Romance at Kilmainham…..

The history of Kilmainham Gaol is one of sorrow, brutality and injustice. There are endless tales to be told about this prison turned museum and it is one of my favourite attractions in Dublin because of its coloured history.

Out of the brutality and sadness associated with Kilmainham Gaol comes a touching love story (unfortunately not one with a happy ending),that of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford.

Although Plunkett came from a wealthy home, his early life was troubled. He contracted tuberculosis at an early age and it was an illness that would plague him for life. It was made all the harder as he was not given the correct treatment or medication for his condition. This did not stop him from living life to the full however. Joseph was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood but is probably best known for this part in the 1916 Rising in Dublin. He was also a talented academic and an accomplished poet. He had a huge interest in Irish heritage and the Irish language. In 1913, Plunkett met Grace Gifford.

Gifford also came from an affluent Dublin family. She showed a penchant for art at an early age and went on to become a successful cartoonist and caricaturist. She immediately struck up a strong friendship with Plunkett which soon turned to love and two years later, Plunkett asked for Gifford’s hand in marriage. Plunkett also joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood that same year.

Joseph Plunkett was one of the original members of the IRB Military Committee who were responsible for the Easter Rising. Plunkett and Gifford’s marriage had been arranged for Easter Sunday but this was also the date for the Rising to commence. Plunkett promised that he would marry his beloved, even if they had to wed behind bars.

Plunkett’s health took an unfortunate turn for the worse before the Rising took place and he had to be operated on. He struggled to the GPO on Monday, April 24th (not Sunday as originally planned) to take his place amongst his comrades – one of whom was the legendary Michael Collins. They occupied the GPO for 5 days but by that Friday, they were forced to abandon their position and flee to Moore Street. On April 29th, he wrote his final letter to Grace and he and his brothers were compelled to surrender. As Joseph was one of the 7 men to sign the proclamation declaring the new Provisional Government of the Republic of Ireland, he was sentenced to death by firing squad and the date was fixed for May 4th.

Grace was not made aware that her darling fiancé was destined for execution until late in the afternoon of May 3rd. Distraught, she raced to the nearest jewellers just as it was about to close but upon hearing her sad tale, the Jeweller allowed her to choose her wedding bands.

Gifford then hastily made her way to Kilmainham but had to wait until the wee hours of the morning before she was allowed to see Joseph. Authorities agreed to let them wed and so, with no electricity, a British Soldier holding a single candle and two more soldiers acting as witnesses, Joseph and Grace proclaimed their love for each other as they exchanged their marital vows. Immediately after the service, Plunkett was taken back to his cells and it wasn’t until many hours later that Grace was brought to see him for the last time.

They were allowed a mere 10 minutes together in the company of soldiers. Grace was then asked to leave and Joseph was brought out to the Stonebreaker’s Yard. His spoke his final words “I am very happy I am dying for the glory of God and the Honour of Ireland” – he was then shot dead by firing squad. He was 28 years old.

Tragically, Plunkett and Gifford had hoped to build their life together in the Independent Ireland they had both worked so hard to create.

Grace remained a staunch Republican all her life and became a member of the Anti-Treaty IRA which engaged in combat against the National Army. She too was interned in Kilmainham for a period of three months in 1923. Ever the artistic soul, she painted the Madonna and Child in her cell. This can still be seen to this day. Although romantically pursued by many, Grace never remarried and died alone in 1955 at the age of 67.

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