Grace Plunkett, née Gifford was a cartoonist, caricaturist and illustrator who was active in the Republican movement. Her marriage to Joseph Plunkett, one of the leaders of the 1916 Rising, a few hours before he was executed, is the subject of a popular Republican song, “Grace”, written by Frank and Sean O’Meara in 1985.
She was born in the Dublin suburb of Rathmines, the second youngest of twelve children of Frederick, a Catholic, and Isabella, a Protestant, and a niece of the artist Sir Frederick Burton. The boys were brought up as Catholics, the girls as Protestants. From the age of 16 in 1904 she studied at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art under William Orpen, where her talent for caricature was discovered. In 1907 she studied fine art at the Slade School of Art in London.
She returned to Dublin in 1908 and struggled to make 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 moved in the same circles as the poet and painter Æ and the journalist Mrs Dryhurst. It was Mrs Dryhurst, at the opening of the bilingual St. Enda’s School in Ranelagh, Dublin, who introduced her to Joseph Plunkett and other future Republican leaders, including Thomas MacDonagh, who was to marry Gifford’s sister Muriel.
Gifford became engaged to Plunkett in 1915. She took instruction and was received into the Roman Catholic Church in April 1916. The wedding was planned for Easter Sunday 1916 – the date of the Rising, which was put down and its leaders sentenced to death. Gifford and Plunkett were married on 3 May in the chapel of Kilmainham Jail, only a few hours before his execution. It is rumoured that Gifford was pregnant at the time, and later miscarried, although this is not widely accepted.
Plunkett became active in Sinn Féin, and was elected to its executive in 1917. On May Day 1919 the Irish Women Worker’s Union held a general holiday and distributed handbills featuring a cartoon by Gifford. She was on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, and along with many Republicans she was arrested and detained in Kilmainham for three months in 1923. She painted pictures on the walls of her cell, including one of the Madonna and Child. After the Civil War she supported herself as a cartoonist for various publications, including Dublin Opinion, the Irish Tatler and Sketch, and had one cartoon published in Punch in 1934.
She received a Civil List pension from the government in 1932. She sued Plunkett’s father, Count Plunkett, in 1934 for a share in her husband’s estate, and received an out-of-court settlement of £700. She died alone in her flat in Dublin in 1955, and her body was not found for a week. She was buried with full military honours.
Her relationship with Joseph Plunkett is retold in Gerry Hunt’s graphic novel Blood Upon the Rose (2009).
Photo: Grace Gifford with William Orpen