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 3rd May 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).
In 1949, Grace completed a Witness Statement in which she recounted her memory of the wedding. On the evening of 3rd May 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’”.
Following her second visit to Joe, Fr. McCarthy escorted her to a convent on Thomas Street where she spent the remainder of the night. The next morning, she went to her sister Katherine’s home on Philipsburg Avenue in Fairview.
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.
Following the Treaty debates in 1921-1922, Grace became an anti-Treaty advocate and was, herself, imprisoned in Kilmainham. During her time in the prison, Grace painted many pictures on the wall of her cell, including a picture of the Madonna and Child, a reproduction of which can be seen through the door to her cell today.
When she was released in 1923, Grace had little money and no employment. Her parents never approved of Joe because they felt his health was never good enough for the two to be married, and Joe’s parents refused to honour her husband’s will, in which he left everything to his widow. Grace addressed Joe’s will in her Statement: “I had two notes from Joe during Easter Week. They had nothing to do with the fighting. He wanted us to be married, so that anything he had would come to me, because I had been thrown out of my home. He wanted to make sure that I would be alright. He and I realized that anything might happen – a stray bullet might put an end to him. In one of the notes, he suggested that we would be married by proxy. I could not understand it at all at the time, though I see his reason now. He wanted me to be secure.
These notes are in the National Museum. They would be very interesting to you, especially one that he wrote from Moore Street, to say that he stood by all his deeds and would not wish them undone. It was headed, “Somewhere in Moore Street”. He gave it to Winifred Carney. She was in jail after the Rising. When she was released, she gave the note to me. The note, suggesting that we should be married by proxy was written in Richmond Jail and given to a British soldier, who delivered it to me.
Joe’s Will is on the back of that note”. Legally, the will was invalid because there was only one witness (the law required two) and also the marriage took place after the will was made, automatically revoking it.
For years Grace received nothing, so she began legal proceedings against Count and Countess Plunkett in 1934. Finally, the Count and Countess settled out of court, and Grace was paid £700, plus costs. Grace Gifford Plunkett died suddenly, and alone, on 13 December 1955, in an apartment on South Richmond Street. After a funeral at St Kevin’s Church attended by the President of Ireland, Seán T. O’Kelly, she was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
The painting which visitors can see on the back wall of Grace Gifford Plunker’s cell in the East Wing of Kilmainham Gaol today is not, despite what many people think, by Grace herself. When Grace was in Gaol during the Irish Civil War, she obtained some crayons and covered the walls of her drab cell with many sketches, cartoons and the original Kilmainham Madonna. Between the time the Gaol was closed in 1924 and the beginning of the Restoration in 1960, the prison fell into ruin, the East Wing suffering more than most. The crayon drawings in Grace’s cell suffered badly.
Image: Declan Kerr – Irish Art