Friday, April 20, 2018

MELTING PLASTIC HISTORY


Diarmuid Bolger
Click on any image for a larger version

Let me be clear from the outset. This is a marvellous series of lectures on Rebel Irish Women run by GPO Witness History, curated by James Curry and introduced by Diarmuid Bolger.

There has been a pile of work done on the place of women in the Irish revolutionary period in recent times - from the un-airbrushing of Elizabeth O'Farrell to a raft of biographies.

Hopefully it's not too late to redress the balance but the absence of these women from accepted history over the years is nothing short of a national scandal.



Felix Larkin

This month's talk was on Grace Gifford. And sure don't we all know who she was? Didn't she marry that Plunkett fellow in his cell the night before he was executed as a signatory of the 1916 proclamation? Pure romance. End of story.

Well, before I let Felix loose on the story, let me just say a word about the title of this blog post.

The history I was taught in school was plastic history, by which I mean embroidered myth. It was essentially propaganda rather than history and it conveniently skited over messy reality to embellish already over-polished glory.

Understandable, up to a point, maybe, given that I was educated by the Christian Brothers and was surrounded by a society imbued with a high level of tolerance for myth, particularly in its religious ethos.

I have drawn attention elsewhere to the "educational" compromise involved in the presentation of Brian Merriman's Midnight Court in the classroom.

Imagine any Christian Brother having to dwell on a pregnant Grace Gifford's marriage to Joe Plunkett in his cell in Kilmainham jail just prior to his execution.

And the same Brother having to deal with a barrage of questions from a potentially rowdy class of boys who had been taught that a girl's primary purpose in life was to ensnare a man, starting now.

So had our hero Joe succumbed to the temptress? Hard to see how either Grace or Joe would have come well out of that encounter.



So to the flesh of the matter.

Grace was essentially an artist. She had attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (incidentally around the same time as Gordon Brewster). She was a pupil of the artist William Orpen who thought highly of her and painted a number of portraits of her. She relied on her artwork for a living and, despite not being well off, she did much pro bono artwork for the revolutionary movement.

Later, she would quote this unpaid work when applying for a military pension, characterising it as income forgone in the cause.



Her family had thrown her out over her dalliance with, and subsequent marriage to, Joe. They did not approve of this unhealthy young man for their daughter, but there were, no doubt, other grounds, such as a mismatch between her parents' unionist convictions and her espousal of the nationalist cause, though she did not endorse violence in pursuit of that cause.

Her parents had a mixed marriage. The boys had been baptised Catholics and the girls Protestants after the fashion/requirements of the time, but all the children had been brought up Protestants. Grace had converted to Catholicism shortly before her marriage.



Anyway, there I was lapping all this up and taking photos like mad when I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Felix had broken into song, and a fine voice he has too:
Oh, Grace, just hold me in your arms and let this moment linger
They'll take me out at dawn and I will die
With all my love, I place this wedding ring upon your finger
There won't be time to share our love for we must say good-bye
An apparently well known ballad, immortalising Grace, written by Frank & Seán O'Meara in 1985.

Ruth Dudley Edwards in her book The Seven has a neat little piece of exegesis on this chorus, particularly on the last line.
The coy implication that their relationship was unconsummated is challenged by Gerry's testimony that she had uncontrovertable (sic) evidence that Grace had a miscarriage shortly after Easter while staying at Larkfield.
Gerry was Joe's sister.

Ruth, like Felix, is a myth buster and the online vituperation against her pouring out of hard core Sinn Féin/IRA has to be seen to be believed. So I just thought I'd give her an on-topic mention here to help her keep the faith.

If you're still with me, you can hear a moving version of the song recorded in Kilmainham Gaol for the 2016 centenary celebrationsM, or an earlier version by the inimitable, and sadly no longer with us, Jim McCann.

Mind you, this is as nothing compared to the impact of Felix's public secular singing debut on the GPO audience. Maith thú..



I can't quite remember, such was my state of shock, but I think the image above is of Felix softly hitting one of the high notes.

I've just realised that I have not so far included any of Grace's own work, so here goes.



This is her sketch of Joe done just a month after his execution.



And this is Douglas Hyde in her inimitable cartoon style.



Nearly finally, back to melting plastic history.

The decade of commemorations has seen a huge outpouring of "revisionist" research looking back on history through evidence-tinted spectacles.

This has exploded a host of plastic myths but it has also revealed the underlying humanity of many of the main players, the real environment in which they were operating and the real choices they faced.

In many cases, far from destroying the mythological character, it has made them more understandable and ordinary. That is not to deny them their extraordinary actions but it does make it easier to relate to them.

A quote from the French historian Pierre Nora, that Felix used in the talk, captures this well: “Memory installs remembrance within the sacred; history, always prosaic, releases it again”.

In the Q&A I asked Felix for his reaction to two recently available sources of evidence: the Bureau of Military History Witness Statements and the Military Pensions Applications.

The Witness Statements were taken many years after the events and clearly needed cross-corroboration to filter out the puff. The Pensions Applications on the other hand were more personal cries from the heart, admittedly with a purpose, but many of them are closer to the events to which they relate.

Felix felt he had got closer to Grace through her pension application.

You can check out Grace's Witness Statement, her Application for a Widow's Pension, and her Application for a Service Pension directly. She was awarded the former pension (£90pa in 1924 rising to £500pa in 1937) but was refused the latter pension.

Talks like this can run into unexpected moments of intimacy and emotion. On this occasion we had a contribution from the floor from a lady who turned out to be Grace's grand niece. She was the grand-daughter of Grace's sister Muriel who married another signatory, Thomas MacDonagh.



James Curry

I don't want to go without congratulating James Curry on his recent doctorate and on his curating of this excellent series of talks. A book in the future perhaps?



I'll leave you with this charming sketch of Grace by William Orpen. You'll have seen a version of it on the cover of Marie O'Neill's book on Grace in the second image in this post.

4 comments:

FELIX LARKIN said...


Thanks, Póló, for this generous post. The version of 'Grace' that I particularly like is this one by Róisín O and her siblings, done for the RTÉ concert for the 1916 centenery commemoration. FELIX

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuZPN4cWNpg

Póló said...

Thanks Felix.

I have substituted that version for the one by the Wolfe Tones which I had originally. The ideology behind that group can often be a bit too much for some people to stomach and far be it from me to spoil anyone's enjoyment of this moving ballad.

The Wolfe Tones once refused, many years ago in the Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney, to play a request for "Where have all the flowers gone?" which I had been asked me to hand up onstage. "We don't do them sort of songs". So much for the Peace Process.

And here's a clickable link to your preferred version. It's also in the body of the text above.

Vivion Mulcahy said...

Jim McCann did a lovely rendition of that song.

Póló said...

Thanks Vivion.

I was aware of the excellent Jim McCann version but Felix had first call as it was his talk.

I have added a link to Jim's version in the text and here:

Link