Marita talks about Rebel Sisters and 1916
Why did you write Rebel Sisters? Were you always interested in the Easter Rising and 1916?
Like everyone else, I learned about the 1916 Easter Rising in school, but I certainly had no plans to ever write about it as it all seemed so complex. Even though I had a huge regard for Pearse, Clarke, James Connolly and the small band of rebels who had taken the brave stand that led to Irish independence and freedom, I felt it was a very political story that I could never tell.
However, I love history and over the years visiting Kilmainham Jail and Arbour Hill, I was constantly drawn to the story of Grace Gifford who had married the desperately ill Joseph Plunkett, one of the leaders of the Rising, in the prison chapel, only a few hours before he was shot by the firing squad in the Stone-Breakers’ Yard in Kilmainham.
Their story somehow always stayed with me and I was curious about them, about her! So I found myself researching Grace and discovered that she was a very talented and well- known artist from a large, wealthy, Protestant family, which was very different from what I had imagined.
I suppose Grace Gifford was the key to it, but I still didn’t see how to make a book out of it.
What made you change your mind?
As I researched Grace, I discovered her family – especially her sisters. I could not believe it when I realised that her sister, Muriel, was married to Thomas MacDonagh and that they had two small children. What was incredible to me was to discover that two striking, beautiful sisters were married to two leaders of the Rising, that had not only signed the proclamation but would end up being executed in Kilmainham within a day of each other.
Then I found out that their sister, Nellie, was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol at the same time, for her part in the rebellion. A member of the Irish Citizen Army, Nellie had fought in the College of Surgeons under commandant Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz.
Three sisters all caught up so closely in one of the biggest events in Irish history – I just couldn’t believe it. This was certainly a story for the telling… I was mad with curiosity to find out more and more about them.
Was there a lot of research involved?
An absolutely huge amount of research was involved, but it was fascinating finding out more and more about them and the rich lives they all led, for they were all highly intelligent, bright, young women. They were prepared to speak their minds and get involved with all the issues of the time, be it votes for women, protesting against King George V’s visit to Ireland, school dinners for the poor, the 1913 Lockout, The Great War and conscription and of course they were very much part of the growing movement that would lead to Ireland’s fight for freedom and independence. Grace, Muriel and Nellie were three incredible young women and I was privileged to be able to write about them.
I buried myself for almost three years researching the period and the lead up to the 1916 Rising. The National Library of Ireland was wonderful as it holds the Thomas MacDonagh papers, the Plunkett papers and the Gifford papers. It was hugely interesting and beneficial to be able to read letters written by and between Thomas MacDonagh and Muriel and Joe Plunkett and Grace, and to be able to picture their day to day lives, interests and worries and how much they all deeply loved and cared for each other. To read poems and plays and look at photographs that are from over a hundred years ago is an absolute honour. I visited so many places: the National Museum, Kilmainham Gaol, the Pearse Museum in St Enda’s, Rathfarnham, the Slade School of Art in London and the Gifford family home. There was so much to see and find out about… but luckily, I love researching. My study soon was crammed full of books, papers, bulging red folders and timeline charts running from 1901-1916 (the years in which the book is set).
Is writing history more difficult than writing your other books?
The research element is certainly huge, but I also I like to look at history from a different perspective. I liked that I was able to use the women’s perspective – which has often been overlooked. I was also conscious that unlike my other books, this time I was writing about real people and real events. I was not writing about characters that I had created, this time I was writing about real life sisters and young women and young men, who are very much part of our history. I hope that I have very much respected that.
What do you think of all the 2016 plans to commemorate the Centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising?
The Easter 1916 Rising was one of the most important events in Irish history and it rightly deserves to be remembered by Irish people everywhere, for it was such a brave, selfless act by a small group of dedicated Nationalists. A group determined to strike a blow against Britain, by declaring an Irish Republic and fighting for Irish freedom and independence. Perhaps it was folly, madness, for they knew they would be defeated and yet they still took the risk. But their actions set in motion those all-important first steps that led to Irish freedom and independence, which we all enjoy. It is good to see these men and women remembered and honoured for what they did and the fact that there are so many wonderful events spread throughout the country, shows the huge interest people have in our history. I am so looking forward to it all.
I was in my little grand-daughter’s school when the Irish army officers arrived to a huge welcome, bearing the Irish flag and copy of the Proclamation. Every school in the country will receive them, to mark the centenary. As the army officer stood up and read the Proclamation aloud with help from one of the girls, I could not help but feel emotional as I sat there watching, knowing that Thomas MacDonagh, Padraig Pearse, James Connolly, Joe Plunkett, Tom Clarke, Sean MacDiarmada and Eamonn Ceannt would most certainly approve and be pleased that their words and actions were not forgotten.