By Aileen Atcheson
In many cases heroes are expected to have heroic wives as well. This was true of Thomas McDonagh and Muriel Gifford. Thomas was interested in literature, wrote plays and got a teaching job in Pearse’s school, St. Enda’s.
He met the Gifford sisters through his friendship with Frederick Gifford, a brother of the six Gifford sisters. Muriel started to correspond with Thomas though their friendship was conducted in a claddestine way. They met in the museum, the Sinn Féin Co-op’s People’s Bank and places where they had mutual friends. Three years after they had first met he gave Muriel an engagement ring.
Thomas’ sister, Mary, was a nun in the Sisters of Charity Convent at John’s Lane. Maud Gonne had managed to set up a school dinner scheme for the children at this school and Muriel, her sister, Grace, Countess Markievicz, helped prepare them. In November Muriel decided it was time to inform her parents of her engagement. Her mother took the news very badly.
She feared others of her family would marry Catholics as her daughter Katie had done six years previously. This was strange as her own marriage was mixed. She was a Protestant and her husband was a Catholic. Eventually she came to like him and he and Muriel were married in 1912. Pádraig Pearse was to be best man but forgot about it. The man cutting the hedge near the chapel acted as best man instead.
Thomas was working with Joseph Plunkett to establish a new theatre at this time. Joe Plunkett’s health was poor and he was needed to have the theatre company go ahead. They rehearsed in Countess Plunkett’s building in Hardwicke Street. Muriel was pregnant and was unwell. Doctor Kathleen Lynn had her moved to hospital. Having been released from hospital her baby son was born in Temple Villas, her old home, in November. They called the baby Donncha.
They eventually moved to a small house in Ranelagh near Muriel’s parents’ house. In 1913 Dublin became a city in turmoil because of the lockout. The huge strike affected everybody practically and Thomas became a member of the Industrial Peace Committee. This organisation tried to resolve the situation. He was present when the police attacked the crowd gathered to hear Jim Larkin speak from outside the Imperial Hotel. His sister-in-law Nellie Gifford was the young woman with Larkin when he spoke from the hotel balcony. She was not identified with enough certainty to be arrested.
Thomas was enrolled as a member of the Volunteers. He studied British military training manuals and guns from Germany were eventually landed at Howth.
Muriel have birth to their second baby in March 1915. She was named Bairbre, after the patron saint of artillery men. He was involved in organising the funeral for O’Donovan Rossa, who had died in New York. From mid April he did not sleep in their own house, detectives had been watching the house for some time. On Easter Sunday he returned to the house at night. When he left after a few hours he said to Muriel “I may or may not be back to see you tomorrow. If possible I will come in the morning.” She never saw him again.
It was Thomas McDonagh who issued the order to the four Dublin Battalions of the Volunteers to parade for inspection on Easter Sunday morning. Thomas’s commandant of the 2nd Battalion took up position to the west of St. Stephen’s Green as far as Jacob’s factory. Another section took over Boland’s Mill and Bakery under Éamon de Valera. Thomas was joined by Manor McBride. When he met Thomas McDonagh he was heard to say “Here I am, if I’m any use to you”.
A few women were at this post too. They looked after meals and tried to take care of the wounded. Thomas remained cheerful during their week of fighting. By Friday it appeared the whole city was in flames. On Saturday Pádraig Pearse presented his handwritten surrender to Brigadier General Lowe. With him was Elizabeth O’Farrell, a member of Inghinidhe na hÉireann. She then went to the other garrisons with the surrender documents. At Jacob’s factory Thomas McDonagh argued his men could hold on for another week and a peace conference was being held in Europe. Ireland might be able to attend the conference.
Eventually he capitulated. Some of the men surrendered their arms to the British. Others just blended into the crowd. A British officer saw the women over the road. Thomas and John McBride could have got away but didn’t. The first to be shot was Pádraig Pearse, on Wednesday 3rd May. Muriel got word on Tuesday that Thomas was to be shot. She was told that if she rang the barracks that she would be allowed to see him. The only neighbour on the road who had a telephone refused to allow her use it.
Father Aloysius, a Capuchin, who was giving last rites to the prisoners, tried to reach her. He didn’t have the correct paperwork and was turned back from the roadblocks erected across the city. Thomas’ sister, Sister Francesca, was allowed to visit him. She was nearby in Basin Lane Convent. He wrote to Muriel that night.
On Wednesday Muriel went to Belgrave Road after the curfew to tell Geraldine Plunkett, now Ms. Dillon, Thomas was dead and Joe was to shot the following morning. Father Aloysius eventually was able to visit Muriel and tell her of her husband’s last hours. Following her husband’s execution Muriel was ordered to remain at home. General Maxwell, Commander of the British troops said she looked such a pathetic figure in mourning clothes, she would incite too much sympathy.
In the summer of 1917 a special fund was set up to give a seaside holiday to the children of the men who had died in the Rising. A house in Skerries was rented. A cook was engaged and two women cleaned and prepared the house. Lilly Connolly brought three of her children, Ina, Roddy and Fiona. Agnes Mallin brought Séamus, Séan, Úna, Joe and baby Maura. Áine Ceannt brought Ronan while Grace Plunkett arrived with her sister-in-law Fiona Plunkett. Muriel McDonough had had further trouble that year when five year old Don contracted TB and was hospitalised.
She arrived with her toddler, Barbara, known as Babilly. The children had great fun the first few days. They played games, built sandcastles and put a republican flag on top. The police removed it and Grace followed them and got it back. Muriel said she was going to take it where it would not be removed so easily. She would swim out to Shenick Island and erect it there. She had sent cards to Donagh from Skerries saying she intended to swim to that island.
Monday 9th July was a fine day and the children were playing on the beach. Muriel said she would go for a swim and asked Ina Connolly to mind Babilly. “I will not”, said Ina, “unless you promise not to swim to the island.” Muriel said “I promise”. She entered the sea. After a while Séamus Mallon ran up to “Miramir”, the house where they were staying, to tell the adults Ms. McDonagh was miles out. The adults were slow to take any heed of him. Muriel was a strong swimmer and had won prizes for swimming down the years. Áine Ceant felt uneasy and went upstairs to look out the window. There was no trace of Muriel and a crowd was gathering on the strand.
Babilly was taken into the house. Grace got a boat to go to Muriel’s assistance. Noel Lemass, a brother of Seán Lemass, was staying on the island recuperating from injuries inflicted on him during the Rising. He rowed the boat with an English officer who was visiting Skerries. Muriel’s cap was visible for a while, then they lost sight of it. When the boat reached Shenick no trace of her could be found. A yacht in the harbour joined in the search. The search proved futile.
A wire was sent to Countess Plunkett and others travelled from Dublin to join the vigil. At eight o’clock the following morning a policeman called to “Miramar” to say Muriel had been found. A Mr. Mooney was on the strand at about seven o’clock and saw the body at the base of the cliffs. He brought her back to the house in his cart.
Muriel’s body was laid out in the garage at “Miramar” and a postmortem was performed. An inquest was then held and it was found no water had entered her lungs. She had died from heart failure brought on by exhaustion. Her body was taken from Skerries to Dublin. The funeral procession went from Dublin’s Amiens St. Station to the Pro Cathedral. On 12th July her coffin was taken to Glasnevin for burial. Her son, Don, was in hospital and was taken by a nurse to look out the window.
He watched the horses with their black plumes but didn’t realise until later it was his mother’s funeral cortège that was passing by. He and his sister were orphans. Muriel’s older sister, Katie Wilson, was a childless widow. She took the children to live with her in Fairview. Don was taken there when he was released from hospital. TB had distorted his spine. Shortly after, a dispute arose about the children’s future.
A subcommittee was set up to deal with the McDonagh minors. They tried to interpret Thomas McDonagh’s last letter to Muriel. He wrote he hoped the country would treat them as wards. He stated he had devoted himself too much to National work and too little to making money to leave them a competence.
Katie received a letter from the committee telling her the future of the children was their remit. Legal action was threatened and protracted negotiations followed. Action was delayed because of the children’s grandfather’s death, (Frederick Gifford). His estate was granted probate and the children’s bequest had to be determined before arrangements for their upkeep could be decided. He made some provision for the children but their grandmother, Isabella, kept contact with them, though she played no active role in their upbringing. She died in 1932.
The children remained with their aunt in Fairview until one evening during 1919. Don was eight and Barbara was just four. They were taken from outside the house and whisked off in a car driven by one of the McDonagh’s. They were driven to the home of their father’s sister, Helen, in Co. Clare. Helen was married to a retired RIC man and most of their children were grown up.
There were two younger cousins who were play mates for them. Nellie and Sydney Gifford were in America at this time. Things would probably have been different had they been in Ireland. Nellie and Joseph Donnelly, née Gifford, returned from America in 1920. They lived in Joseph’s home place in Omagh.
An agreement was worked out for the children in 1920, Joseph Donnelly and John McDonagh were named as trustees for them. Nellie had a daughter, May, that year. He relationship with Joseph broke down and she returned to Dublin with her little girl. Joseph Donnelly remained a trustee for the children until Don became of age in 1930. Don studied at University College Dublin, then he went to the Sorbonnein, Paris. After this he returned to Dublin to King’s Inns and was called to the Bar in 1935. In 1934 he had married Maura Smyth, she was epileptic and drowned in the bath in 1939. She left him with two small children.
Donagh was made a District Judge on the Western Circuit. He remarried in 1943. His sister-in-law, Nuala, was his new wife and they had two children, Niall and Barbara. He wrote plays and published volumes of poetry and was a popular radio broadcaster. His sister, Barbara, married the Abbey actor Liam Redmond. They had four children. One of their daughter’s Lucille, writes and lectures in various schools around the country. She has had books published and teaches part-time.
Don wrote about his aunt Grace in the Irish Press. He thought what would be remembered most about her was the scene in Kilmainham Jail where she married Joseph Plunkett by the light of two flickering candles. Joe would be shot in another few hours. Muriel was certainly a heroine, wife of a hero.