1888 – 13 December 1955) was an Irish artist and cartoonist who was active in the Republican movement. She is mainly remembered for marrying Joseph Plunkett in Kilmainham Jail only a few hours before he was executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Her parents were Frederick, a solicitor and a Roman Catholic, and Isabella Julia Burton, a Protestant. They were married in St. George’s, a Church of Ireland church on the north side of the city. Grace was the second youngest in a family of 12 children and grew up in the fashionable suburb of Rathmines in Dublin. The children were 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 she went to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where she studied under the Irish artist William Orpen. Orpen regarded Grace as one of his most talented pupils. He often sketched Grace and eventually painted her as one of his subjects for a series on ‘Young Ireland’. At around this time, Grace’s talent for caricature was discovered and developed. In 1907 she attended a full-time course in Fine Art at the Slade School of Art, London.
She 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, which was edited from 1913 by Joseph Plunkett. She considered emigrating but gave up the idea. Despite earning so little money, she enjoyed a lively social life. Grace’s younger sister, Sydney Gifford Czira, began her writing career by submitting articles to Arthur Griffith’s newspaper, Sinn Fein. (The name was later applied to the political party.) Through another Irish journalist, Mrs. Dryhurst, the Gifford sisters were introduced to future leaders of the 1916 Rising, such as Constance Markievicz, Thomas MacDonagh (who married Grace’s sister, Muriel), Padraic Pearse and Maud Gonne.
Engagement and Marriage:
Grace was deeply interested in Catholicism and often attended the Pro-Cathedral, located in a poor area of Dublin. She was impressed with the faith and devotion shown by the parishioners, in spite of the poverty most of them endured. While growing up as a Protestant, Grace had attended the prosperous Church of the Holy Trinity in Rathmines. Her opinion of its congregation was that they were more intent on showing off their fine clothes and making social connections than seeking spiritual guidance.
Her growing interest in the Roman Catholic religion led to the deepening of her acquaintance with Joseph Plunkett. She began to question him about his faith. He proposed to her in 1915; Grace accepted and decided to take instruction in the Catholic religion. She was formally received into the Catholic Church in April 1916. Having no knowledge of the plans for the Easter Rising, she planned to marry Joseph on Easter Sunday of that year in University Chapel on St Stephen’s Green, 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, the leaders were condemned to death by firing squad. When Grace knew that Joseph was due to be shot on 4 May, she bought a wedding ring in a jeweller’s shop in Dublin city centre. She and Joseph were married on the night of 3 May in the chapel of Kilmainham Jail, only a few hours before he was executed.
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 and another sister, Nellie Gifford, shared the care of Muriel’s two children, Donagh MacDonagh and Barbara, until 1919. She remained in close contact with both until she died.
The Civil War and aftermath:
Throughout the Civil War, vast numbers of republicans were arrested and incarcerated in jails over the country without trial or charge. Grace was arrested with many others in February 1923 and detained in Kilmainham Jail for about three months. She painted pictures on the walls of her cell, including one of the Madonna and Child. She was released in May 1923.
When the Civil War ended, she had no home of her own and very little money. Anti-Treaty herself, the then bitterness towards republicans was so strong that she could expect no material help from the government. Her talent as an artist was her only real asset; 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. She moved from one rented apartment to another and ate in the city-centre restaurants. She befriended many people and had many admirers, but had no wish to remarry. 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.
His parents refused to honour Joseph Plunkett’s will (in his will made on Easter Sunday, 1916, he left everything to Grace). Legally, the will was unvalid because there was only one witness (the law requires two) and also the marriage took place after the will was made, automatically revoking it. For years Grace received nothing of what she was entitled to receive, so she began legal proceedings against her former father-in-law, Count Plunkett and his wife in 1934. They were settled before being heard in full by the court. She was paid £700, plus legal costs.
At around this time she joined the Old Dublin Society, where she met the noted Irish harpsichord maker Cathal Gannon. When Cathal married, Grace gave him and his wife Margaret a present of two single beds and a picture. 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.
She died suddenly, and alone, on 13 December 1955 in an apartment in South Richmond Street. 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.
She is the subject of Grace, a song written in 1985 by Frank and Seán O’Meara which became very popular in Ireland and elsewhere.
She 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. The film is archived and available for viewing at the Irish Film Institute.