An Irishman’s Diary on a rebel on roller-skates, Joseph Mary Plunkett
Favourite pastime of 1916 leader
A possibility that, only a few years before his part in the Rising, Joseph Mary Plunkett had been a roller-skating champion in Algeria.
The most astoundingly interesting piece of trivia I’ve heard so far in this decade of centenaries concerns the 1916 leader Joseph Mary Plunkett, and the possibility that, only a few years before his part in the Rising, he had been a roller-skating champion in Algeria.
The story comes to me – second-hand, but from different sources via Prof Declan Kiberd, who apparently mentioned it at an event in the Abbey Theatre over Easter. And I haven’t been able to contact the man himself (Prof Kiberd, I mean, not Plunkett) since to find out more. But it’s entirely plausible based on what is already known.
Plunkett was certainly an enthusiastic roller-skater, as were many Dubliners of his era. Also, he did spend time in Algiers – the latter months of 1911 – seeking warm-weather respite from his tuberculosis. He even kept a diary while there which, while short and elliptical, indicates that he brought his favourite pastime with him.
An entry for October 20th notes: “Went to a rink in evening and skated. Just like Dublin! (IDT!)” \[The “IDT!” meant “I don’t think!“] Later the same month, he wrote home asking that a sister who was travelling out to join him bring his skates. And just before Christmas, he hurt his knee so badly in a skating fall as to cause himself sleepless nights of pain.
Occasionally, the diary entries juxtapose mention of his skating with serious events in the world, courtesy of this newspaper, which was being posted to him. Here’s the cheery entry for November 29th, 1911: “Arabic lesson. To rink in evening. Irish Times\[:] 17 Italians Crucified by the Turks (or Arabs) in Tripoli. P.S. Perhaps.”
The fall aside, he was clearly a very proficient skater. So much so that, whatever about his talent winning competitions, it opened up career possibilities.
In her biography of Plunkett for the “16 Lives” series, Honor O Brolchain notes that the diary ends in early January 1912, while he’s still in Algiers. And she adds that among the details he didn’t see fit to include in it were the offer of a local rink management job “after the then manager ran away with the owner’s wife”.
Then again, maybe this was one of strange events he was alluding to in his entry for the last day of 1911 (a Sunday): “Messe des Hommes. Gave a sugar bowl to the de Costas and Benedictine aux Quatre Visaires. Very tired. Great crowds of people. Wish I was home. This was a queer year.”
The Irish Times of that period did carry regular reports of roller-skating events in Dublin, social and sporting. There were several venues, including the American Roller Rink on Earlsfort Terrace, where Plunkett was a regular, and the Palace in Rathmines, where skaters were accompanied by music from the band of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.
These were joined in late 2009 by a newcomer, the Olympia at the RDS, which boasted that it was three times bigger than any other rink in Ireland and marked its opening with a guest appearance by two world champions: “Harley Davidson and Miss Dollie Mitchell”.
But soon afterwards, even before the war broke out, the skating craze seems to have waned dramatically. It’s little mentioned after 1912 and appears to be quite extinct by 1928, when this newspaper’s unfailing guide to the things that matter – the Irishman’s Diary column – lamented its heyday as something from a bygone age.
In the interim, notable exponents had included Charlie Chaplin. The great comedian used his skating skills to comic effect in one of his early silent movies, The Rink, where he played a waiter on wheels.
Alas, those who enjoyed the film cannot have included Joseph Mary Plunkett. The Rink was released in December 1916.
Plunkett was not destined for a long life anyway, given his condition, although his family’s wealth had armed him with such defences against TB as were then available. In any case he put his skates away sometime in the intervening years and, to borrow Yeats’s phrase, “resigned his part in the casual comedy”.
Having himself laid the plans for the Rising, he was hospitalised for an operation before it happened, and had to leave his bed to join the others in the GPO. He probably had a few weeks of life left, maybe months.
But the firing squad shortened that schedule. Plunkett famously married his sweetheart, Grace Gifford, in Kilmainham Gaol, around midnight on May 3rd, 1916. A few hours later, he was shot, aged 28.