Was Grace Gifford pregnant when she wed Joseph Plunkett in 1916?

New documentary suggests couple’s hasty marriage may have been to ward off scandal

The marriage of Joseph Mary Plunkett and Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Gaol is one of the best known stories of the Easter Rising.

Plunkett, a signatory of the Proclamation, was executed on May 4th, 1916, seven hours after he married Gifford who came from a well-to-do Protestant family in south Dublin.

The wedding now has a cachet far beyond those who are interested in Irish history because of the ballad "Grace", which has been covered by Rod Stewart among other artists.

There may be a compelling reason for the hasty marriage, according to a new documentary, Forgotten: Widows of the Irish Revolution to be broadcast on RTÉ on Thursday night.

The documentary is presented by Lindsey Earner-Byrne, Professor of Irish Gender History at University College Cork.

She states that Gifford may have been pregnant when she married Plunkett. Evidence for this comes from Plunkett's sister, Geraldine Plunkett, who was adamant that Gifford had a miscarriage shortly after the Easter Rising.

Given that the couple had no time to consummate their marriage, it would have meant that she became pregnant out of wedlock, something which would have had consequences at the time.

“If it was true, it would have had significant implications for Grace’s moral standing in the community,” Prof Earner-Byrne will say in the documentary.

“It would have meant that the relationship was consummated before the wedding. It would also have meant that marriage had much greater significance for both of them. Unmarried women in those days were particularly vulnerable.”

Having a child out of wedlock would have meant being ostracised and alienated from family and society.

“A last-minute wedding in Kilmainham could have been a way for Grace to have avoided such a fate,” Prof Earner-Byrne will say.

Women of the Rising

Gifford’s sister Muriel married another Proclamation signatory, Thomas MacDonagh, also executed for his role in the Easter Rising.

She drowned a year after the Rising at Skerries during a family holiday, paid for via a fund to help the widows and families of those executed during the Rising. Her death left the couple's two children, Donagh and Barbara, as orphans. This was to have dire consequences for the family. The MacDonaghs were Catholic; the Giffords were Protestant.

Don, as he was known, was lifted up to the window in the hospital where he had been sick to watch his mother’s funeral.

Before his execution, MacDonagh wrote: “My beloved Muriel and my beloved children, my country then will treat them as wards I hope.”

The children began the subject of a bitter tussle between the Gifford and MacDonagh families.

Grace Gifford ended up as a prisoner in Kilmainham Goal during the Civil War in the same prison where she had been married six years previously.

Kathleen Clarke, widow of Treaty signatory Tom Clarke, also had a miscarriage after her husband's execution. She never told her husband she was pregnant.

“I didn’t want to add to his burden of worry at that time,” she explained many years later.

Many of the widows of those involved in Easter week subsisted in dire poverty afterwards including Lillie Connolly, widow of James Connolly.

Their daughter Nora wrote to a friend: “We are absolutely on the racks. This week will see the end of us unless I have something definite to count upon.”

Prof Earner-Byrne will say the contribution of Irish women to the revolution was "airbrushed out of history – the official record recording only the activities of their husbands and other men who fought in the Rising. The new Ireland that their husbands fought to create didn't have a place for the widows of 1916 after all."

  • Forgotten: The Widows of the Irish Revolution will be broadcast on RTÉ One at 10:15pm on Thursday, May 19th.