Artist Grace Gifford married writer and 1916 Rising leader Joseph Plunkett at around midnight on Wednesday 3rd of May 1916. The story of their candle-lit marriage in the Chapel of Kilmainham Gaol, a only a few hours before Joe would face a firing squad in the prison’s Stone Breakers’ Yard, not only deeply moved me, but inspired me to write Rebel Sisters and to begin to research 1916 and find out more about this bright, intelligent couple who would pay such a high price for their part in the fight for Irish freedom.
Grace had heard earlier that morning of the execution in Kilmainham Jail of her sister Muriel’s husband, Thomas MacDonagh, alongside Padraig Pearse and Tom Clarke. Determined to go ahead with her own planned marriage to Joe, she went and got the necessary permissions and a wedding ring and went to the prison. She was left waiting there for hours.
The prison governor, Major Lennon, agreed to the marriage and at nearly midnight Grace she was brought to the prison’s chapel. Joe was led in to join her in handcuffs. She was shocked by Joe’s appearance. Father Eugene McCarthy gestured to the soldiers to un-cuff him for the ceremony. They were barely let speak as the priest married them. At the end of the short marriage ceremony, they were given no time together as Joe was re-cuffed and marched back to his prison cell. Grace left Kilmainham and Father McCarthy organised for her to stay with a friend of his who lived close to the prison.
At two am Grace received a message from Major Lennon saying that she was permitted to visit her husband one last time before his execution. He had sent a driver from Kilmainham to collect Grace and drive her back to the prison.
The small cell was crowded with soldiers and their bayonets. Joe was brave and seemed unafraid to die. The new bride and groom, Grace and Joe, were given only ten minutes to talk and say what was in their hearts before saying goodbye to each other.
A short while later Joseph Plunkett was led out to the Stonebreakers’ Yard to be shot. He faced the firing squad and his death bravely, saying that he was happy to die for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland. His body was put in an army ambulance and transported alongside the bodies of Willie Pearse, Ned Daly and Michael O’Hanrahan to Arbour Hill for burial in the lime pit there.
The story of Grace Gifford’s and Joseph Plunkett’s romantic and doomed wedding, in the prison chapel, before he was shot soon spread. The story was taken up by newspapers in Ireland and England and across the world and was one of the elements that helped to change public opinion about the rebellion and the execution by the British of its leaders.
In 1985, Irish musician Jim McCann, a former member of The Dubliners, recorded Grace – a song written by Sean and Frank O’Meara about the wedding of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford in Kilmainham chapel. This much loved ballad, Grace, became a huge hit and is still one of Ireland’s most popular love songs.