Sidney – Another Gifford Girl
by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
Support for Irish nationalism often ran in families. The Gifford sisters – Sidney, Nellie, Grace, Kate, Muriel, and Ada – were six of the 12 children of Frederick and Isabella Burton Gifford. As was customary in a mixed marriage, the boys were baptized Catholics and the girls were baptized Protestant. However, their mother, Isabella, a domineering woman, raised all of her children as Protestant. The boys retained that Protestantism while the girls, except for Kate, all converted to Catholicism. In a further conversion, while the parents and brothers remained loyal to Britain, the girls became Irish Republicans!
The best known of the girls were: Grace, who married 1916 leader Joseph Plunkett hours before his execution at Kilmainham Jail and remained an active Republican; Nellie, who was active during the Rising and was imprisoned in Mountjoy and Kilmainham jails afterward and Muriel, who married Proclamation signer, Thomas MacDonagh. Muriel, an active member of Maude Gonne’s Inghinidhe na hÉireann (daughters of Ireland) and supporter of women’s suffrage, accidentally drowned in 1917. Ada emigrated to the U.S. and was active in Republican groups there. Sidney, who wrote under the pen name John Brennan, was the youngest born August 3, 1889 and was as notable as any of them. All were members of Cumann na mBan – the Ladies Auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers.
Sidney wrote for the Sinn Fein, Irish Citizen, Irish Freedom and Cumann na mBan newspapers before emigrating to New York in June 1914 where she became involved in working for the Republican cause; the New York Sun even published some of her articles. At the outbreak of WWI, Britain ran a campaign to enlist American support in the war, so Sidney joined a campaign to downplay the Britain campaign and focus on Irish independence instead. During one meeting of Irish Americans, Sidney made an impromptu speech, explaining the situation in Ireland and particularly the need of arms for the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan. As a result, Dr. Gertrude Kelly, a dynamic feminist writer and activist and a prominent member of the Irish Women’s Council, asked Sidney to speak at a meeting she was organizing.
At that meeting, Sidney criticized the AOH. Afterward, the Chairman explained to the audience that Sidney was not referring to the American AOH, but the Board of Erin with whom she had bitter experience since they had broken up Republican rallies for Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party. Sidney saw the error of her remark and learned that the activist audience she was addressing consisted largely of members of the American AOH Ladies Auxiliary and that in America women had a greater influence in public life holding important positions in the professions and commerce. Impressed by the fact that the AOH had an active Ladies Auxiliary and the Clann na Gael did not, it was at this meeting that Sidney Gifford decided to form a branch of Cumann na mBan in America. She later wrote that, ‘the Ladies Auxiliary of the AOH proved to be some of our most valuable workers and the foundation of the first Branch of Cumann na mBan was followed by a second one, also in New York.’ Their chief activity was propaganda and fund-raising and Sidney became Secretary of the first American branch of Cumann na mBan.
In November 1915, James Connolly’s daughter, Nora, arrived in America with a letter from Countess Markievicz asking for Sidney’s aid in contacting the German Ambassador in Washington, which she did. Ever since England had declared war on Germany, Sidney received daily Irish and weekly Sinn Féin papers with news of arrests of prominent Republicans. She brought the papers to Patrick Ford of the Irish World newspaper. He was delighted to get them and published them with headlines and editorial comment. The result was that letters of support for Ireland flooded in from organizations and individuals all over the country. Ford asked Sidney to write on the leaders and organizations in Ireland and the articles that she wrote moved the paper’s aim to complete support for the Volunteer movement. Sidney married a Hungarian lawyer, Arpad Czira, a former POW who had fled to America. Their son, Finian, was born in 1917, but she and Arpad soon parted. When America entered WW1, anti-British propaganda ceased, but not support for the Republican militants right up to the Easter Rising.
After the Rising, the Irish tricolor had yet to be seen in America and at a big demonstration, likely in Carnegie Hall, to support Ireland, her sister Ada, who had spent the night sewing a tricolor, suddenly stood up in the balcony and swung it out over the audience. It received such an ovation that newspapers commented on it the following day. Bernard Shaw, asked to comment on the event, sent a cable which contained the words, ‘It was mad, glorious and republican.’ This also made headlines. The Gifford girls also introduced the tricolor to New York by flying it at the top of a Fifth Avenue bus and reported that it was quite encouraging to see NY Police recognize it and, at every intersection, stand to attention in salute.
In 1922, Sidney returned to Ireland with her son. As a member of Kathleen Clarke’s Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League she fought against the ill-treatment of Republican prisoners during the Civil War and continued to work as a journalist for the anti-Free State side in that conflict. In the 1950s her memoirs were published in The Irish Times and she worked as a broadcaster producing a series of historical programs. She died in Dublin on 15 September 1974 and is buried in Deans Grange Cemetery – one of the many Republican Women of Ireland who deserve to be remembered.