Saturday, March 9, 2013

A Beautiful Lenten Poem and the Sad, Sad Tale Of the Irishman Who Wrote It

Joseph Mary Plunkett
 (Nov 21 1887 - May 4, 1916)
The Story of Joseph Mary Plunkett

Born to a wealthy society family in Dublin at the end of the nineteenth century, it seems that Joseph Plunkett  should have lived a life of ease and pleasure, but it turned out to be anything but.  Even as a child, his life was difficult, marked by the misery of tuberculosis.  His mother, unwilling to accept the seriousness of her child's illness, conceded to his spending a few years in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean and North Africa, but he otherwise did not receive the health care that would have benefitted him throughout his adulthood 

Grace Gifford Plunkett
He received his higher education at the Catholic University School, followed by Belvedere College in Dublin where he was instructed by the Jesuits, and then Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, where he was exposed to some military knowledge through the Officers' Training Corps.  A poet and journalist, Joseph was decidedly a man of letters and a devout Catholic, and perhaps as a natural extension of these characteristics, he developed a consuming passion for his Irish heritage -- despite the fact that the British rule in Ireland at that time discouraged any kind of Irish culture or nationalism. It was Joseph's stubborn Irish patriotism that ended his life in difficulty and strife.

In his early twenties Joseph joined the Gaelic League, where he met fellow Irish nationalist and poet, Thomas MacDonagh.  The two of them joined the newly-formed Irish Volunteers, then, later, in 1915 they both joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood.  This nationalist group sent Joseph to Germany to negotiate with the German government on behalf of Ireland, in the fight for freedom from the British crown. Joseph was successful in negotiating a shipment of arms from the Germans to be delivered into Irish hands before the uprising planned for Easter the following year.  

Joseph and Mary's wedding immediately before Joseph's
 A leader of the cause, it was Joseph's negotiations and strategy that were used in the insurrection -- and thus, it has to be admitted that he may have been responsible in part for the failure of the attempt, though he almost missed the uprising entirely (and it may have simply been doomed from the start).  Shortly before the planned skirmish, Joseph had to be hospitalized due to a recurrence of  tuberculosis.  Just before Easter, he had an operation on his neck glands, and was barely able to make it out of bed to join in the fight, but he was determined to not be left out.  In his weakened conditioned, Joseph had to allow Michael Collins and other heroes of the uprising to act in his stead while he helped direct operations from the General Post Office in Dublin. The rebellion started on Easter Monday, but by the following Saturday, out-manned and out-armed, the Irish Brotherhood were forced to surrender.

The British held Joseph Mary Plunkett for court martial in Kilmainham Gaol (in Dublin) following the surrender. Not surprisingly, the military court found him guilty and sentenced him to death.  Hours before being executed by firing squad, Joseph was permitted to marry his sweetheart, Grace Gifford, a convert to Catholicism.  Joseph was only 28 years old.  Grace's sister, Muriel, had also been converted years before and married Joseph's best friend, Thomas MacDonagh. MacDonagh was also executed for his roll in the Easter Uprising.
Thomas MacDonagh and his wife Muriel had two children,
Donagh born in 1912,  and Barbara, who was just a year old
 when her father was executed by the British.

Later on, Joseph's brothers, Oliver and Jack Plunkett (who were also involved in the Easter Rising)  became influential members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).  It was not until December 1922 after much bloodshed and heartache, that Ireland finally received its freedom from Great Britain, but it was the Easter Rising of 1916 that got the ball rolling.  It was at Easter 1916 that the Volunteers loudly and explicitly declared themselves a "republic." Then after losing over four hundred people to the unsuccessful Easter insurrection, the reactions of the British -- the executions of the Irish leaders, the arrest of thousands of suspected rebels throughout Ireland, then the imposition of martial law -- galvanized the Irish people to action, and turned the eye of the world to their plight.  It was only a matter of time before the United Kingdom had to accept that it could no longer be united with (most of) Ireland.

 In the end, Joseph Mary Plunkett's part in winning Ireland's independence has been recognized and heralded by the nation he died for.  The main railway station in Waterford City, Ireland, is named after him, as well as the Joseph Plunkett tower in Ballymun and the Plunkett barracks in the Curragh Camp, Cty Kildare.

In my opinion it was for a noble cause that Joseph Mary offered his life -- but, it's his poetry inspired by his beloved Faith that Joseph took with him to God the day he died.

A couple more of the poems of Joseph Mary Plunkett:

I saw the Sun at Midnight
I saw the Sun at midnight, rising red,
Deep-hued yet glowing, heavy with the stain
Of blood-compassion, and I saw It gain
Swiftly in size and growing till It spread
Over the stars; the heavens bowed their head
As from Its heart slow dripped a crimson rain,
Then a great tremor shook It, as of pain—
The night fell, moaning, as It hung there dead.
O Sun, O Christ, O bleeding Heart of flame!
Thou givest Thine agony as our life’s worth,
And makest it infinite, lest we have dearth
Of rights wherewith to call upon Thy Name;
Thou pawnest Heaven as a pledge for Earth
And for our glory sufferest all shame.

To Grace
On the morning of her christening, April 7th, 1916

The powerful words that from my heart
Alive and throbbing leap and sing
Shall bind the dragon’s jaws apart
Or bring you back a vanished spring;
They shall unseal and seal again
The fount of wisdom’s awful flow,
So this one guerdon they shall gain
That your wild beauty still they show.
The joy of Spring leaps from your eyes,
The strength of dragons in your hair,
In your young soul we still surprise
The secret wisdom flowing there;
But never word shall speak or sing
Inadequate music where above
Your burning heart now spreads its wing
In the wild beauty of your Love.

*If you read carefully through all of Joseph's poems,
you come to know the man.  How is it that our world
is so weak and apathetic now compared to a century ago?
 How is it we seem to have lost the wisdom, strength,
faith and spirit of men like Joseph Mary Plunkett?
Or, if it still exists, where is it?

The Irish Ballad about the marriage of Joseph and Grace,
Sung by Anthony Kearns.


As we gather in the chapel here in old Kilmanhaim Jail
I think about these past few weeks, oh, will they say we failed?
From our school days they have told us we must yearn for Liberty,
But all I want in this dark place is to have you here with me.


Oh, Grace just hold in your arms and let this moment linger.
They'll take me out at dawn and I will die.
With all my love I'll place this wedding ring upon your finger;
There won't be time to share our love, so we must say good bye.

Now, I know it's hard for you, my love, to ever understand
The love I have for these brave men, my love for this dear land,
But when Padric called me to his side down in the GPO
I had to leave my own sick bed; to him I had to go.


Now, as the dawn is breaking my heart is breaking too;
As I walk out on this may morn, my thoughts will be of you.
So I write these words upon the wall so everyone will know
I loved so much that I could see his blood upon the rose.


(More particulars about the Easter Rising can be found here -- and Irish Independence, in a nutshell, here.)


anne p said...

As soon as I read the poem, I knew who'd written it.. Great song too...

Natalie said...

Hey Lisa! I nominated you for a Liebster award! You can check it out at my blog if you want to play along. =)

Lisa said...

Right, Ann! You, of all people, would know well the Irish poets! :0)

Natalie ~ Thank-you! I haven't gotten an award in an age! You are so kind! This looks like a fun one, too!