I’m a sucker for romance. I love stories of chance encounters, of people meeting up years after they first met. I love the thoughts of fate appearing as random chance. Movies like Sleepless in Seattle and Serendipity and Love Actually and Mamma Mia rank on my list of all time cheer-ups. [When love feels like magic, it’s called Destiny. When Destiny has a sense of humour, it’s called Serendipity.]
I’m the same with songs. I associate songs with people, with places, with memories. And once linked, that’s it – there’s no going back. And songs can’t be reused.
The Dubliners version of the song – Grace (penned in 1985 by brothers Frank and Seán O’Meara) has been an all time favourite of mine for years. I can’t count the number of times I badgered Joseph O’Reilly into singing it for me in Alaska. I knew that it was connected in some way with the 1916 Easter Rising but until recently had no idea of its true meaning.
Grace Gifford (the woman being sung to in the song) was quite a woman. She lived from 1888 to 1955 and was an active Republican, artist and cartoonist. She was all set to marry fiancé Joseph Mary Plunkett on Easter Sunday in 1916 but fate intervened. Plunkett was one of the 14 famously imprisoned and executed in May that year.
The day before he was due to be shot, Grace Gifford married Joseph Plunkett in the prison chapel at Kilmainham Gaol.
As we gather in the chapel here in old Kilmainham Jail
I think about these past few weeks, oh will they say we’ve failed ?
From our school days they have told us we must yearn for liberty.
Yet all I want in this dark place is to have you here with me.
For a man who knew he was at death’s door, what must it have felt like to get married? For a woman who knew that she’d never get to grow old with her husband, what must it have felt like to buy that wedding ring? The chorus never fails to reduce me to tears – and that was before I knew the story behind it.
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 so we must say goodbye.
At 28, suffering from terminal tuberculosis, Plunkett had gone to the GPO to be with his compatriots Pearse and MacDonagh. He was one of the signatories of the Irish Declaration of Independence.
Now I know it’s hard for you my love to ever understand
The love I bear for these brave men, my love for this dear land
So when Pádraig called me to his side down in the GPO
I had to leave my own sick bed, to him I had to go.
Plunkett’s fame as a poet lives on and perhaps his most famous poem, the one referenced in the song, is I see his blood upon the rose. The wedding ceremony was presided over by Fr Eugene McCarthy. Their witnesses were prison guards. Their congregation, twenty British soldiers with bayonets drawn. They got married. And then Grace left.
Now as the dawn is breaking, my heart is breaking too
On this May morn as I walk out, my thoughts will be with you
And I’ll write some words upon the wall so everyone will know
I loved so much that I could see the blood upon the rose.
Grace was allowed back the next morning when she was given ten minutes with Plunkett to say goodbye. He was executed on 4 May 1916.
Some years later, in 1923, Grace would be back again in Kilmainham, this time as a prisoner herself. She served three months for her part in the Civil War (on the anti-Treaty side). Looking through the keyhole into her cell, the picture she painted of the Madonna and Child is still visible and makes her even more real.
Now that I know the meaning behind the song, it’s even more poignant. And it still rates.