Authors: Marita Conlon-McKenna
With the threat of the First World War looming, tension simmers under the surface of Ireland.
Bright, beautiful and intelligent, the Gifford sisters Grace, Muriel and Nellie kick against the conventions of their privileged, wealthy Anglo-Irish background and their mother Isabella's expectations.
As war erupts across Europe, the spirited sisters soon find themselves caught up in Ireland's struggle for freedom.
Muriel falls deeply in love with writer Thomas MacDonagh, artist Grace meets the enigmatic Joe Plunkett â both men leaders of the Rising â while Nellie joins the Citizen Army and takes up arms to fight alongside Countess Markievicz in the rebellion.
On Easter Monday 1916 the Rising begins, and the world of the Gifford sisters and everyone they hold dear is torn apart in a fight that is destined for tragedy.
For my wonderful daughter Fiona,
who encouraged and helped me
every step of the way with this book.
We are ready to fight for the Ireland we love
Be the chances great or small:
We are willing to die for the flag above
Be the chances nothing at all.
Verse from âEaster 1916' by Constance Markievicz,
published in the
on Easter Saturday, 22 April 1916
Friday, 28 April 1916
NELLIE GIFFORD LOOKED
out over Dublin, a city at war. She could see clouds of thick smoke rising high in the fiery red sky from the buildings still burning across the other side of the river. Many of the shops and buildings on Sackville Street, Dublin's main thoroughfare, were in flames following the heavy bombardment and gun battles of the last few days.
Perched high on the roof of the College of Surgeons, she looked over St Stephen's Green, the city park with its leafy trees clothed in their spring blossom and its well-tended flowerbeds. Now the park was barricaded and empty, the trenches and shelters they had dug clearly visible.
Countess Markievicz said the rebellion had brought the city to its knees. There was pandemonium, with no trams or trains, no bread, milk or food, and many of Dublin's shops and businesses were closed as the mighty British army tried to regain control.
They still held the General Post Office and the Metropole Hotel on Sackville Street, although despatches said that James Connolly, Tom Clarke and their men were now under severe attack from a heavily armed British gunboat anchored on the River Liffey. There were rebel garrisons in Boland's Mill and the Four Courts. Eamonn Ceannt and his men controlled the huge South Dublin Union with its workhouses and hospitals, while Thomas MacDonagh was the commandant in charge of Jacob's Biscuit Factory.
She heard a barrage of shots â¦ A nearby sniper? Another army attack? Who could tell? On alert, Nellie crouched down on the narrow parapet of the roof, scanning the nearby buildings. In the Shelbourne Hotel at the other side of the park, a machine gun and rifles were directly trained on them.
Four days ago, on Easter Monday, Nellie had proudly taken her place marching with the Citizen Army and the Irish Volunteers through Dublin's streets, ready to rise up against British rule and join the fight for Irish freedom and independence. Their orders were to take âthe Green' and surrounding area. It was hard to believe that they were occupying one of the finest parts of Dublin.
They had set up a garrison there and dug in, fighting hard to hold their position under heavy attack. On Tuesday Commandant Mallin had given the order to evacuate the open expanse of the park. They had been forced to flee here, to the College of Surgeons, where they were now under constant bombardment from enemy snipers and heavy machine-gun fire.
Food and supplies had run out in their garrison two days ago. Nellie had searched the building and kitchens, and she and the other women had eked out rations as far as they could, making soups and porridges, but now there was absolutely nothing left to eat and she did not see how they would survive much longer.
Down below in the distance she could see an overturned milk float and the bloody, rigid corpse of a horse that someone had shot, still lying on the road. A dead dog, caught in the crossfire, lay sprawled in front of the building, blood and flies everywhere. The shooting was getting nearer and heavier as the city was flooded with new regiments sent from England to suppress the Rising.
Nellie took a deep breath, trying to compose and steady herself, refusing to give in to the fear and trepidation she felt as she thought of her family â¦ her sisters â¦
A rebel, like the rest of the men and women in her garrison, she was determined to fight and hold firm and steadfast against the attacks of the approaching British army for as long as she possibly could â¦
ISABELLA GIFFORD STUDIED
herself in the mirror. She turned slowly around. She was still a good-looking woman and despite having so many children had somehow kept her slender figure and fine features. She fingered her expensive white lace collar, a contrast to the rich black satin of her dress; French and exquisitely made, it gave a lift to her skin. Patting her fair hair into position, she dabbed her wrist with her favourite perfume.
From upstairs she could hear bedlam as Bridget, their nanny, organized the children for church. Every Sunday it was the same, and although it was important to keep the Lord's Day, she had to admit she found it very difficult when the household staff all enjoyed an afternoon off. But Frederick insisted on the staff having the chance to go to church and then later, time to relax. She lifted her hat and pinned it lightly to her head, gathering her lace gloves and purse.
âBridget, do make the children hurry up!' she called impatiently as she stood on the landing of their large home.
The boys came first, five of her six sons appearing in an orderly fashion. They were educated, polite young men and boys, the type of whom a mother could be proud. She sighed as she heard Bridget arguing and pleading with her six daughters and went downstairs to wait. She glanced at the clock and was about to send Cecil back up to get his sisters when the girls began to run down the stairs. Giggling and laughing, their long red hair tumbling down their shoulders, her daughters fastened on their warm coats. They all wore a black armband of mourning.
âAre we ready to go, my dear?' enquired Frederick, suddenly appearing from the sanctuary of his book-lined study.
âHats,' she reminded the girls. âWhere are your hats?'
Kate and Muriel ran back upstairs to fetch them, returning with all the hats. Isabella ignored the grumbling and mutterings of Nellie, Ada, Grace and Sidney as they each pulled at the elastic of their headwear. Satisfied that they were now suitably attired for church, she declared them finally ready.
âRemember you are respectable young ladies!' she warned as Sidney, their youngest daughter, swung on the front gate.
Their home, 8 Temple Villas, was situated among the finest enclaves of Dublin's wealthy and privileged society. As they walked out on to the broad tree-lined avenue of Palmerston Road, with its grand, red-brick Georgian houses and large gardens, Isabella smiled to herself â the large Gifford family was something to be proud of. The girls' felt hats she had designed herself; she considered them stylish but still serving to keep her daughters' luxuriant hair somewhat hidden.
At the end of the driveway she and the children turned right and Frederick doffed his hat as he turned left towards Ranelagh and the local Catholic church where he worshipped.
Holy Trinity Church was filling up as Isabella and her sons and daughters filed into their usual pew only five from the front. She tilted her hat at a slight angle, picked up her hymn book and silently checked the children. The Gifford family were certainly striking, not just because of their number but because of their strong family resemblance. She dearly wished that Frederick would come to church with them, but he stubbornly refused and insisted on following the faith in which he was raised.
âI think an hour or two to pray in my own church on a Sunday is little to ask,' he said firmly every time she broached the subject.
She glanced around and saw that most of the congregation were respectfully dressed in black today, many already wearing black mourning bands on their sleeves. The organist began to play and she joined in the hymn, Gerald's strong, almost-tenor voice clear above all the others.
Coming to service always reminded her of her childhood, of her own father, a country rector who had done so much for the people of his Carlow parish. She had loved to hear him read the Bible and sing â he had a wonderful baritone voice, and had often given sermons that even as a child she could follow. His death had been untimely, leaving her mother an impoverished widow trying to raise the nine of them, all of them distraught at their father's passing. Her uncle, Frederick Burton, the renowned artist, in an act of great kindness had stepped in to fill the void left by his brother and had generously supported the family over the years.
âToday we remember and dedicate our service to our late queen, Victoria,' said Reverend Samuel Harris, coughing for a moment before looking around the watchful congregation. âQueen Victoria was a monarch who ruled with fairness, strength and great wisdom for many long years. She will be greatly missed by her Church and her people in Great Britain and Ireland, and across all her colonies and dominions. Her visit to Ireland only a few months ago is one that will always be remembered by the people of Dublin, her loyal subjects. We give thanks for her long life and reign.'