Countess Markiewicz

in addition to de Valera’s passport-linked protection, another of the leaders of the 1916 Uprising was spared execution. despite her role and the fact that she was summarily condemned with her male comrades, it was deemed inappropriate to execute a woman, and so Countess Markiewicz was merely sentenced to imprisonment. she was released in 1917 under a general amnesty, along with others whom the British locked up for their roles opposing British rule. she later was elected to the British House of Commons (first woman elected to the body, actually, though she never took her seat).

she studied art in London, and became involved in the suffrage movement there. following her marriage (to a Polish count) and return to Ireland, she also became heavily involved in nationalist politics, joining both Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (‘Daughters of Ireland’) in 1908. the following year, she established a para-military organization to instruct teens in the use of firearms. during the Easter Rising, she supervised the setting up of barricades around St. Stephen’s Green. the Countess, her commanding, and their men held out for six days, until the British showed them a copy of Pearse’s surrender order. in addition to her stint in Kilmainham for her role in the Uprising, she was jailed for anti-conscription activities and was still in jail when her colleagues held the first meeting of the Dáil Éireann, which declared the Irish Republic. she served as Minister for Labour for two and a half years (April 1919-January 1922) and was, consequently, the first female cabinet minister in Europe. she was the first woman appointed to a ministerial post in Ireland, and the only one until 1979.

she left the government with Eamon de Valera and other Anti-Treaty politicians, was jailed again in 1923 and led 92 other women on hunger strike before being released (within a month). she joined Fianna Fáil and was elected again to represent the party in the Dáil Éireann but died before taking her seat.

while I was traveling, I heard a fair bit about the comparative progressiveness of Irish women, and how many fought as ardently and stubbornly for rights as other freedom fighters. there wasn’t any one figure, however, who stuck out to me until I started writing up about the Easter Rising. our tour only allowed for a few words on some of the more well-known figures involved (Pearse, de Valera, Plunkett), but there remained a sense that the Countess was something out of the ordinary. now I know why.

the marriage of Joseph Plunkett & Grace Gifford

another story from Dublin. also with unhappy ending. our guide used this as the “personal interest” thread for those visitors not otherwise held rapt by the history of Kilmainham Gaol.

two of the leaders of the Easter Rising were Joseph Plunkett and his best friend Thomas MacDonagh. in 1908 both were involved in St. Edna’s School in Dublin, which was established by Patrick Pearse, a major figure in the events of 1916. it was through St. Edna’s that Joseph Plunkett met Grace Gifford and (by extension) her sister Muriel, whom MacDonagh later married. the two women were raised Protestant, and later converted to Catholicism (their father and mother were Catholic and Protestant, respectively, and according to custom, the sons were raised Catholic, daughters, Protestant).

Joseph and Grace got engaged in 1915, Grace began taking classes to convert, and did so in April 1916. they planned to wed on Easter Sunday (in a double ceremony with his sister and her fiance). obviously, things did not go to plan. upon learning that Joseph’s execution was slated for the morning of the 4th of May, Grace purchased a wedding ring form a Dublin jeweler’s and the pair wed during the night of the 3rd of May at the chapel in the jail (from whence the tour starts). they had ten minutes together, observed by British soldiers in one of the decrepit cells of the west wing, before she was forced to leave him. he was executed as condemned in the yard of the jail in the morning.

prior to meeting Joseph, Grace worked as a cartoonist and resumed her work to support herself following his execution. she supported Sinn Fein, and was elected to the party’s executive board in 1917. of course, involvement in politics during this period could be problematic, and Grace was arrested by Pro-Treaty forces and incarcerated in Kilmainham for several months during the Civil War. (she painted murals in her cell, one of which remains.)

as mentioned, her sister married Joseph Plunkett’s best friend and, consequently, was widowed at the same time as Grace. Muriel & Thomas had two children and, when Muriel died suddenly of heart failure while swimming in 1917. Grace sought custody of the children, and actually shared it with her sister Nellie until 1919, but was ultimately denied the opportunity to raise the children. after her release from prison, she remained understandably bitter towards the government of the Irish Free State, and moved from one apartment to another around Dublin living on the little money that she could earn as a cartoonist. in 1932, Eamon de Valera granted her a Civil List pension, which improved her material conditions somewhat. in 1934 she began legal proceedings against Joseph Plunkett’s father, who, because of the invalidation of Joseph’s will, was beneficiary of anything to which dependents or survivors were entitled. (the case was settled out of court and Grace received 700 pounds). Grace died in 1955 in a rented flat in Dublin, her life not having improved significantly in spite of the pension.

Eamon de Valera

one of the male leaders of the 1916 Uprising made it out of Kilmainham with his life. in fact, Eamon de Valera made it out of Kilmainham twice, after first being held by the British, and later by the Pro-Treaty Irish forces. he was saved from execution with the other 1916 leaders because of his American passport. he held dual citizenship because his mother was Irish; he was born in New York, but was sent back to Ireland to live with his mother’s family after the death of his father (who was not Irish).

he had a leading role in writing the Irish constitution and during the Civil War that followed independence and the treaty with Britain, he lead the Anti-Treaty forces (thus landing in Kilmainham the second time). moreover, he established what continues to be the largest political party in Ireland (Fianna Fáil). from the beginning of the Free State, de Valera served in national politics, as an MP, as chief minister of the Dail Eireann, as Taioseach (twice), and as President of Ireland (for fourteen years).

de Valera’s legacy is somewhat contested, particularly when contrasted with that of Michael Collins (who lead the Pro-Treaty forces during the Civil War). some historians have argued that de Valera’s actions during the Easter Rising were not constructive, that he wasn’t able to hold it together to effectively lead the men for whom he was responsible. Tim Pat Coogan, for one, argues that de Valera’s failures outweigh that which he accomplished in later years (and the man has written biographies of both de Valera and Collins). whatever he did or didn’t accomplish, and however it stacks up against other Irish political and military leaders, de Valera definitely holds a place in the Irish consciousness.

Easter Rising 1916

the 1916 Easter Rising was the first major uprising since the end of the 18th century, but it didn’t go well and was quashed within a week. popular opinion of the rebels at the time was not favorable; no one joined the cause and the British were able to quash the uprising entirely. they did produce and sign a proclamation of independence, which the signers knew might likely lead to their executions (which it did).

the general post office in the middle of O’Connell Street was the center of the action (though the taking of the Four Courts was crucial as well). there’s a good narrative of events here.

the leaders of the uprising were taken into custody at Kilmainham, tried, and promptly sentenced for execution.
one of the leaders sentenced to death — James Connolly — was wounded during the final battle at the GPO. consequently, he was never held at Kilmainham, but rather transported to a prison hospital, where he was held until the day of execution. a gunshot wound he’d received doing battle with the British became infected and doctors did not give him more than a few days to live. this did not appease the British, who determined that he must still be executed based on the order handed down. on the appointed day (12th May 1916), he was transported from the Royal Hospital by stretcher to the jail. whereas the other thirteen men executed at Kilmainham for their part in the uprising were marched to the far end of the yard, Connolly was in such bad shape that the British decided not to inflict the additional, excruciating pain of carrying him to the far end of the yard. instead, he was tied to a chair — as he could neither stand nor even sit up on his own power — and shot.

word of the executions got out and turned the tide of public opinion. despite the best efforts of the British, details made their way into newspapers and other publications. although the executions were carried out in the isolated hard labor yard (which could not be seen from elsewhere in the prison), the priests present to administer last rites were appalled by the treatment of the condemned (and particularly James Connolly) and felt no compunction about sharing the horrors they witnessed. it was these reports that re-cast and illuminated for the general Irish populace the ideals for which the rebels fought and died and, ultimately, which shifted public opinion towards demanding independence.

the far end of the yard in the second picture is where all but one of the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed. the final man, James Connolly, was executed on the spot directly to my right as I took this picture.

Kilmainham Gaol

the Kilmainham Gaol was the one thing, above all others, that I wanted to see while in Dublin. it was used for the Daniel Day-Lewis film “In the Name of the Father,” though the prison ceased to function as such in 1924, and a trip here seemed to cap my interest in the legacy of conflict in Ireland.

construction on the prison began in 1796 and construction of both wings reflects the prevailing beliefs in penal reform at the time. the west wing is dark and initially the hallways had no natural light. the cells were packed beyond capacity almost as soon as the prison opened, dozens of people sharing a single cell. unlike now, prisoners were neither segregated by age nor gender, and oftentimes entire families would be shut up together. despite the cramped quarters and general squalor of the prison, during the famine, Kilmainham and other jails provided an acceptable alternative to starving on the street. you could commit a petty crime and get locked up for a day or two, where you were guaranteed three square meals and shelter, more than you could say for living on and begging in the streets.

while the west wing represented one school of penal thought, the newer east wing represented another. many of the features of the newer wing are aimed at reform, rather than strict punishment. the “pan-optic” style (seen in the second photo) meant that you could see almost everything from any one point along the wall. relatively few guards could keep an eye on the large population (who were not allowed actually into the open area for any kind of recreation). the skylights were intended to draw the gaze of prisoners upwards — to remind them of the appropriate source of inspiration to repent for their crimes. the windows in the cells were located high up on the walls, and the inside of the peep hole was shaped to look like an eye: you were always being watched and you couldn’t forget where they expected you to turn for “help.”

much of Kilmainham’s notoriety stems from its famous prisoners. the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising were held in the west wing, and executed in the hard labor yard. other nationalist prisoners, including Eamon de Valera, were held in the prison twice. following the Treaty with the British that established the Irish Free State, the Pro-Treaty forces imprisoned members of the Anti-Treaty faction, many of whom they had fought alongside during the war for independence.

after the prison was abandoned, it fell into quite a state of disrepair until it was decided to turn the facility into a museum investigating the history of the prison, and the evolution of nationalism in Ireland. the OPW now operates the facility and runs the tours. our guide was quite good and knew far more about the facility than what she covered on the tour. it was refreshing after a couple of other anemic, lamely-scripted tours of facilities steeped in history. it was also rather interesting to see her react to questions from people who had no clue about the history of the Troubles, or about the political history of relations between Ireland and Britain. after going in to some detail about how poverty and class divisions are at the root of the Troubles, one person (for whom English was not a first language) came up to ask “so, why is it that there’s a problem between Catholics and Protestants?” she took a breath, and diplomatically explained that, in fact, it’s nothing to do with religion. at all.

few more stories about Kilmainham and its prisoners in upcoming posts.