Most people know of the marriage that took place in Kilmainham Gaol before Joseph Plunkett was executed. The story, told through his bride’s eyes, is much more interesting than that reported at the time. A single line in the Irish Times newspaper of Friday May 5, 1916 stated simply: “PLUNKETT and GIFFORD – May 3, 1916, at Dublin, Joseph Plunkett to Grace Gifford”. Engaged since December 2, 1915, the bride was Grace Evline Gifford, the second youngest of twelve children, from an English mixed marriage. Surprisingly, she settled in Dublin to work as a cartoonist. Her groom was Joseph Mary (a popular naming convention for boys in the late 1800s) Plunkett; a dyed-in-the-blood Republican poet, with an unfortunate history of ill-health. His father named his son after his mother, Josephine Cranny. Joe supported Arthur Griffith’s politics and was a founding member of the Volunteers, in November 1913. He was involved and dedicated to the detailed planning of the Easter Rising. His problem was that Easter Sunday 1916 was to have been his wedding day. A close friend, Tomás MacDonagh, had married Grace’s older sister, Muriel Enid Gifford, in January 1912 and they had children Donagh and Barbara. Grace selected the University Chapel at St Stephen’s Green and the fatal date: Easter Sunday 1916.
After signing the Proclamation on Easter Sunday, Joseph Plunkett wrote his Will, stating, “I give and bequeath everything of which I am possessed to Grace Evelyn (sic) Gifford.” He had undergone a major operation on his neck glands just two weeks before the wedding. He was still ill and swathed in bandages when he presented himself for the start of the Rising. So there was no option but to delay the marriage until after the Insurrection. Joe said his farewell to Grace in the Metropole Hotel, Sackville Street, on Easter Saturday. Meanwhile, Tomás MacDonagh took leave of his wife Muriel, to take command of the Second Battalion centred in Jacob’s Biscuit Factory. Plunkett wrote to Grace on the day of his surrender, stating that “I did everything I could to arrange for us to meet and get married but…it was impossible.” When Grace received this news, she and Muriel, with the help of the Capuchin Friary in Church Street tried to visit the men in prison and failing admittance, to attend their trials which were also refused. Grace was full of determined resolve, to fight both the military and the system. To everyone’s relief, her pleas to the prison Governor and the prison Chaplain were successful. While Joseph Plunkett was attending his trial, a Crossley staff car, containing two British officers was dispatched to Palmerston Road to collect his bride. She asked for and received her father’s pocket watch, to present to Joe as a wedding present. She hoped that the authorities might return it to her later, for her to keep as a momentum. Their knocker banged at 4:30pm, the evening before Joe Plunkett’s execution. “I assume that I am addressing Mrs Gifford?” The officer did not wait for her affirmation, continuing, “I have been instructed to transport Miss Grace Gifford to the Chaplain of Kilmainham Gaol. Is she ready to accompany me?” Grace and her father entered the little hallway; the three sisters crowding behind them. The British officer saluted Grace and repeated the instructions that he had earlier address to Isabella, her mother. “Are you ready, madam?” Grace waved to her family, before stepping through the open door into the car.
“You know that we are to marry?” asked Grace of the officer sitting beside her, as they got under way. “Yes, madam. May I extend my congratulations,” he added awkwardly.
They drove in silence, pulling up outside 94-95, Grafton Street; the jewellery shop. Edmond Johnson was Dublin’s foremost goldsmith and was preparing to close his shop for the day. Business was light, because of the Great War. So, he was not surprised to see a military staff car pulling up outside. However, instead of the expected khaki-clad male, a beautiful young woman alighted, stopping to check her garments in the reflection of the shop window. She was dressed in a black and off-white, chequered suit, with white-collar and cuffs. Her hair was worn high, as was the current trend. A straw hat, ringed with fresh flowers topped her ensemble. Her face was pale and drawn; although her eyes sparkled and her mouth was opened in a small smile. By the time she had reach the shop door, Edmond had it opened, ready to greet her. She entered with a small nod to him. “Good evening, madam. We talked on the telephone earlier? Miss Gifford isn’t it?” She inclined her head once more, as a chair was positioned for her comfort. She sat, carefully arranging her skirts to limit wrinkles. “Thank you, Sir”, explained Grace, “my request is simple. I request the two most expensive wedding bands that you have. I do not need the boxes, if you can wrap them in a little tissue.” He was too experienced to blink at such an odd request. He presented two rings for her approval. “Of course, I have had to guess at the groom’s finger size. We can always adjust it later, if necessary.” Realising the awkwardness of this statement, he continued quickly, “Don’t worry. We will see what can be done, at no extra charge.” Grace placed the pouch of rings in her handbag and, thanking the jeweler, returned to the car.
They arrived at Kilmainham Gaol at 6.00pm, ten hours before the execution of Joseph Plunkett. The driver gestured Grace inside. He took her through to a small holding room. “Please wait here, madam, while I check that everything is in order. There is a towel and bowl of water on the table so that you can freshen up. I am sorry, madam, but I will have to lock the door for security reasons. I hope you can understand and I will return as quickly as possible.” He thought about saluting, but did not and left. The driver never did return, being replaced by the Admission Sergeant for the evening shift. After Grace had freshen up and fixed her clothes, she carefully removed her hat and tried to enliven the flowers with a little water. All the time her mind was racing. She dreamt of happier times. An afternoon with Joe on Howth Hill. Walking as sweethearts in Rathmines. Writing and reading their love letters. Dreaming of married life, planned to be at the Plunkett’s Larkfield House in Kimmage.
Plunkett’s trial was held, not in Kilmainham but in Richmond Barracks, Inchicore. The head judge was Colonel E.W.S.K. Maconchy, who handed Joe the death penalty. He was then transferred to Kilmainham Gaol, and detained in cell number eighty-eight, kept for condemned prisoners. A copy of the sentence was couriered to General Maxwell for confirmation. At 8pm, 8 hours before the execution time, the Sergeant re-entered Grace’s room. He coughed softly before speaking. “It is time to move to the chapel, madam. Fr. McCarthy is with Mr. Plunkett and they will join you there shortly.” Grace rose, her heart suddenly racing. She grabbed her bag, checking again on the leather pouch holding the wedding bands. “Please, madam”, interjected the sergeant. “There is plenty of time. Use the mirror on the door to put on your hat.” “Oh my, I forgot.” She picked the hat off the table and adjusted it in front of the mirror. Eventually, smoothing her jacket she said, “I am ready; we can go now.” She walked into the gloomy corridor. There was no heat in the evening and a light breeze whipped around her skirt, forcing her to hold it down. She suffered an automatic shiver. The sergeant walked ahead of her with a candle, as the prison’s gas supply had been cut off for some time. He stopped by a door marked Chapel and opening it, he gestured Grace inside. “Please wait in the chapel until Mr Plunkett and the priest arrived. The guards inside will not communicate with you.” She stepped quietly through the door, which the sergeant quickly locked from the outside, leaving Grace Gifford alone again. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the darkness of the chapel. A small, white altar stood centred in an alcove set into the far wall. Six tall candles stood lit on the altar, providing the only illumination for Grace to walk towards. Only then did she notice all the eyes staring at her. A line of soldiers stood along both side walls. They had rifles with fixed bayonets. Grace took a tentative step towards the altar. She could make out a man holding a candle, standing there. He spoke to her. “Miss Gifford, come forward please. We have a seat here for you.” She got close enough to see him clearly. A clean-shaven officer; a Major she noted. “Major Lennon,” he said. “Governor of this prison. Please be seated, madam.” She sat. The other soldiers were behind her line of sight, so she kept watched the officer. “Are you okay, Miss Gifford?” asked Major W.S. Lennon, checking the time. “Have you arranged a hotel room for tonight?” “No, I hadn’t thought. I don’t know what is available. What time is it, please?” It was 9pm, 7 hours before Joseph Plunkett’s death. Time passed very slowly, yet not near slowly enough. Minutes became hours with only a little small talk from the Major for company. It was an unbearable further two hours before the groom’s party left his cell. When his door was opened by the escort party, Joe’s hands were handcuffed in front of him. He wore the volunteer uniform that he had surrendered in, minus the sword, cane, hat and three of his tunic buttons that had been taken as souvenirs while waiting on the Rotunda’s lawn on Saturday night. With two soldiers in front and to more behind, the party made its way down the spiral stairway to the ground floor level. Outside the chapel door, Plunkett coughed uncontrollably, which Grace heard. She jumped to her feet in anticipation, while Major Lennon stepped to the door. The lock was released from outside and swung open. The groom’s party entered the little chapel.
Grace got her first sight of Joseph, since saying goodbye a lifetime ago. His hair was combed and he had shaved. He wore his pince-nez glasses and his volunteer uniform. Someone had given him a tie and he had spit-polished his shoes. She looked at his face, which seemed tired and pale. He smiled weakly. He thought that Grace was more beautiful that even he had remembered. Neither spoke, as the priest addressed them, “Please remember that there is to be no touching or embracing. You must only speak to answer the questions that I put to you. Do you understand?” Another shiver went through Grace, as one of Joseph’s escorts moved in front of him saying, “Prisoner number thirty-three, you understand?” After his positive answer, the military handcuffs were removed and the wedding party stood before the altar. Fr McCarthy addressed the Major, “We shall require two witnesses, Sir.” The Major pointed to two of the escort. “You will stand in as witnesses.” “Ladies and Gentlemen,” began the priest. “We are gathered today to bound together Grace Gifford and Joseph Plunkett in the Holy Sacrament of Marriage.” He smiled at the couple, who now stood so close to each other that their fingers touched. “You have the rings?” Grace fussed with the clasp of her handbag, before passing the unopened bag to the priest. Dreams. The warmth of his fingers touching hers. She wanted to embrace him so much, but feared that the wedding might be stopped. She tried to feel every second, as if any distraction may rob her of a sacred memory. The priest continued with the ceremony until the final statement. He looked at the Major, before saying, “What God has joined together, let no man tear apart.” He looked back at Grace and Joseph. “By the powers invested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife.” They looked at each other. She beamed her widest smile. He smiled too, standing proud. “Mrs Grace Plunkett,” she whispered, although the soldier with the handcuffs was already blocking her view of him. Once shackled again, “About turn,” ordered the soldier. “Quick march.” They were suddenly gone. Grace tittered in the wake of her departed husband. “Mrs Grace Plunkett,” she repeated, as Fr. Eugene McCarthy took hold of her hands. “Grace, dear. I have arranged lodging for you for tonight. You need to rest. You must be worn out.” A car deposited her at a house on Thomas Street, where she sat in astounded silence. Unable to sleep, she replayed the previous few hours over and over again.
It was just as well, as a car arrived at 2am (just two hours before his death) to take her back to the Gaol. “Mr Plunkett is asking for you,” the driver told her. She was gestured into cell eighty-eight by a corporal that she had not seen before. The cell was six feet wide and twenty feet long, with just three wooden planks as a bed and a small stool. Joseph Plunkett stood in the middle of the cell, facing the door. Grace faced him across just a foot gap. The rest of the cell was cramped with fifteen large, fixed bayoneted soldiers. The corporal stood at right angles to the couple, withdrawing his pocket watch. “You have ten minutes, starting now. No touching.” There was no privacy, no intimacy, or no compassion. They tried a little small talk but it seemed too painful under the circumstances. Tick, tick filled their silences. “I have written to you, Grace,” said Joe. “I gave it to Winifred Carney, to pass to you. Make sure you get it.” “I have loved you always.” “I am your wife, forever.” “I am dying for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland.”
“Time’s up!” The fifteen soldiers moved in a practiced manoeuvre, forcing Joseph back into the cell, while moving Grace through the door onto the landing. Fr McCarthy was standing there. “You are my life; my love; my husband” shouted Grace back into the cell. The corporal slammed the cell door shut, turning the oiled lock effortlessly. “What time is it?” It was 3am, one hour before Joseph Plunkett’s execution. She looked pleading at the Chaplain. “I cannot leave. Not now. No, no,” she screamed. “I refuse to leave or to be silent.” She clung onto the metal railed entrance door with all her strength, looking around frantically. Fr Eugene was pleading softly with Grace, when she spied Joseph’s parents arriving. She ran to them, being swallowed up in Count Plunkett’s enormous greatcoat. “Come away now, child. You’re one of us now.” He hugged her tightly, while his wife took her handbag from Fr McCarthy. “Father Augustine will stay with him now,” offered the priest. “He could not be in better hands.” Mrs Grace Plunkett looked at the sky for any sign of the coming dawn. “What time is it, father?” she tentatively asked. “Sure doesn’t Joe have your watch now, Grace,” the Count answered. Josephine Plunkett opened Grace’s handbag and extracted her father’s hunter watch lying within. “Here it is, George. It says 3.40am.” Grace broke down completely, realising that in the turmoil of the wedding ceremony, she had failed to give her father’s watch to Joseph. She wailed and cursed Heaven and Earth. She was inconsolable as the Plunkett’s placed her into their car, for the journey back to Kimmage. She did not hear the volley that ended Joseph Plunkett’s life at 4am, while driving through the dark Dublin streets. There could well end the story of the Kilmainham Gaol wedding, were this not Ireland, after a Rising against the British Empire.
It was to be Count Plunkett’s wife that would bear most of the suffering in the months that followed. Her son murdered, her husband was then arrested with her other sons and finally Grace was rounded up. The British were showing once again, how apt they were at turning a victory into a resounding defeat. The surreal irony of being returned to Kilmainham Gaol as a prisoner was not lost on Mrs Grace Plunkett. She was interned with members of Cumann na mBan; resulting in some women, including Mary MacSwiney and Grace Plunkett going on Hunger Strike. This led to riots in the prison and, without clear instructions from Dublin Castle, the Governor released the ladies. Grace was soon rearrested as a dangerous subversive. This time she was imprisoned in the North Dublin Union. She was only finally released in the General Amnesty of 1917, now a hardened, bitter Republican. She threw herself into the War of Independence, trying to follow the ideology of her dead husband. Opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty, she used Joe Plunkett’s memory and writings to denounce the Treaty. Because of her iconic attraction, as the wife of a 1916 martyr, Michael Collins had her arrested as a danger rebel. To her delight, she was sent back again to Kilmainham Gaol and the soul of her departed husband. She was now a recognised artist and set to painting her cell, which is now a protected national treasure. Grace remained a republican for the rest of her life, passing away from heart failure, on December 13, 1955. She was laid to rest, with full military honours, in the Republican Plot of Glasnevin cemetery. If Grace and Joseph were looking down on her funeral, it would be nice to think of them smiling as an army squad fired three volleys over her grave, in a free Irish Republic.