Friday 27 April 2018

Books: Gripping true story of the Gifford girls

Historical fiction: Rebel Sisters, Marita Conlon-McKenna, Transworld Ireland, pbk, 400 pages, €19.50

Grace Gifford, who married Joseph Plunkett on the eve of his execution.
Grace Gifford, who married Joseph Plunkett on the eve of his execution.
The Gifford sisters' Protestant mother, Isabella Burton.
Grace Gifford's sister Nellie who was one of 90 female republican soldiers involved in the Rising.
Rebel Sisters

Anne Cunningham

A book about three real sisters involved in the Easter Rising shines a welcome light on the brave women of 1916.

When the Abbey Theatre announced its Waking The Nation programme for 2016, marking the centenary year of the Rising and including only one female playwright, the public reaction was unprecedented. Irish women staged their own - peaceful - rebellion through the newspapers and social media, culminating in the thronged Waking The Feminists rally in the theatre itself last November, and subsequently drawing apologies from the Abbey board and CEO, where they admitted to a touch of "gender blindness" in their selections.

What, if any, changes our National theatre, co-founded by Lady Gregory, will make remains to be seen. Marita Conlon-McKenna's latest book, Rebel Sisters, chronicling the lives of the Gifford sisters and their involvement in 1916, will undoubtedly lead to another surge of interest.

Those of us who remember our Leaving Cert Irish history from decades ago remember names like Plunkett and Connolly, Pearse and Collins and Dev, with only an odd cursory glance flung in the direction of the Suffragette movement or Cumann na mBan. Women were simply written out of Irish history. What's disturbing, though, is that this hasn't changed. The current Leaving Cert history syllabus mentions only Countess Markievicz in its "key personalities" section of Irish history from 1912 to 1949. Oh, and Evie Hone, who went to Paris to make stained glass. It appears that if one wishes to research the many women who participated in and supported the long and bloody Irish struggle for independence, one must do so under the banner of "Women's Studies", and can only pursue that at third level.

Conlon-McKenna is no stranger to historical fiction, nor to weaving eminently readable stories from what some might construe as the dry facts of the history lesson. She is probably best known for Under the Hawthorn Tree, a children's novel about the famine which was such a runaway success it's now used as a textbook in primary schools nationwide. Another of her bestsellers, The Magdalen, was set in 1950s Ireland. But while both write fictional characters into a factual historical backdrop, Rebel Sisters is a true story, conveyed through the medium of a wholly engaging novel. And it really works.

The story begins in 1901 and introduces the reader to the large Gifford family in Rathmines. Born of a Catholic father and a fiercely loyalist 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.

Conlon-McKenna presents the sisters as bright, educated, independent-minded young women who through their social circles encountered bright, educated, independent-minded young men, many of whom had republican aspirations. The 1913 Lockout led by Jim Larkin, and the thousands of Irishmen who later joined the British army to provide easy cannon-fodder in French trenches, fuelled a frenzy in many of these young idealists, eventually culminating in the events of Easter 1916. Most of this book, however, concerns itself with the sisters and their family in the years prior to the Rising. It chronicles the development of the Suffragette movement in Ireland, as well as the formation and activities of Cumann na mBan. They were exciting years for women in this country and the Gifford sisters, like many of their contemporaries, were eager to embrace the brisk winds of change.

Muriel Gifford trained as a nurse, and after qualifying she met Maud Gonne McBride. She joined Gonne's republican women's group, Inghinidhe na hÉireann, later to become Cumann na mBan, and she married the writer Thomas MacDonagh. They had two young children by the time MacDonagh was executed. 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. Guilty only by association, she lost her job as a result of her friendship with republicans, and it was this which cemented her resolve to get more involved, not only in helping the cause but in taking up arms herself on Easter Monday. She was one of the 90 female republican soldiers involved in the Rising.

Grace, the youngest of the three, was a talented artist who had studied in Slade in London. Both she and another younger sister, Sidney, contributed to various republican newspapers and publications at the time, Sidney through the written word and Grace through illustrations and cartoons. She met and fell in love with Joseph Plunkett, and married him in Kilmainham Jail on the evening before his execution.

The story of these three women is a tragic one, but it's also a story of courage and bravery, of risking the severing of strong familial ties not just for love, but for a cause that they passionately believed in.

We're all familiar with the cliché "behind every great man there's an even greater woman", and while I'm not suggesting that the Gifford sisters necessarily merit greatness, the evidence of this novel would suggest that they and other women involved in 1916 at least merit some significant recognition, far more than they've been afforded up to now.

The outcome of the Abbey Theatre's recent blunder has, ironically, served women well. A light has been focused on just how poorly Irish women have been, and continue to be, regarded, not just in the arts but in the very fight for the establishment of an independent Ireland. Conlon-McKenna's marvellous book could not be more timely. As painful as the story of these three sisters is, it is told with a light and deft hand. Her attention to historical detail is meticulous, her prose is easy and fluid. To tell a tale where the ending is already known and yet hold the reader spellbound throughout is an admirable trait in a writer, and Conlon-McKenna has accomplished this tricky manoeuvre beautifully. It's simply a gripping read.

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