DONNELLY, Helen Ruth (‘Nellie’) Gifford (1880–1971), republican activist, was born 9 November 1880 at 26 Cabra Parade, Phibsborough, Dublin, fifth child and second eldest daughter among six daughters and six sons of Frederick Gifford (1835/6–1917), a well-to-do solicitor, and Isabella Julia Gifford (née Burton; 1847/8–1932). Her father, a catholic, reared by maternal aunts in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, after his mother died at his birth, was probably the illegitimate son of a father who left anonymous instructions regarding his education for the law, which was financed by the solicitors' benevolent fund. Commencing practice c.1877, he had offices at 5 Bachelor's Walk, Dublin, until 1900, and thereafter at addresses on Dawson St. Her mother, reared in a family of twenty-three children (of whom eighteen survived) in Co. Clare, was rigorously protestant in religion, and a domineering personality; she was a niece of the painter Frederick Burton (qv). All twelve children were reared in the Church of Ireland. The six sons all emigrated as young men, retained their parents' unionist politics, and pursued successful, but unremarkable, careers. The six daughters all were active for varying lengths of time in nationalist politics. Most prominent were the two youngest, the artist Grace Gifford (qv), and the journalist and broadcaster Sydney Czira (qv) (‘John Brennan’).
Reared from the later 1880s in the family home at 8 Temple Villas, Palmerston Road, Rathmines, Nellie Gifford, characterised as ‘non-intellectual’ by the school authorities during her years at Alexandra College, trained as a domestic economy instructor, and worked some seven years at a series of six-month postings in country areas of Co. Meath. City born and bred, amid the sparsely populated, flat, and featureless grazing lands she felt herself ‘out on the prairies of America’ (Czira, 44). Frequently lodging in labourers' cottages, she observed conditions among the landless rural poor, and became an enthusiastic supporter of the cattle-driving campaign of the radical land agitator and nationalist MP Laurence Ginnell (qv). Educating her sisters on the land issue, she in turn was influenced by their emerging nationalism and feminism. On returning home to Dublin, she was involved with them in the Irish Women's Franchise League, and became part of the circle of Countess Constance Markievicz (qv). She acted in several stage plays, including the successful comedy ‘Eleanor's enterprise’ by George Birmingham (James Owen Hannay (qv)), produced in the Gaiety Theatre (11 December 1911) by the Independent Dramatic Company of the countess's husband, Count Casimir Markievicz.
A strong supporter of the labour movement, during the 1913 lockout she accompanied James Larkin (qv) when, disguised as an elderly and infirm clergyman, he checked into the Imperial Hotel and briefly addressed a Sackville St. crowd from a balcony, thereby precipitating the ‘bloody Sunday’ police baton charge (31 August); posing as the ‘elderly gentleman's’ niece, Nellie did all the talking to hotel staff lest the ruse be revealed by Larkin's pronounced Liverpudlian accent. A founding member of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), she gave lessons on camp cookery in Liberty Hall. She was one of several middle-class women prominent in the body, attracted by its ethos of sexual equality beyond that within nationalist organisations, owing largely to the feminist convictions of James Connolly (qv). Establishing an employment bureau in Irish Volunteers headquarters on Dawson St., she found jobs with sympathetic employers for recruits to the movement arriving from abroad; she thus assisted Michael Collins (qv) on his arrival from London, and introduced him to her future brother-in-law Joseph Plunkett (qv), whom Collins served as ADC during the 1916 Easter rising.
Though two of her sisters, Grace and Muriel (see below), were married to signatories of the proclamation of the republic, Nellie was the only one of the Gifford sisters actively to participate in the rising. Serving with the ICA's St Stephen's Green contingent, she supervised the garrison's commissariat in the College of Surgeons' building. Contending with a serious shortage of food stores throughout the week, she organised procurement of foodstuffs by commandeering from shops and bread vans, and by courier from other garrisons, and oversaw the cooking and delivery of rations to troops in the college and outlying posts. Arrested at the surrender, she was a prisoner in Kilmainham jail when, unknown to her, her sister Grace married Joseph Plunkett in the prison chapel hours before his execution. One of twelve women to be detained after the release of most women prisoners on 8 May, she was transferred to Mountjoy jail prior to her release on 4 June. Making her way first to England and then to the USA (late 1916 or early 1917), she joined several other women veterans of Easter week in lecturing on the rising throughout America. While in America she married (1918) Joseph Donnelly, of Omagh, Co. Tyrone. Separating from her husband, she returned to Ireland with their year-old daughter Maeve in 1921.
Despite receiving an £800 inheritance on her father's death in September 1917 (her four surviving sisters each received £500), she frequently experienced straitened financial circumstances. She broadcast children's stories on Radio 2RN (later Radio Éireann) (1920s–30s), and wrote occasional journalism for the Irish Press and other newspapers. Unlike the four of her sisters who converted to Roman catholicism, she remained a staunch protestant, deeply sceptical toward the catholic faith. Though modifying her republican convictions, she remained devoted to preserving the historical record of the independence movement. Impressed by the influx of visitors to the 1932 eucharistic congress, but reportedly infuriated by a concurrent display of catholic religious artifacts in the National Museum of Ireland, she organised a small exhibition there of 1916 memorabilia, and campaigned tirelessly for a permanent exhibition treating recent Irish nationalist history. As secretary of the 1916 research committee, she personally contacted and negotiated with prospective donors, thereby amassing a substantial body of material pertinent to nationalist organisations, the Easter rising, and the war of independence, which formed the basis of the present NMI collection. She was a sometime secretary of the Old IRA Association, an early member of the Old Dublin Society (mid 1930s), and a founding member of the Kilmainham Gaol Restoration Society (c.1960). A lifelong animal lover, she cared for countless stray and neglected dogs and cats, a predilection passed on to her daughter. She died on 23 June 1971 at the Gascoigne nursing home, Dublin.
Her eldest sister, Katherine Anna (‘Katie’) Gifford Wilson (1875–1957), republican, civil servant, and teacher, was born 28 February 1875 at 12 Carlisle Avenue, Donnybrook, Co. Dublin, second child of Frederick and Isabella Gifford . She graduated from the RUI with an honours BA (1898), one of the first generation of Irish women to receive university education. A gifted linguist, she was fluent in several languages. She married (1909) Walter Harris Wilson, six years her junior, and went to live with him in his native Wales; they had no children. She converted to Roman catholicism on her marriage. After his death in the 1918 influenza epidemic, she returned to Ireland and became active in Sinn Féin and Cumann na mBan. As registrar of the first dáil loan, she worked closely with the finance minister, Michael Collins. She stood unsuccessfully in a north Dublin ward in the 1920 municipal elections. She was arrested in early 1923 during the civil war, because, according to family tradition, she was mistaken for her better known and more politically active sister Grace; however, she continued to be detained after Grace's arrest. Imprisoned in Kilmainham jail and the North Dublin Union, Katie, probably owing to her education, maturity of years, and skills in negotiation, was appointed a prisoners' CO, serving on the Cumann na mBan prisoners' council. She was released in September 1923, one month after Grace's release.
She was secretary to J. J. Walsh (qv), Free State minister for posts and telegraphs, on the organising council of the 1924 Tailteann games; whether this service pre- or post-dated her incarceration is not certain. Hired unofficially on a temporary clerk's wages to the administrative staff of the new broadcasting station, Radio 2RN, by the first station director, Seamus Clandillon (qv), shortly before the service's official opening (1 January 1926), she fulfilled the duties of assistant director and woman organiser pending formal appointments to these posts. Within months she was discharged on order of the finance minister, Ernest Blythe (qv), amid a row between the departments of finance, and posts and telegraphs, over the station's staffing requirements and control of appointments; her political background may have been a factor. In ensuing years she was active in the Irish White Cross, and taught French in the City of Dublin Technical School, on Parnell Sq. Residing for many years on Philipsburg Avenue, Fairview – where she provided temporary home for Sydney on her return from America in 1921, and Grace on her release from prison in 1923 – in later life she lived at 34 Lower Baggot St. Remembered for her warm, loving personality, and beautiful voice in conversation, she was a soothing and binding influence among the strong-willed, volatile, and opinionated individuals of the Gifford family. She died in St Monica's private nursing home, Belvedere Place, on 20 September 1957, and received a republican funeral in Glasnevin cemetery.
The third sister and sixth-born child, Ada Gertrude Gifford (1882–c.1953), was born 14 February 1882 at Palmerston Road, Rathmines, Co. Dublin. She emigrated at a young age to the USA, where she lived the rest of her life in and near New York city. Though she worked as a professional artist, efforts by scholars to trace her output have proved futile. During her sister Sydney's years in America (1914–21), they lived together for a time, and were active in supporting the Irish nationalist interest. Though believed to have been unmarried, Ada had a long relationship with a man named Constant, who after her death claimed to have been her husband.
The fourth sister and eighth-born child, Muriel Enid Gifford MacDonagh (1884–1917), was born 18 December 1884 at 12 Cowper Road, Rathmines. Educated at Alexandra College, she trained briefly in England as a poultry instructor. She then trained as a student nurse in Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital, Dublin, until her health broke down from the rigours of the work. She was active alongside her sisters in both the Women's Franchise League and the nationalist organisation Inghinidhe na hÉireann, assisting in the two bodies' school meals programme of 1910–11; at a 1914 Women's Franchise League fundraiser she appeared as Maeve, the Warrior Queen, in a tableau vivant. The most domesticated and least ardently feminist of the Gifford sisters, highly attentive to her grooming and appearance, she delighted in inviting home impecunious artists and activists for a ‘proper meal’. Shy and reserved, the quiet presence in a family of rabid talkers, she had a gentle and sweet disposition. On a visit to St Enda's school with Grace and Sydney in 1908, she was introduced to teacher, poet, and nationalist Thomas MacDonagh (qv) by the suffragette journalist Mrs N. F. Dryhurst, who coyly advised MacDonagh to ‘fall in love with one of these girls and marry her’, to which he laughingly replied: ‘That would be easy; the only difficulty would be to decide which one’ (Parks, 26). In the event, MacDonagh and the Gifford sisters were casual friends until autumn 1911, when he and Muriel had an intense and rapid courtship, meeting surreptitiously in museums and galleries owing to the religious biases of relatives, and corresponding copiously. After MacDonagh's appointment to a UCD assistant lectureship in December 1911, they married on 3 January 1912. They had a son, Donagh MacDonagh (qv) (b. November 1912), and a daughter, Barbara MacDonagh Redmond (b. March 1915). They resided at 32 Baggot St., before moving to 29 Oakley Road, Rathmines.
Continuing to suffer from poor physical health and depression, Muriel was subject to periodic periods of confinement and convalescence. She was unable to see MacDonagh between his arrest following the Easter rebellion and his execution on 3 May 1916, a fact that increased the intensity of her bereavement. Emotionally devastated, estranged from her parents owing to their disapproval of her husband's involvement in the rising, she lived briefly with the Plunketts at Larkfield, Kimmage, and with MacDonagh's relatives in Thurles, Co. Tipperary, before residing in Dublin at 50 Marlborough Road, a Plunkett family property. Left nearly destitute with two young children, she was assisted by the Irish Volunteers Dependents' Fund, of which she was an officer and committee member. Named in MacDonagh's will as a literary executor, she assisted in the preparation of a collected edition of his poetry, published in October 1916. Owing to the demand for writings of the executed leaders of the rising, the volume sold well in Ireland and abroad (as did another posthumous publication, Literature in Ireland (1916)), thereby alleviating somewhat her financial distress. At Easter 1917 Muriel was received into the Roman catholic church. While holidaying in Skerries, Co. Dublin, with other 1916 widows, she drowned while swimming alone in the sea, presumably attempting to reach an offshore island (9 July 1917). With public interest in the 1916 widows and their families already stimulated as a major focus of separatist propaganda in the immediate aftermath of the rising, her funeral to Glasnevin cemetery was attended by an immense crowd of mourners.