WHEN I began working on the biography of Joseph Plunkett, I felt as though I had known him all my life — the humorous, scholarly, gregarious, shy, mystical, practical grand-uncle whom I could have known but didn’t.
A foreign army stole him and shot him for his desire for democracy, equality and liberty.
I hoped I would find something of the Joe my grandmother, his sister, spoke about, particularly at family dinnertime, with such affection. And, indeed, I found him a thinker, a worker, a young man (only 28 when he was shot) of great contrasts.
Joseph Plunkett had glandular tuberculosis from early childhood. It attacked him frequently throughout his life and he would have to remain in bed until he recovered but, in spite of this, he lived a life far larger than could have been expected.
The fact that he recorded so much of it in diaries, notebooks, speculations on life and, of course, poetry was a gift to me as his biographer and I found I really enjoyed his company. The combination of the extensive accounts in my grandmother, Geraldine Plunkett Dillon’s and Joseph Plunkett’s papers create a very rich sense of their time.
He was always known as Plunkett or Joe and was close to his siblings, three brothers and three sisters. They, in turn, spoke of him, not sentimentally, but with real love and affection. He liked women, having a young man’s longing for all that the company of women could bring. He conversed, flirted and fell in love with all the pain and passion of his age.
Two sisters and two brothers were also involved in the Rising in different ways, and his brothers Jack and George were in the GPO with him. They were also sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to hard labour.
In fact, the family’s commitment to independence meant that eight of the nine Plunketts were jailed or shot for their politics between 1916 and 1923.
It is clear from Plunkett’s writings that such considerations as the type of government to espouse, the benefits of socialism (a dirty word at the time) and universal religious freedom were carefully weighed.
In his own diaries, he disappears when his illness overcomes him but his sister Geraldine gives accounts of what he went through, how hard it was for him and how books in great numbers rescued him when he was well enough to read.
This makes him a most unlikely candidate as primary military strategist for the 1916 Rising but, in fact, most of the strategy used was of his devising. His reading included books on logistics, tactics and new military ideas such as taking over buildings which could not be overlooked, drawing your opposing forces to you, using radio to transmit word of the event to the world and using every possible device for secrecy.
Very many things went wrong, of course, and they have been comprehensively discussed, but many of the areas of action succeeded so well that the English army officers believed there were thousands of Irish Volunteers in places, where there were hundreds or less. The appeal of Plunkett’s plans strongly influenced James Connolly’s decision to take part in the Rising.
The marriage of Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Gaol the night before he was executed became an international story almost overnight, and has remained so ever since.
Described as romantic and recounted over and over again, it became perhaps the best-known story of the Rising. This was undoubtedly difficult for the other participants who had also suffered for the cause and put so much of themselves into what seemed at the time to be a failed enterprise.
I find it hard to see their wedding as romantic; for the engaged couple, only together for a few months, it must have been painful and sordid in the extreme.
They were not permitted to touch each other or to speak to each other. They were surrounded by men with guns in the half dark and their witnesses were two soldiers they didn’t know.
They were parted as soon as it was finished. Grace was given a place to rest in a nearby house and brought back to see Plunkett before he went to his death at dawn.
They had 10 minutes in his cell which was full of soldiers with fixed bayonets. Nothing was private and they hardly knew what to say to each other. There were none of the love phrases which had filled their letters.
No other member of his family was allowed to visit Joe before his death.
Joseph Plunkett, the youngest signatory to the Proclamation of Independence, had no wish to die, but he was already dying of tuberculosis when he went out to be shot on May 4, 1916.
He ended a life of extraordinary courage with extraordinary calm.