Muriel Gifford was born in Rathmines, Dublin, of a Catholic solicitor father and a fiercely Protestant mother, the children were raised Church of Ireland, an unremarkable phenomenon among the wealthy professional classes of the time. That three of the sisters, Nellie, Muriel and Grace, could be involved in the Easter Rising, and that two of them married two of the Rising’s leaders (Muriel married Thomas MacDonagh and Grace married Joseph Plunkett) was, in the eyes of their mother and indeed their class, the ultimate betrayal. Nellie Gifford trained as a cookery teacher, and taught home economics at various locations throughout the country. Through meeting Countess Markievicz, she met Jim Larkin and later James Connolly. Nellie took up arms herself on Easter Monday and was one of the 90 female republican soldiers involved in the Rising. Arrested at the surrender, she was a prisoner in Kilmainham Gaol when, unknown to her, her sister Grace married Joseph Plunkett in the prison chapel hours before his execution. One of twelve women to be detained after the release of most women prisoners on 8 May, she was transferred to Mountjoy Gaol prior to her release on 4 June.
Muriel trained as a nurse, and after qualifying she met Maud Gonne MacBride. She joined Gonne’s republican women’s group, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, later to become Cumann na mBan, and she married the writer and teacher, Thomas MacDonagh, whom she met in 1908 at Pádraig Pearse’s school, St. Enda’s and were married on 31 January 1912. They had two children; a son, on 12 November 1912, christened Donagh MacDonagh – and a daughter, Barbara, three years later on 24 March 1915.
Thomas MacDonagh, executed on 3 May 1916 – the same date as Grace and Joseph Mary Plunkett’s wedding – left his wife to cope with two young children, with no means of support. Initially ostracised by her parents, due to MacDonagh’s prominent role in the Rising, Muriel and her young family spent time with her husband’s relations in Tipperary before re-settling in Dublin. She initially received £250 from the Volunteer Dependents’ Fund.
After the posthumous publication of MacDonagh’s ‘Literature in Ireland’ in June 1916, ‘The poetical works of Thomas MacDonagh’ followed with Muriel’s support, in October, thus generating some much-needed income. Demand for MacDonagh’s writings shortly after the Rising, proved to be high. In ‘Easter 1916’ Yeats describes the poet as ‘coming into his force’.
The Irish Volunteers Dependents’ Fund (of which Muriel was a committee member) and the Irish National Aid Association came into existence with the aims of promoting the national cause and fundraising for those nationalists who were left bereaved or destitute after the conflict. The organisations merged to form the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependents’ Fund.
In July the Irish National Aid Association and Volunteer Dependents’ Fund had rented houses in Skerries for the widows of the 1916 leaders. The group staying in Skerries included Muriel, her sister Grace (widow of Joseph Plunkett), Lily Connolly (James Connolly’s widow) and their daughter, Ina, Agnes Mallin (Michael Mallin’s widow) and their son Joseph.
On 9th July while swimming on the south beach, Muriel disappeared under the water. Volunteers including Noel Lemass, brother of future Taoiseach Seán, and actor Jimmy O’Dea attempted a rescue. Tragically her body was recovered early the following morning having suffered heart failure from exhaustion.
Muriel’s coffin was taken by train from Skerries to Amien Street, where it was met by a large contingent of volunteers. Because Thomas was buried with the rest of the leaders of 1916 in Arbour Hill, Muriel’s funeral on 12 July 1917, took place from the Pro Cathedral to Glasnevin Cemetery where she was buried in the Republican Plot.
Their children, Donagh and Barbara, were the subject of a legal custody battle between the MacDonaghs and the Giffords; in the climate of Ne Temere, the MacDonaghs were successful. Grace Gifford shared the care of Muriel’s two children with their sister, Katherine, until 1919. Donagh and Barbara (who later married actor, Liam Redmond) lived briefly with their paternal aunt Eleanor Bingham in Co Clare, before ultimately being taken in by Jack MacDonagh.
Donagh became a writer, circuit-court judge, presenter, broadcaster, and playwright. Barbara became the secretary of the Dramatic Society.