14 September 2017
The day Padraic Pearse
left a 1916 leader
waiting at the altar
During my visit to the Church of the Holy Name on Beechwood Avenue in Ranelagh earlier this week, I came across the story of the wedding that Padraic Pearse was supposed to attend as the best man of another 1916 leader – but that he forgot about on the day.
Thomas MacDonagh (1878-1916) was one of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation and the commandant of the battalion that fought in Jacob’s biscuit factory.
He was born Joseph McDonagh on 1 February 1878 in Cloughjordan, Co Tipperary, a son of Joseph McDonagh and his wife Mary (Parker), both teachers. He went to school in Rockwell College, near Cashel, and began studying for ordination as a missionary priest. He left, however, and taught first in Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, and Saint Colman’s College, Fermoy, Co Cork.
He then moved to Dublin, where he joined Padraic Pearse’s staff at Saint Enda’s School in 1908 as a teacher of French and English and assistant headmaster. In 1910, he received a BA at University College, Dublin (UCD), and a year later received his MA for his thesis, ‘Thomas Campion and the Art of Poetry.’
Thomas MacDonagh and Muriel Gifford (1884-1917) of 8 Temple Villas, Palmerston Road, became engaged in autumn 1911. Thomas had earlier experienced a romantic rejection from Mary Maguire, who later married his friend, Padraic Colum. Muriel was a member of the Church of Ireland, and her engagement to a Roman Catholic caused problems with her family, especially with her mother.
Muriel Enid Gifford was born on 18 December 1884 at 12 Cowper Road, Rathmines, was educated at Alexandra College, and trained as a student nurse in Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital until her health broke down.
Initially, the couple planned to marry in the Catholic University Church on Saint Stephen’s Church. But eventually they were married on 3 January 1912 in the temporary wooden chapel on Upper Beechwood Avenue that was about to be replaced by the Church of the Holy Name, then nearing completion.
Because Muriel was a member of the Church of Ireland, the ceremony was deliberately low-key. Although there would be no best-man on the day, Padraic Pearse was supposed to be a witness. But Pearse never turned up on the day, and a family tradition says a man cutting a hedge at a house on Beechwood Avenue was called on to stand in. However, the parish register shows the witnesses were two of Muriel’s sisters, Claude Gifford and Sydney Gifford.
Thomas was living at 72 Harcourt Street and Muriel was living with her parents at Temple Villas. He gave his occupation as ‘Professor.’ Before his marriage, he left Saint Enda’s and was appointed Lecturer in English at UCD.
The couple set up home in a flat above Hayes, Conyngham & Robinson, the chemist shop, at 32 Upper Baggot Stree. Their son Donagh was born in the Gifford family home at Temple Villas in November 1912.
When Donagh was baptised in the Church of the Three Patrons on Rathgar Road, Padraic Pearse walked into the church. It was a coincidence. Pearse did not know what was going on; he was cycling from Rathfarnham into the city centre, and had stopped at the church to pray. A delighted father walked up to Pearse, the best-man who never was, and said: ‘Well, you got here in time for the christening anyway.’
Their daughter Barbara was born on 24 March 1915. By then, Tom and Muriel family had moved to 29 Oakley Road, Ranelagh.
Around this time, Tom Clarke asked MacDonagh to plan the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. The graveside oration by Pearse made it a propaganda coup. When MacDonagh applied for the chair in History, English Literature and Mental Science (Philosophy) at University College Galway, his referees included Douglas Hyde, WB Yeats, George Noble, Count Plunkett and Pádraig Pearse.
Although MacDonagh is listed among the seven leaders in the Easter Rising in 1916, he was a late addition to that inner circle and did not join the secret military council that planned the rising until April 1916, just weeks before the rising. He was court martialled and was executed by firing squad on 3 May 1916. Muriel’s sister, Grace Gifford, married Count Joseph Mary Plunkett hours before his execution.
Emotionally devastated and estranged from her parents who disapproval of her husband's involvement in the rising, Muriel lived briefly with the Plunketts at Larkfield, Kimmage, and with her husband’s family in Thurles, Co Tipperary, before moving with her children to 50 Marlborough Road, a Plunkett family property in Donnybrook. On 3 May 1917, a year to the day after Thomas was executed, she became a Roman Catholic.
Two months later, the widowed Muriel died of heart failure while swimming off the South Strand in Skerries, Co Dublin on 9 July 1917.
She had gone to Skerries with her daughter Barbara and her sister Grace Plunkett, while her son Don was in hospital. The holiday party also included James Connolly’s widow Lillie and their children Roddy, Fiona and Ina, Eamon Ceannt’s widow Aine and their son, Ronan, and Michael Mallin’s widow Agnes and their five children, Seamus, Sean, Una, Joseph and Maura. They stayed at Miramar, a large holiday home on Strand Street, later demolished and now the site of the Rockabill Restaurant at 41 Strand Street.
On the afternoon of 9 July, Muriel decided to try to swim to Shenick Island, off the South Strand, leaving Barbara with Grace. At low tide, this small hilly island with its Martello Tower is accessible by foot; but when the tide is full, treacherous currents swirl around it. But reaching the island was a personal and a political goal for Muriel. A family story says she wanted to place a tricolour on the island out of the reach of the local Royal Irish Constabulary who had removed one from the beach.
In full view of the holiday party, Muriel got into difficulty and soon was lost to sight. A rowing boat commandeered by Noel Lemass set out for Shenick Island but failed to find her. Muriel’s body was found on the rocks near Loughshinny the following morning. A coroner’s inquest found there was no water in her lungs, indicating she did not drown but had died of heart failure brought on by exhaustion.
Her funeral procession took place from Miramar in Skerries to her home at Marlborough Road. After Mass in the Pro-Cathedral, she was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
For the two MacDonagh children, their parents had died within 14 months of each other. At first, they were taken care of by Katherine (Kate Wilson), the oldest of the Gifford sisters, and her sister Grace. Two months after Muriel’s death, her father Frederick Gifford died too, leaving his wife Isabella to care for the family.
But Thomas MacDonagh’s sister, Sister Francesca, a nun, objected to her niece and nephew being brought up by their Protestant grandmother and aunts and succeeded in having them placed with Roman Catholic foster families. It was a sectarian action that divided a family and that Muriel and Thomas would have disapproved of.
For a few years, I stayed at No 52 Marlborough Road, the house next to Muriel’s last home, when I spent weekends in Dublin while I was living in Wexford, and I was married from that house in 1974. But until this week, I never knew the story of her marriage, or how Padraic Pearse almost left her waiting at the altar in the church across the street from the house where my grandfather and great-grandfather had once lived.