Grace Evelyn Gifford Plunkett, artist and cartoonist who is active in the Republican movement, is born in Rathmines, Dublin on March 4, 1888. She marries her fiancé, Joseph Plunkett, in Kilmainham Gaol only a few hours before he is executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising.
Gifford is the second youngest of 12 children born to Frederick Gifford, a solicitor and a Roman Catholic, and Isabella Julia Burton Gifford, a Protestant. The boys are baptised as Catholics and the girls as Protestant, but effectively the children are all raised as Protestants with the girls attending Alexandra College in Earlsfort Terrace.
At the age of 16, Gifford goes to the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where she studies under the Irish artist William Orpen. Orpen regards her as one of his most talented pupils. Around this time, her talent for caricature is discovered and developed. In 1907 she attends the course in Fine Art at the Slade School of Fine Art, London.
Gifford returns to Dublin in 1908 and, with great difficulty, tries 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. Nora Dryhurst, a journalist from London, brings her to the opening of the new bilingual school Scoil Éanna in Ranelagh, Dublin. It is here that she meets Plunkett for the first time. He is a friend of her brother-in-law, another of the future leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, Thomas MacDonagh, who is married to her sister Muriel.
Gifford’s growing interest in the Roman Catholic religion leads to the deepening of Gifford and Plunkett’s relationship as she begins to discuss Catholic mystical ideas with him. Plunkett proposes to her in 1915 and she accepts and takes formal instruction in Catholic doctrine. She is received into the Catholic Church in April 1916. The couple plans to marry on Easter Sunday that year, in a double wedding with his sister and her fiancé.
After the Rising, Gifford’s brother-in-law Thomas MacDonagh is shot with Patrick Pearse and Thomas Clarke by firing squad on May 3. That day, she hears that Plunkett is to be shot at dawn. She purchases a ring in a jeweler’s shop in Dublin and, with the help of a priest, persuades the military authorities to allow them to marry. She and Joseph are married on the night of May 3 in the chapel of Kilmainham Gaol, a few 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 paints pictures on the walls of her cell, including one of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child. 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. Her talent as an artist is her only real asset and her cartoons are published in various newspapers and magazines. She moves from one apartment to another and eats in the city-centre restaurants 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 Street with a balcony overlooking the sports ground of Trinity College.
Plunkett’s in-laws refuse to honour her husband’s will, in which he leaves everything to his widow. Legally, the will is invalid because there is only one witness, rather than the required two, and the marriage takes place after the will is made, automatically revoking it. For years she receives nothing, so she begins legal proceedings against her in-laws in 1934. The Count and Countess Plunkett settle out of court and she is paid £700, plus costs.
At around this time Plunkett joins the Old Dublin Society, where she meets the noted Irish harpsichord maker Cathal Gannon. When Cathal marries, she gives him and his wife Margaret a present of two single beds and a picture. From the late 1940s onwards, her health declines. In 1950 she is brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital. She convalesces in a nursing home, which she does not like, mainly because it restricts her freedom.
Grace Gifford Plunkett dies suddenly on December 13, 1955 in her apartment in South Richmond Street, Portobello. Her 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 close to the republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery.