Book Review: Unlikely Rebels – The Gifford Girls and the Fight for Irish Freedom

Unlikely Rebels, The Gifford Girls and the Fight for Irish Freedom

By Anne Clare,

Mercier, 2011

Reviewer: Mairead Carew

Unlikely Rebels The Gifford Girls and the Fight for Irish Freedom is a well written account of the role which the Gifford sisters – Grace, Muriel, Nellie,Ada, Kate and Sydney – were to play in 1916 and the struggle for independence.


They were ‘unlikely rebels’ as they were the daughters of Unionist parents, Frederick and Isabella Gifford. The sisters were raised Protestant but four of them subsequently converted to Catholicism. The Gifford parents disapproved of their daughters’ political activities and in particular the marriage of Grace to Joseph Plunkett, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. Indeed Isabella Gifford was ultimately to disinherit three of her daughters – Grace, Nellie and Sydney.


She was described by Nellie as ‘a hen who had hatched out ducklings.’ This is the real strength of this book – the human price paid for the struggle for independence.


However, the author is inclined to labour the point about her disrespect for revisionist history and that ‘It was the easiest thing in the world to set aside revisionists and happily associate with those who identified with the patriotic dead.’

The real strength of this book is showing the human price paid for the struggle for independence.

It is not within the remit of this article to argue this point, but the writing of history is not value-free and is always written from a particular perspective and within the context of the current cultural and political milieu. That said, the author adopts a compassionate and empathetic view of her subjects which not only brings them to life, but elucidates their possible motivations for their political activities and the thinking of the times which influenced them.


The reader is introduced to TempleVillas, the ten-roomed residence in Rathmines, where the Gifford children were reared and their nursemaid, Bridget Hamill. It was she and the servants who ‘passed on the deep resentments of a race never completely conquered, even after 700 years,’ while working in what was a typical Dublin Victorian household of the Ascendancy Protestant class. Their education is described bySydneyas follows: ‘It was a well-kept secret in my school that we lived inIreland, or had any history of our own at all.’


The best known of the sisters was Grace, who tragically married Joseph Plunkett, on the eve of his execution on 3 May 1916. Indeed, the original intention of the author was to tell the story of Grace but she decided that the story of the whole family was ‘well worth recording’. However, Grace still tends to dominate the book even though much use is made of the papers of Nellie Gifford-Donnelly.


Use is also made of Sydney’s memoir, entitled The Years Flew By. Clare’s book is a contribution to the cultural history of that period and also to women’s political history. For example, Grace, Muriel, Nellie andSydney attended AE’s literary salon withFrederick. There they met Casimir and Constance Markievicz, the writers James Stephens and Padraic Colum, the painter Sarah Purser, the Yeats family and Maud Gonne.


The Gifford sisters were politicized through the medium of culture and were part of, according to the author ‘this Celtic buzz’. Thomas MacDonagh, who married Muriel Gifford, produced plays with Joseph Plunkett in the Irish language. MacDonagh wore Celtic dress, which included a kilt, brat and ‘Tara’ brooch, which scandalised respectable people in Rathmines.

The Gifford sisters, who came from the ‘Ascendancy’ class, were politicised through the medium of culture

The author notes that ‘Shamefully, the figure of Nurse O’Farrell was airbrushed out in the familiar photograph of Pearse surrendering’ in 1916. However, she redresses this state of affairs somewhat in elucidating, through the varied lives of the Gifford sisters, an often neglected aspect of Irish history. They had been involved in the 1913 strikes, the anti-conscription campaign, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War. Nellie had served under Commandant Michael Mallin and Countess Markievicz at the Royal College of Surgeons. Her duties included bringing medicine and food and carrying dispatches. She lost her job as a result of her political activities.


She was also involved in anti-British activities in America, despite the fact that two of her brothers were in the British army. Her sister Adabecame ‘Ireland’s first self-appointed spy’ in America. Sydneyhad worked as a ‘propagandist journalist’ for Séan MacDiarmada’s Irish Freedom. She also served on the Sinn Féin executive.


She wrote for An Phoblacht in the 1920s. After 1916 Grace continued publishing her political cartoons and was elected to the Sinn Féin executive in 1917. Kate was appointed as registrar of the first Dáil national loan. The Gifford sisters were all anti-treaty. Later, Nellie was ‘the secretary and moving spirit’ of the 1916 and War of Independence exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland.


An insight into the social history of the period is also provided. For example, a description is given of Nellie Gifford’s job as ‘an itinerant cookery instructress’ under the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction forIreland. She could only get accommodation in cottages as the ‘big houses’ did not take lodgers. She got herself dismissed from her accommodation as a result of her attendance at a local wake, which was frowned on by society at that time.

As well as the nationalist narrative, the book provides insights into the social and personal histories of the period

Occasionally the tone of the book is gossipy. For example, the marriage of Grace and Joseph Plunkett is described as ‘the wedding of the year in 1916.’ There’s a description of the clothes of Count Plunkett (Joseph’s father and Director of theNationalMuseum) when he was obliged to meet the Viceroy at the museum. An ex-girlfriend of MacDonagh, Mary Maguire who married Padraig Colum, the poet, and friend of MacDonagh and Pearse, is described as having been at boarding school with Rose Fitzgerald who married Joseph Kennedy and gave birth to JFK.


A story is included about the wedding of Thomas MacDonagh and Muriel Gifford, when Patrick Pearse was meant to be a witness but didn’t turn up and a man cutting a hedge stood in for him. However, these anecdotes and connections do not detract from the story and give it a humanity, often perhaps missing from more academic accounts of the revolutionary period. Nellie Gifford herself wrote that ‘Data is a cold affair, for the professors. History will be cold on the warm, human motive that impelled them [the Irish rebels] towards their target, or the odd kinks, loves and capabilities – all in short that make the man live on.’ Or woman!

 Mairead Carew is an historian and archeologist. She is the author of Tara and the Ark of Covenant, a history of archeology and rival cultural nationalisms in early 20th century Ireland. You can read the review of this book here.


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