Grace Gifford and the Abortion Debate

(Unpublished, 2016)

Written by Sean and Frank O’Meara in 1985 and sung by the Dubliners among others, listening to Grace for the first time might bring you to tears. It recalls the circumstances of the marriage between 1916 revolutionary and poet Joseph Mary Plunkett and the artist Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Jail on the eve of his execution.

Plunkett explains to Grace how love of country and comrade compelled him to rise from his sick bed and join the Rising. He reflects on its failure, but consoles himself with the momentary bliss of their romance in a churning chorus: ‘Oh Grace just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger’.

The song changes key in the last verse as Plunkett is left alone with his thoughts. Overwhelmed he closes with the lines: ‘I loved so much that I could see His Blood upon The Rose’, a reference to a religious poem written by Plunkett: ‘I see His Blood upon The Rose’.

Just as the song ends on a religious note similarly the Irish revolution developed a decidedly Catholic hue after 1916, with the leaders soon being hailed as latter-day saints. In Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland 1890-1923 Roy Foster writes: ‘Very rapidly, the language of mystical Catholicism fused with national purism in a new – or ancient – revolutionary rhetoric.’

Revealingly, inside the GPO rosaries were said communally every night and confessions heard. In the aftermath independent-minded figures such as James Connolly, Countess Markievicz and Roger Casement converted to Catholicism. This had important repercussions for the feminism, secularism and socialism that animated participants in the preceding cultural revival.

Moreover, women who had previously played prominent roles were reduced to subservience during the Rising, an ominous foretaste for their position in the independent state as both Cuman na nGaedhal (later Fine Gael) and Fianna Fail usually acceded to the wishes of the Catholic Church on moral questions.

By the early 1920s observers were already noting the ‘sombre bodyguard of priests’ surrounding de Valera as he ascended political platforms. His 1937 Constitution (and ours) commits the state to ensuring ‘that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home’.

Today the constitutional issue of most concern to many feminists and others is the prohibition against abortion on demand which leads on average to twelve women travelling to Britain every day for the procedure.

The story of Grace Gifford might prove instructive on this issue. After her fleeting marriage Grace seemed to have led a fairly lonely and impoverished existence, illustrating cartoons for fringe Republican publications. Her husband’s family refused to recognise the validity of Joseph’s will, and only in 1932 when de Valera’s government granted her a pension was she able to live in a measure of comfort.

It is possible that the animosity of the family can be traced to Grace being pregnant with a child other than the infirm Joseph’s before her marriage. She may have had an abortion.

In her private papers Joseph’s sister Geraldine reveals that ‘Various friends kept telling me that I must not let her go [to America} because if she had a child it would make a greater scandal.’

The Castle had informed her that Grace was pregnant but that Joseph was not the father. She visited Grace and found she was in bed and beside her ‘a big white chamberpot was full of the remains of an abortion etc.’

No words were passed between the two women but Geraldine consulted another visitor who agreed with what she had seen but ‘did not know if Grace had induced or not’. Geraldine also claimed that Grace and her sister had shocked the republican hero Rory O’Connor by demanding that he spend a night with them.

It is plausible that the Castle were attempting to cause a rift between Grace and the Plunkett family but there is no reason to disbelieve the account of the abortion or miscarriage. The shame of illegitimacy might have caused Grace to expose herself to the danger of an abortion.

The sex lives of the participants in the 1916 is not a subject-matter that is commonly exhumed, but the prevailing mores did not preclude extra-marital encounters. As Ireland digs deeper into the revolutionary shrine more unwelcome skeletons might emerge.

In particular there has been debate around the sexuality of the leader of the uprising Padraig Pearse. There is a prevailing view among historians that his orientation was homosexual which was obviously not alluded to for most of the state’s history.

But of grave concern is that he may have used his position as a school headmaster in St Enda’s for exploitative behaviour. There is what Roy Foster describes as ‘a disturbing implication’ in the final verses of his poem ‘Little Lad of the Tricks’ that an encounter with a student perhaps occurred. The poet addresses a ‘child of the soft red mouth’ and found that ‘there is fragrance in your kiss / That have I have not found yet / In the kisses of women.

It is said that you should avoid meeting your heroes. One wonders whether this will be the case as Ireland confronts the human frailties evident in the birth pangs of this state.

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