Grace Evelyn Gifford Plunkett, Irish artist and cartoonist who is active in the Republican movement, dies suddenly in her apartment in South Richmond Street, Portobello, Dublin, on December 13, 1955 .
Gifford is the second youngest of twelve children born to Frederick Gifford, a solicitor and Roman Catholic, and Isabella Julia Burton Gifford, a Protestant. She grows up in the fashionable suburb of Rathmines in Dublin. The boys are baptised as Catholics and the girls as Protestant, but effectively the children are all raised as Protestants. The girls attend Alexandra College in Earlsfort Terrace, and the boys attend the The High School in Harcourt St.
At the age of 16, Gifford enters the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where she studies under the Irish artist William Orpen. Orpen regards Gifford as one of his most talented pupils. He often sketches her and eventually paints her as one of his subjects for a series on “Young Ireland.” Around this time, Gifford’s talent for caricature is discovered and developed. In 1907 she attends a course in Fine Art at the Slade School of Fine Art, London.
Gifford returns to Dublin in 1908 and, with great difficulty, attempts to earn a living as a caricaturist, publishing her cartoons in The Shanachie, Irish Life, Meadowstreet, and The Irish Review, which is edited from 1913 by Joseph Plunkett. She considers emigrating but gives up the idea. Later that year, she meets Plunkett for the first time at the opening of St. Edna’s School, a new bilingual school in Ranelagh, Dublin. Plunkett is a friend of her brother-in-law, another of the future leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, Thomas MacDonagh, who is married to Gifford’s sister Muriel.
Her growing interest in the Roman Catholic religion leads to the deepening of Gifford and Plunkett’s relationship. Plunkett proposes to her in 1915. She accepts and takes formal instruction in Catholic doctrine. She is received into the Catholic Church in April 1916. The couple plan to marry on Easter Sunday that year, in a double wedding with his sister and her fiancé.
After the Rising, her brother-in-law Thomas MacDonagh is executed by firing squad along with Patrick Pearse and Thomas Clarke on May 3. That same day, Gifford learns that Plunkett is to be shot at dawn. She purchases a ring in a jeweller’s shop in Dublin city centre and, with the help of a priest, persuades the military authorities to allow them to marry. She and Plunkett are married on the night of May 3, 1916 in the chapel of Kilmainham Gaol, a few short hours before he is executed.
Grace Plunkett decides to devote herself through her art to the promotion of Sinn Féin policies and resumes her commercial work to earn a living. She is elected to the Sinn Féin executive in 1917.
During the Irish Civil War, Plunkett is arrested with many others in February 1923 and interned at Kilmainham Gaol for three months. She is released in May 1923.
When the Civil War ends, Plunkett has no home of her own and little money. Like many Anti-Treaty Republicans, she is the target of social ostracism and has difficulty finding work. She moves from one rented apartment to another and eats in the city-centre restaurants. She befriends many people and has many admirers, but has no wish to remarry. Her material circumstances improve in 1932 when she receives a Civil List pension from Éamon de Valera‘s Fianna Fáil government. She lives for many years in a flat in Nassau St. with a balcony overlooking the sports ground of Trinity College.
Plunkett’s in-laws refuse to honour her husband’s will, which leaves everything to his widow. Legally, the will is invalid because there is only one of the required two witnesses and also the marriage takes place after the will is made, automatically revoking it. She begins legal proceedings against her in-laws in 1934. The Count and Countess Plunkett settle out of court and Plunkett is paid £700, plus costs.
From the late 1940s onwards, Plunkett’s health declines. In 1950 she is brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital, then in the city centre. She convalesces in a nursing home, which she does not like because it restricts her freedom.
After her sudden death on December 13, 1955, Grace Gifford Plunkett’s body is removed to St. Kevin’s Church, Harrington Street, and among the attendees at her funeral is President Seán T. O’Kelly. She is buried with full military honours near the republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Grace Gifford Plunkett is the subject of “Grace,” a song written in 1985 by Frank and Seán O’Meara, which becomes popular in Ireland and elsewhere and has been recorded by many musicians.