Joseph Mary Plunkett was born on 21 November 1887 at 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street on the southside of Dublin city. One of seven children and the eldest son of writer, nationalist and papal count George Noble Plunkett and Mary Plunkett, his childhood years were spent at his parents' Dublin home and at rented properties on the city’s outskirts, in Templeogue and Enniskerry. Plagued by ill-health from an early age, he endured repeated surgery to remove tubercular glands that left him badly scarred and looking, in the words of Dublin observer, ‘as emaciated as a Spanish Saint in his prison cell at Toledo’. Hugely intelligent, Plunkett received his primary education at the Catholic University School on Leeson Street, from where he progressed to attend, briefly, a Marist School in Paris before returning home to enter Belvedere College. He progressed to another Jesuit college, Stonyhurst in Lancashire where he studied philosophy for two years.
A devout Catholic and romantic nationalist, his intellectual interests were stimulated by his parents, by friends, by reading and by travel: he spent, for instance, some months in Sicily with his mother in early 1911 and the following year he travelled to Algiers where he studied Arabic language and literature. One of his most significant friendships was that forged with Thomas MacDonagh, who tutored him in Irish in preparation for the University College Dublin matriculation examinations and who encouraged his interest in poetry, assisting him in publishing a volume of verse, The Circle and the Sword, in 1911. In June 1913, Plunkett purchased The Irish Review, the literary and intellectual magazine founded by MacDonagh which had run into financial difficulty. He became the journal’s editor, shifting its focus towards politics, using it to promote Arthur Griffth’s Sinn Féin policies, the striking workers during the Lockout and, subsequently, the politics of revolutionary separatism. Plunkett had attended the inaugural meeting of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, joining its Provisional Committee and using his journal to propagandise on its behalf. In the interests of unity, Plunkett did not oppose the Redmondite takeover of the Volunteers in June 1914, but he did oppose Redmond’s pledge of Volunteer support for the British war effort at Woodenbridge on 20 September 1914. Even before that, on 9 September, he attended a secret meeting at the Gaelic League headquarters organised by IRB men Thomas Clarke and Seán Mac Diarmada at which it was determined to stage an uprising over the course of the war.
Plunkett was a key figure in the planning of the Rising. He was inducted into the IRB, becoming its Director of Military Operations, and in April 1915 he joined Roger Casement in Berlin in attempt to secure German support and arms. Together they presented a plan known as the Ireland Report, principally authored by Plunkett, which set out the basic military strategy for the Rising to come, centring on the seizure of key buildings in the capital.
In May 1915, he was appointed to the IRB's Military Council and from then onward, his home at Larkfield in Kimmage, originally purchased by his mother, was used as a store for weapons. When it came to Easter week 1916, Plunkett’s involvement was limited by ill-health – he underwent major surgery on neck glands at the beginning of April. Nevertheless, he, along with Mac Diarmada, were believed to have been responsible for a forged ‘Dublin Castle document’, which suggested that the authorities were set to suppress the Irish Volunteers, the purpose of their intrigue being to convince a sceptical Eoin MacNeill to support the Rising planned for that weekend. With MacNeill’s countermanding order, the rebellion that took place was not that envisaged by Plunkett. Even so, Plunkett put his name to the proclamation and served, swathed in post-operative bandages, in the GPO for the duration of Easter week. After the surrender he was tried by court-martial and executed by firing squad on 4 May 1916. Hours before his death, Plunkett had been permitted to marry his fiancée Grace Gifford, an illustrator and sister in law of Thomas MacDonagh. The service took place in the chapel of Kilmainham Gaol on the evening before his execution and later that night the newlyweds were allowed 10 minutes together in Plunkett’s cell.
Honor Ó Brolcháin, 16 Lives: Joseph Plunkett (O’Brien Press)