George Noble Plunkett

Wedding group photograph in front of Muckross in Marlborough Road, June 1884.

Dermot Carmody

A hundred years ago, Count George Noble Plunkett led the TDs into the first Dáil in the Mansion House. He had won the election in Roscommon largely because of his son, Joseph Mary Plunkett (Joe), a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation who had been executed as a leader of the Rising. There was more to Plunkett than that, both politically and as a significant figure  in culture and art in Ireland.

He was born in Aungier Street on December 3rd 1851. His parents were Patrick Joseph Plunkett, a builder and urban councillor and Elizabeth (Bess) nee Noble, who owned a successful shop selling French and Italian leather.

The stamp of Nationalism was made early in Plunkett’s life, when he was visited aged six months by two men saying they were the drummers who had fought at Vinegar Hill in 1798. Plunkett’s great granddaughter, writer and musician Honor O’Brolchain, admits the folklore could be imprecise. “Of course nobody could find drummers,” says Honor, “but that could be anything in the Irish army. They could have said ‘well, you two are the drummers now’. It was two men from ‘98, and everybody regarded that as a tremendous thing.”

Plunkett was educated at primary school in Nice for three years and at the Oblate Fathers school in Upper Mount Street. From 1867-69 he attended Clongowes Wood College, Kildare, where Honor suspects his political formation continued as “there were these terrific debating societies, I think that they had only recently started. So there was a lot of Nationalist discussion and things going on.”

After travelling for a time, mainly studying painting in Italy, Plunkett entered Dublin University in 1872. There, he became friends with Isaac Butt and Douglas Hyde, as well as with literary figures like Bram Stoker, the poet Katherine Tynan and Oscar Wilde.

Plunkett’s primary ambition was to be a journalist. While still at school he contributed to The Shamrock and The Nation. In 1882, he started and edited the monthly review magazine Hibernia, which was notable for its inclusion of women poets, especially his friend Katherine Tynan.

In 1884, Pope Leo XIII made Plunkett a count, Knight Commander of the Holy Sepulchre in recognition of his donation of funds and a villa in Rome to a nursing order, the Little Company of Mary. He didn’t like using the title but the Vatican asked him to use it for political reasons. Italy was in the process of unification. There was concern that the Vatican States might be absorbed and even that such titles might be banned, as had happened in France.

Another in Plunkett’s life who favoured his use of his title was Josephine Mary Cranny, whom he married in 1884. She disliked it when he received invites addressed merely to “George Plunkett”.

The couple represented a union of two great Catholic builders of Dublin, the Plunketts and the Crannys. Their wedding settlement included a number of houses in Rathmines, which Patrick Plunkett had built, as well as a Cranny-built terrace on Marlborough Road, several houses on Elgin Road and 26 Fitzwilliam Street Upper, where the family lived for a number of years.

The Plunketts had seven children, Philomena Mary Josephine, Joseph Mary, Mary Josephine Patricia, Geraldine Mary Germaine, George Oliver Michael, Josephine Mary Jane and John Patrick.

In later years, they lived in 40 Elgin Road, a large house where meetings of the “Second Dáil”, composed of those like Plunkett, who didn’t recognise the Republican legitimacy of the treatyite Dáil, were held.

In 1892, Count Plunkett ran for election as a Parnellite in Mid Tyrone. He ran because he could afford to lose his deposit. In the end he withdrew in order not to split the Nationalist vote between himself and Matthew Joseph Kenny, who was on the anti-Parnell side of the Irish Parliamentary Party.

Plunkett also ran twice for election in St Stephen’s Green, reducing the Unionist majority in the seat to 137. Eventually in 1900, the Irish Parliamentary Party won the seat, but the party leader John Redmond would not allow Plunkett to run.

That election marked the start of a hiatus in Plunkett’s political career, perhaps, as Honor O’Brolchain observes, because of a difference between his politics and those of Redmond.

Plunkett’s more radical views, for example his belief that there should be tariffs on trade with Britain, were at odds with the Irish Parliamentary Party’s links with the British Liberal Party. “The oddity about Count Plunkett is that he was so out of politics in that 16 years between 1900 and 1916 – because of Redmond really. If he was going to be anywhere that’s where he would have been, in the Irish Parliamentary Party.” 

Plunkett returned to his other interests, publishing his Botticelli biography and other books on art and architecture. He was director of the Cork International Exhibition in 1903 and was appointed director of the National Museum of Ireland in 1907, where visits increased from 100 to 3,000 in his first year.

In the run-up to the 1916 Rising, Larkfield in Kimmage, where the Plunketts were living at the time, was a training centre for the “Liverpool Lambs”, young men from Irish organisations in Britain, who came to train for rebellion and to escape conscription. In April 1916, Plunkett’s son Joe swore him into the IRB. He went to Europe to confirm the date of the Rising with Roger Casement, who was trying to buy arms from the German government, and to plead with the Pope not to condemn the Rising.

After the Rising, Joe was executed and his brothers George and Jack imprisoned. Count Plunkett and his wife were also imprisoned in Richmond Barracks and then deported to Oxford. He returned without permission to fight and win the North Roscommon by-election which he won, largely on account of being Joe’s father.

He held a meeting in the Mansion House to form an abstentionist alliance with his own Liberty League, Sinn Féin, Cumann na mBan, the IRB, the IPP and others. In October, the alliance became a party using the name Sinn Féin. Griffith, Plunkett and de Valera, who was still in prison, were nominated as president of Sinn Féin, but Griffith stood aside in favour of de Valera and Plunkett followed suit.

Plunkett was interned again in 1918, but was released after Sinn Féin’s electoral triumph, in which he was again elected. He presided at a planning meeting for Dáil Éireann on January 21st 1919, and led TDs into the first Dáil session in the Mansion House. He was appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs.

With de Valera and Griffith, he travelled to Paris in an unsuccessful attempt to secure a place at the post-war treaty talks. He also travelled with de Valera to negotiations in London after the War of Independence in 1921, but, believing they were merely being offered Home Rule he took no further part in negotiations.

De Valera removed him from Foreign Affairs to a portfolio outside cabinet for Arts. Opposing the treaty, he left office in January 1922 and led the anti-treaty Cumann na Poblachta, which lost the June General Election.

Plunkett abstained from the Dáil in the Civil War and was interned until December 1923. In the 1923 election he topped the poll in County Roscommon. He would not take his seat in the treatyite Dáil. As a result lost his deposit in the June 1927 general election. He ran again in 1935 for Cumman Poblachta na hÉireann in the Co. Galway by-election but again lost his deposit.

In later life, Count Plunkett continued to lecture in art history as long as his health allowed him to do so. He also founded The Academy of Christian Art, which operated out of 42 Upper Mount Street.

The family moved to Ballymascanlon in Louth for a time and ultimately Plunkett and his wife moved back to Dublin. “His children and his grandchildren were all mad about him,” Honor says. “They all spoke of him with huge love and affection, all the ones that met him.” Speaking this year at a symposium in The Mansion House organised buy Honor, Seoirse Plunkett, his grandson, remembered him as being “a dote”. He died at home in Upper Mount Street on 12 March 1948, four years after the death of his wife and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.

You can read more on Honor O’Brolchain website and watch a video of Seoirse Plunkett speaking about his memories of his grandfather Count Plunkett at The Mansion House earlier this year on YouTube