The impact of conflict on families features as a theme regularly on Changed Utterly. We have learned of the occupation of Denis Johnston’s house in Ballsbridge and the tragic accounts of the Boyle and Kidd families. This week, the trend continues as we look at the Gifford family and in particular Muriel, who born in 1884 and was the elder sister of twins Grace and Edward. Like Grace, who married Joseph Plunkett on the eve of his execution, Muriel also married a leader of the Rising, writer and poet Thomas MacDonagh, who on 3 May 1916 faced execution – the same date as Grace and Joseph’s wedding.
Thomas MacDonagh was born in Cloughjordan in Co. Tipperary and took up employment in Patrick Pearse’s St Enda’s college in 1908, where he first met Muriel. Their unspectacular marriage ceremony took place on 3 January 1912. Patrick Pearse’s no-show as a witness resulted in a nearby gardener being called upon to attend the service.
A favourite of his in-laws, one of MacDonagh’s catchphrases ‘Who’ll wash up?’ was used regularly to dampen any fanciful plans a family member may have concocted. Would such a phrase have crossed MacDonagh’s mind as events unfolded during Easter week?
As a signatory of the Proclamation, MacDonagh’s fate was sealed after the Rising. Described by an officer as dying ‘like a prince’ MacDonagh’s execution left his wife to cope with two young children, Donagh and Barbara, with no means of support. Initially ostracised by her parents, due to MacDonagh’s prominent role in the Rising, Muriel and her young family spent time with her husband’s relations in Thurles and Nenagh before re-settling in Dublin.
After the posthumous publication of MacDonagh’s ‘Literature in Ireland’ in June 1916, ‘The poetical works of Thomas MacDonagh’ followed with Muriel’s support, in October, thus generating some much-needed income. Demand for MacDonagh’s writings shortly after the Rising, proved to be high. In Easter 1916 Yeats describes the poet as ‘coming into his force’.
Of course Muriel was not alone in coming to terms with the new financial reality. On a broader level The Irish Volunteers Dependents’ Fund (of which she was a committee member) and the Irish National Aid Association came into existence with the aims of promoting the national cause and fundraising for those nationalists who were left bereaved or destitute after the conflict. The organisations merged to form the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependents’ Fund and secured a two month rental of a seaside property, Miramar in Skerries, for the families of the executed men. Muriel and her daughter took advantage of the lease, only for disaster to strike. On July 9th 1917, Muriel, leaving Barbara in the care of James Connolly’s daughter Ina, attempted to swim to nearby Shenick Island. The alarm was raised after friends lost sight of her in the water. Volunteers including Noel Lemass, brother of future Taoiseach Seán, and actor Jimmy O’Dea attempted a rescue. Tragically her body was recovered early the following morning having suffered heart failure from exhaustion.
The poetical works of Thomas MacDonagh (1919 edition) and Literature in Ireland can be consulted in the Department of Early Printed Books.
Thank you to Greig Stevens for the image of Muriel Gifford’s plaque on the Skerries sea-pole memorial.
Assistant Librarian, Department of Early Printed Books and Special Collections