Joseph Plunkett: ‘A life of marvellous grit’

The story of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford’s marriage in Kilmainham jail, hours before his execution, still captures the imagination of many

Joseph Plunkett might have been a ninth at our dinner table at times. He seemed to drop in and out of the conversation effortlessly and we were all used to his easy presence. Even after all this time he still had the aspect of a friend, a source of wisdom, an imaginative mind and, to his sister, my grandmother, he was “a joker”.

That simply meant not taking life seriously but his writings alternate between this joke and the deeply serious, in everything from poetry and philosophy to attempts at stories and ballads, the frivolity often a counterbalance for his private passion and intensity.

In childhood his pattern of schooling was so infrequent and unreliable that he found socialising difficult and appeared stand-offish, but as a young man he grew into himself as a talker, non-stop, compulsive and given to discussion and argument, all of which was the mainstay of his close and vital friendship with Thomas MacDonagh, who also taught him Irish.

His own accounts of himself come, mostly, from a considerable quantity of writings, sundry diaries to philosophical speculations and poetry, with all kinds of whimsy thrown in. Dominating it all, the language of unrequited love and the constant self-doubt of a young man but I found also a life with a great many positives and a capacity for ethical and social thought – unexpected, fascinating, and very good company.


He came from a wealthy family, suffered from tuberculosis from early childhood, was the youngest signatory of the Proclamation and married Grace Gifford the night he was executed. All of the above militated against him being taken seriously as a separatist nationalist, a socialist, an inveterate traveller, negotiator of a shipload of arms and the principal military strategist for the Rising, but he was all that and more.

The beautiful house where he was born and grew up fronted an elegant square but it backed onto Lad Lane, and from their attic floor the seven Plunkett children could see the horrible poverty and squalor there, the first of such they saw in many places and they took note of it, knew it was not right.

Their father, Count Plunkett, son of a builder/developer had enough money to run a nationalist newspaper in the 1880s, stand twice as a Parnellite candidate and become a Renaissance art expert, celebrated for it in many places, including Florence. He became director of the National Museum to which he gave a new and very public profile. The seven children were used to travel, art galleries, languages and the influence of such humanitarians as Roger Casement. They had a chaotic home life combined with very erratic attendance at many schools.

Joe had a young man’s arrogance. He could be opinionated and intransigent – home was full of argument after he came back from an undergraduate style of life at Stonyhurst in Lancashire (1906-1908) with 20 to 30 young men from all over the world; themselves learning the arts of arrogance and intransigence. A great education for a revolutionary.

There was undoubtedly very strong affection between the seven young Plunketts, who were often thrown together on their own resources and there was a real and unsentimental love in the way his surviving siblings talked of Joe.

Joe’s illness, present from early childhood, was glandular or bovine tuberculosis in which the glands clog up so as to make breathing and everything else difficult so he was very frequently bedridden. There was a benefit to this in that he became a voracious reader of everything from detective stories to poetry, novels to mysticism and Egyptology to technology – photography and wireless in particular.

Deeply connected to his reading was writing of all kinds but especially poetry. It represented both his passion and his ambition, with great emphasis on his mystical god –complete with heaven, hell and all that flew between – and his often very wonderful link between himself, the natural world and the woman who was the deep love of his life for five important years, Columba O’Carroll. She didn’t return his love but she remained a good friend and was the inspiration for most of his love poetry.

A consequence of his frequent illness was the need for a carer and, in 1912, he and his sister Geraldine moved to a family house in Donnybrook where he edited the Irish Review and started the Irish Theatre with Thomas MacDonagh, and Geraldine, in becoming that carer, lost the opportunity to finish her chemistry degree, but became the recorder of him and those times.

These extracts from some of Plunkett’s poems give a flavour of his poetic language, the grandiose and the delicate in his skill:

From "Love": I am the Sun that slays with blinding light, I am the easeful darkness, soothing pain, I am the dawn of day, the dusk of night. I am the slayer and I am the slain . . .

This, from 1914, has intimations of death, perhaps:

Rougher than Death the road I choose Yet shall my feet not walk astray, Though dark, my way I shall not lose For this way is the darkest way . . . This next is unquestionably his most celebrated poem, one which made its way into many schoolbooks and which has a surprising modernity to it:

I see his blood upon the rose And in the stars the glory of his eyes, His body gleams amid eternal snows, His tears fall from the skies . . .

To Columba O’Carroll he wrote:

As blazes forth through clouds the morning sun So shines your soul, and I must veil my sight Lest it be stricken to eternal night By too much seeing ere my song be done

And to Grace Gifford:

. . . then with lightning stroke The tempest in my heart roared up and broke Its barriers, and I swore I would not rest Till that mad heart was worthy of your breast Or dead for you – and then this love awoke.

Each of the seven signatories had travelled out of Ireland at some time and I believe this was an important factor in their attitude to Ireland and its place, or potential place, in the world.

Plunkett had travelled to 10 countries including England, Germany, Algiers and the USA, spending some time in most of them. He had a good grasp of six languages and his passions included Egyptology, Italian painting, Russian and Scandinavian theatre, English poetry, American cowboy songs and philosophy from everywhere.

He was as aware of world politics as he was of the arts.

He read international newspapers, particularly after the War began, to assess the developing situation and he believed that by participating in the Westminster parliament, MPs of the Irish Parliamentary Party were conniving in the exploitation and maltreatment of other colonies.

There is a description of him, aged about 26, going back and forth between two groups setting each one straight in arguments. This was a kind of joke but he used the same technique after the Rising when, according to different sources, he tried to give as much information as possible to those under arrest about things which had been secret before the Rising began. He believed in information, both the spreading and the guarding of it and was very conscious of the barriers created by the British propaganda machine.

It was to counteract that machine that he organised the attempt to capture Cahirciveen Radio Station in order to send telegraphed messages to the world about the Rising; he organised the (very amateur) printing and distribution of the "Castle Document" from surveillance material smuggled out of Dublin Castle by Eugene Smith, and directed the capture, at the beginning of the Rising, of the Dublin Wireless School of Telegraphy by a group of men, who had been training with wireless in Larkfield in Kimmage, also to send word of the Rising to the world.

The Cahirciveen venture ended in disaster and the tragedy of three men drowned; the Castle Document was dubbed “bogus” by the British authorities and never made it to the newspapers, but the messages telegraphed from the Wireless School in O’Connell Street were picked up and transmitted to other parts of the world by at least two ships.

This is officially the first time wireless was used in this way anywhere in the world. Joe Plunkett had been experimenting with wireless for about 15 years – imaginative and innovative work.

He was military strategist for the Rising, reading in detail about the Siege of Sydney Street in London in 1911, where two men had held up police and army by tunnelling through houses. Irish Volunteers trained in tunnelling and it was used extensively in the Rising.

Plunkett read new, mostly German, texts and British Army manuals on tactics and strategy. It was his view that British reinforcements would certainly be sent in when the Rising began, that they would arrive at Dún Laoghaire and almost certainly march the straightest route into the city. This proved correct and enabled 17 men to hold up a whole battalion and do a lot of damage at Mount Street Bridge.

He believed in the new idea of bringing the opposing forces to you, which meant taking over buildings which could not be overlooked, an essential strategic strength which uses the structure of the city as the main asset. Urban warfare unlike anything previously tried.

From January 1916 he and Connolly worked on the plans and they got on very well. Connolly praised Plunkett’s courage to his son, Roddy, and his military science to Winifred Carney. Plunkett told Geraldine that Connolly was the most intellectual man he had ever met – a useful mutual-admiration society!

Their friendship ended in No 16 Moore Street where Joe spent the day of the surrender sitting on the end of Connolly’s bed. They were both dying.

Nobody knows for sure who the authors of the Proclamation were. I believe they all had a part in it, but Pearse and MacDonagh are always named as authors. Plunkett’s written voice in terms of his nationalism from a few years before the Rising, is redolent of the language and aspirations of the Proclamation, nationalism which came from many places but from Wolfe Tone in particular. In 1913, when he, like all the leaders, was deeply affected by the events of the Strike and Lockout, for instance, he wrote:

“ . . .the sole objects of government should be the peace and prosperity, in the fullest sense, of all the individuals composing the nation.”

The story of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford’s marriage in Kilmainham still captures the imagination of many.

That they shared great love seems very clear, but the wedding was not in a softly lit chapel with words of devotion. Rather, it was in a filthy disused jail. Soldiers stood by with fixed bayonets. Joe and Grace didn’t know the witnesses, they couldn’t touch each other; they couldn’t speak to each other except to say the marriage words. It was not a ceremony but a brief formula. Joe’s handcuffs were taken off for moments and then put back on.

It was candlelit because the gas pipes had been cut to prevent explosions. The dim light made the men with guns more sinister.

As soon as it finished, they were separated. Grace was brought back to see Joe at about 2 am (the Plunketts were the only family where no member was allowed to see their condemned relative before his execution) and Grace tells us that they only had 10 minutes and they didn’t know what to say . . . but he spoke to her of the heroism of his comrades, especially Connolly and The O’Rahilly.

The world immediately took their story to heart and it has kept its place ever since, sometimes to the exclusion of the other 15 men who were executed, the many other men and women wounded and killed in action, and the families, plunged into tragedy, loss and often, silence.

A young man going out to be shot to pieces when he still has so much he can do could be forgiven for some self-pity or at least misgivings but, in the words of Peter McBrien, Plunkett’s was a life of “marvellous grit”.

Joseph Plunkett had beaten death from tuberculosis by a few weeks to stand, calmly, they said, and die for Ireland.