'Joseph Plunkett's wedding wasn't romantic, it was sordid'

The grand-niece of the executed 1916 leader reveals the real story of the famous Rising romance

Tragedy: Honor O Brolchain, grand-niece of Joseph Plunkett, pictured with the hat (with a bullet hole) he wore in the GPO during the Rising. Photo: Frank McGrath

Celine Naughton

It's a love story that's been romanticised out of history and into legend and song. Following a whirlwind courtship, Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett married in his prison cell, just hours before he was taken out and shot for his part in the Easter Rising. When the late Jim McCann immortalised the star-crossed lovers in his famous ballad, 'Oh Grace, just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger,' it brought a tear to the collective eye.

The song stirred emotions again when a live performance by family trio Danny O'Reilly, Róisín O and Aoife Scott in Kilmanham Gaol was a highlight of RTE's acclaimed Centenary concert. Yet in spite of its almost mythic status, the executed leader's family has mixed feelings about the song.

"I was embarrassed by it when it first came out," says Honor O Brolchain, author, musician and grand-niece of Joseph Plunkett. "However, everything it says is true and you grow fond of it after a while, and the Centenary performance was very beautiful.

"However, I find that people see the wedding as romantic - as if their last moments were filled with candlelight. In fact, it was sordid and tragic. They couldn't speak to each other, or touch each other, they didn't know their witnesses and had the constant company of many armed soldiers in the chapel and, later in the cell."

In her book, All in the Blood, Honor reaches into the journals of her grandmother, Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, to bring to life a full-blooded, warts-and-all account of the relationship between Joseph and Grace.

Grace was one of six girls and six boys born to a wealthy Unionist family, with a Catholic father and Protestant mother. All the children were brought up Protestant, but the boys were baptised Catholic. However, Grace became a Catholic with all the devotion of a convert.

"Joe was on the rebound when they met," says Honor. "He'd spent five years infatuated with Columba O'Carroll, the subject of much of his poetry, but eventually she told him no more. He started working on a military plan for the Rising. His expertise in this area was respected by the older leaders, and it was he who devised the strategy for the successful Battle of Mount Street.

"During this time, September 1915, he met Grace and fell in love with her. They became engaged on December 2 and announced it in February. She was baptised a Catholic on April 7.

"Joe asked her to marry him in Lent, but she said it didn't suit, as she'd be doing a Lenten ritual known as the Seven Churches. She suggested Easter. He replied, 'I think we'll be running a revolution then.'"

There was another reason for Joseph's rush to the altar - he knew he was on borrowed time.

"Joe had glandular tuberculosis since the age of two or three," says Honor. "Shortly before the Rising, he had an operation and doctors gave him only a few weeks to live. For him, going out to be shot for Ireland was a far better end than dying of illness a few weeks later."

But there may have been a further compelling explanation why they ended up marrying hours before his execution.

"Fr Eugene McCarthy, the chaplain of Kilmainham, was said to have asked Grace: 'Do you have to get married?' She's supposed to have said yes. There was only one reason a couple had to get married in those times, and my grandmother's papers indicate that Grace was pregnant. It also explains why the jail governor allowed them to marry," says Honor.

Joseph may have hinted at their union in his poem, New Love, which begins:

The day I knew you loved me we had lain

Deep in Coill Doraca down by Gleann na Scath.

But it was his sister Geraldine who left the most telling clue to Grace's condition. After the Rising, Grace was disowned by her mother and Geraldine Plunkett gave her a place to live in Larkfield, a family owned estate.

"My grandmother wrote how she visited Grace in her bedroom one morning and found a large chamberpot full of blood and foetus. Neither woman said a word to each other about it."

While the sadness of such an event is plain to see, in her book Easter Widows, historian Sinead McCoole notes that "six weeks after the wedding, Grace posed for a photograph in Chicago's New World newspaper wearing a white dress and fancy wristwatch, and holding a kitten. It was not the mournful air of the other Easter widows in their black weeds… but she goes down in the pantheon of Irish heroines as the great love of his life."

Their relationship aside, Joseph was an astute military strategist, and profoundly aware of the power of propaganda. It was at his behest that his father, George Noble Plunkett went to Rome to visit the Pope before the Rising.

"Rome had bestowed the papal title on George when he donated a house to an order of nuns, and this gave him the right to an audience with the Pope, which he did not to seek the Pope's blessing for the Rising, but to ask him not to condemn it.

"George's wife, the Countess, handled domestic matters. She was a strong, formidable woman, who denied Grace the inheritance she was due as Joe's widow. In 1935, Grace took a case against the Plunketts, which they settled out of court for £700."

Grace Gifford died suddenly, and alone, in Dublin on December 13 1955. She was given a military funeral attended by President Sean T. O'Kelly. On May 4 next, to commemorate the anniversary of Joseph's death, the Plunkett family will unveil a plaque to him on 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, where he grew up.

'All in the Blood', from the memoirs of Geraldine Plunkett Dillon, edited by Honor O Brolchain will be reissued by O'Brien Press