Grace Evelyn Gifford

One of Ireland’s most tragic daughters, Grace Evelyn Gifford, was born on March 4, 1888, the second youngest of 12 children of a Catholic father and a Protestant mother in Rathmines, Dublin. As was then the practice, the boys were brought up Catholic and the girls as Protestants. Grace went to school in Dublin and at 16 went to the Metropolitan School of Art, where she studied under Irish artist William Orpen. Orpen regarded her as most gifted and in 1907 she attended a course in Fine Art at the Slade School of Art in London. She returned to Dublin in 1908 and tried to earn a living as a caricaturist, publishing her cartoons in The Shanachie, Irish Life, Meadowstreet and The Irish Review. She earned little money, but enjoyed a lively social life.

She met a London lady journalist, who brought her to the opening of the new bilingual St Enda’s School where she met Joseph Mary Plunkett for the first time. She also met the future leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, including Tomás MacDonagh, whom she would introduce to her sister Muriel. They married in 1912 and Muriel became a Catholic. Grace’s interest in the Catholic religion also grew leading to a closer acquaintance with Joseph Plunkett as she began to question him about his faith. She could not have found a better teacher since St. Oliver Plunkett was a member of Joseph’s family. Joseph proposed to Grace in 1915 and she took lessons in the Catholic religion. She was formally received into the Catholic Church in April, 1916. Having no knowledge of the plans for the Easter Rising, she had planned to marry Joseph on Easter Sunday of that same year.

Joseph hadn’t told Grace of the impending insurrection which was scheduled for Easter Sunday, nor did he expect the chronic health problems he was experiencing – an advanced case of tuberculosis – to require emergency surgery the week before. As it turned out, the operation forced Joseph to postpone the wedding, just as other circumstances forced the postponement of the rising to Easter Monday. The first indication to Grace that something was going on came on the evening of Holy Saturday when Plunkett’s young aide, Michael Collins, dropped by to deliver her a sum of money and a small gun for her protection. Grace was horrified at the sight of the gun, but Collins left without offering a confused Grace Gifford any further explanation.

One can only imagine the confusion, anxiety, and distress experienced by Grace as the events of Easter week unfolded with her beloved in the center of the fighting. After the Rising failed, Joseph and the other leaders were taken to Kilmainham Jail, swiftly court martialed and sentenced to death by firing squad. When Grace learned that Joseph was due to be shot on May 4th; she hurriedly visited a Dublin jeweler and bought a wedding ring. On the night of May 3rd she was given permission to visit Joseph. Arrangements had been made for them to meet in the prison chapel where the prison chaplain married them with two prison guards as witnesses. Accompanied by fifteen soldiers they crammed into Joseph’s tiny cell, on the wall of which he had scratched his memorable poem I See His Blood Upon the Rose. After only a ten-minute visit, Grace was ushered out. A few short hours later, Joseph was murdered by a vengeful British military in the stone-breakers yard of Kilmainham Jail.

Grace never married again; she resumed her commercial art work to earn a living. She also decided to devote herself, through her art, to the promotion of the Sinn Féin policies Joseph had given his life for. Throughout her long widowhood she became a staunch Irish Republican and was even elected to the reorganized Sinn Fein executive in 1917 where she served alongside Kathleen Clarke and Constance Markievicz and opposed the treaty which led to the Irish Civil War. Throughout the Civil War, many republicans were arrested and incarcerated without trial or charge. Grace herself was one. Arrested in February 1923, as fate would have it, she was held in the same Kilmainham Jail where her Joseph had been executed. In what had to be an extremely emotional incarceration, she was moved to paint a beautiful picture on her cell wall of the Madonna and Child, perhaps in honor of Joseph’s middle name. It became an instant treasure to all who saw it and it became known as The Kilmainham Madonna. It remained on the wall when the women prisoners were transferred to the North Dublin Union and after Kilmainham was closed in 1924.

When the Civil War ended, Grace, who was no friend of the Irish Free State, had no home of her own and very little money. Official animosity toward those who had opposed the treaty remained strong and she received no help from the government. Her talent as an artist was her only asset; her cartoons were published in a few newspapers and magazines and she illustrated W. B. Yeats’ The Words upon the Window Pane in 1930. She moved from one rented flat to another and ate in inexpensive city-center restaurants. She had many admirers, but had no wish to remarry. Her circumstances improved in 1932 when she received a Civil List pension from de Valera’s Fianna Fáil government. From the 1940s onwards, her health declined and in 1950 she was taken to hospital and then a nursing home, which she didn’t like. She returned to her flat where she died suddenly, and alone, on 13 December, 1955. This tragic lady, whose life was altered by her love for an Irish patriot and his cause, was removed to St Kevin’s Church and she was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery with full military honors.

But what ever became of the Kilmainham Madonna? For the answer to that question, go to the National AOH website AOH.COM and check out the December history there.

The Sorrows of May

The month of May is a special month in the roster of Ireland’s heroes. It was in that month, in 1916, that some of Ireland’s greatest patriots were murdered by a British firing squad. They had come together in a dream; a dream eloquently articulated by Padraic Pearse; skillfully organized by Tom Clarke; expertly planned by Joseph Mary Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh: brilliantly guided by James Connolly; and courageously executed by Sean McDermott, Ed Daly, Micheal O’Hanrahan, Willie Pearse, John MacBride, Michael Mallin, Eamonn Ceannt, Con Colbert, Sean Heuston , Eamon deValera and the men under their commands.

The dream was for an independent Ireland and Pearse passionately wrote of that dream in his poem, The Fool:

The Lawyers have sat in Council, the men with the keen long faces,
and said This man is a fool, and others have said he blasphemeth;
and the wise have pitied the fool who strove to give a life to a dream
that was dreamed in the heart and that only the heart can hold.
O Wise Men, riddle me this: What if the dream come true,
What if the dream come true and millions unborn shall dwell
in the house that I shaped in my heart?

To bring that dream to reality, brave men joined the Irish Volunteers, The Citizens’ Army, The Hibernian Rifles, Fianna Éireann, the Foresters, and equally brave ladies joined Cumann na mBan. Following the formation of the Provisional Government, as outlined in the Proclamation, these organizations formally became known as Óglaigh na Éireann, (the Irish Republican Army), under the command of James Connolly. The organization mustered into five commands: the 1st battalion under Commandant Ned Daly, the 2nd battalion under Commandant Thomas MacDonagh, the 3rd battalion under Commandant Éamon de Valera and the 4th battalion under Commandant Éamonn Ceannt. The 5th command was a joint force of Volunteers, Irish Citizen Army and ladies of Cumann na mBan under the command of Commandant James Connolly as part of the headquarters command which, in addition to Connolly, included four other members of the Military Council: Patrick Pearse, President and Commander-in-Chief, Tom Clarke, Seán MacDermott and Joseph Mary Plunkett.

Last minute misfortunes upset the timetable of the Rising and after 7 days of fighting it became evident that the British had successfully isolated communications from Dublin and nationwide support would not materialize. After British Army casualties of 116 dead and 368 wounded; Police casualties of 16 dead and 29 wounded; and civilian casualties of 318 dead and 2,217 wounded, Pearse, seeing no hope of success, decided to surrender to stop the bloodshed. The Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army recorded 64 killed in action.

The British ordered the arrest of all who had supported the movement even if they were not in the Dublin rising. A total of 3,430 men and 79 women were arrested and General Maxwell, in secret Court Martial sentenced more than 100 to be executed. One attempt to arrest members of the nationalist Kent family in County Cork on 2 May led to a Constable being shot dead in a gun battle. Thomas Kent was arrested and became the only rebel leader outside of Dublin to be executed for his role in the dream.

The Sorrows of May began on May 3 with the murder of Padraic Pearse, Clarke and McDonagh. On May 4, Daly, Willie Pearse, O’Hanrahan, and Plunkett were shot and May 5 saw the killing of Maj. John MacBride. Since May 6 and 7 were a Saturday and Sunday, the Brits gave their executioners the weekend off. On Monday, May 8 the slaughter commenced again with the homicides of Mallin, Ceannt, Colbert, and Heuston. Then, on May 9, Thomas Kent was slain at Cork Detention Barracks. A manuscript recently found in the Capuchin Archives in Church Street, Dublin revealed just how uncaring the executions were. Father Columbus Murphy, a Capuchin priest, was called on to help administer to the prisoners prior to their execution. He and Fathers Augustine, Albert, and Sebastian OFM Cap were allowed only a short time to exercise their ministry. He described the whole process as callously informal. The governor said a name and gave a signal. The prisoner’s hands were then tied behind his back, and a bandage placed over his eyes. Two soldiers, one on either side, guided the prisoner, and the priest went in front.

When the prisoner reached the outer door another soldier pinned a piece of white paper over his heart. The procession went along one yard, then through a gate leading to the stonebreaker’s yard. Here the firing squad of 12 soldiers was waiting, rifles loaded. An officer stood to the left; on the right were the governor and the doctor. The prisoner was led to the front wall and was turned to face the firing-squad. The two soldiers guiding him withdrew quickly to one side. There was a silent signal from the officer; then a deafening volley. The prisoner fell in a heap on the ground – dead. After the executions the friars were driven back to the friary where they celebrated Mass for the repose of the souls of the executed men. The public were horrified at the slaughter.

In the House of Commons, John Dillon, Irish Parliamentary Party MP, demanded an end to the killing. He intervened with Lloyd George to halt the 97 remaining sentences of execution pronounced by General Maxwell during court-martial without defense council nor jury. Dillon insisted that if they continued they would fill the whole country with rebels. He declared in the House that the rebels were wrong, but had fought a clean fight. His intervention resulted in Prime Minister Asquith sending a telegram to Maxwell to halt the executions until he arrived on May 12 to investigate for himself. On the morning of May 12, Maxwell defied the order and had Sean MacDermott brought to the Stonebreaker’s Yard at Kilmainham and shot. Then he ordered the wounded James Connolly brought from hospital; his ankle, shattered by a bullet during the rising, had gangrened from a lack of treatment. He was carried, in great pain, into the yard on a stretcher, placed on a chair against the back wall, nearest the entry gate, and propped up to receive the bullets for sharing a dream. When Asquith arrived, he commuted the remaining death sentences to terms of imprisonment, but it was too late; the fuse had been lit.

Following the Rising, the manner in which the trials and executions were carried out in secret, changed public opinion to sympathy for the rebels. The self-sacrifice of the leaders for the dream of a free Ireland, the bravery of the rank-and-file and the nauseating manner in which Connolly had been killed at last moved even the most liberal among the public to intense anti-British sentiment. Meanwhile, the 3,000 ‘rebels’ who had been picked up in the military sweep ordered by Maxwell, had been deported to Britain and held in prisons and internment camps which served as virtual academies of sedition. When the government realized they could not afford to house and feed all those interned, the declared a general amnesty secure in the belief that the Irish had once again been duly spanked into submission. On their return home, the Irishmen immediately set about building an army of opposition; it was called the Irish Republican Army and it would eventually fight the Brits to the treaty table after a brutal War of Independence. The leaders may have died, but the dream did not. And true to Pearse’s words, millions have dwelt in the house that he shaped in his heart in spite of the fact that the landlord still holds a small piece of the property!