Ireland is a land full of romantics, whether we care to admit it or not. With so many talented writers, poets, playwrights, artists and musicians hailing from here, it’s fair to say that we have gathered our fair share of love stories from this starry-eyed bunch.
However, we’re not just talking about their creative endeavours; there are also plenty of ‘real life’ love stories from behind the scenes, and they’re not just limited to the writers and artists either.
Here, we’ve taken a look at 6 Irish stories spanning the realms of politics, war, art and mythology, all involving Irish couples who fell in (or out of) love.
Joseph Plunkett and Grace Gifford
Joseph Plunkett was an Irish revolutionary who played a significant part in the Easter Rising in 1916. Born in 1887 to an affluent Dublin family, he contracted tuberculosis as a child and suffered from poor health for the rest of his life as a result. Unable to engage in active pursuits, he instead turned to books and became extremely well read and well educated, with a particular talent for poetry.
His family were supportive of the Nationalist movement in Ireland and Joseph got involved when he came of age, playing a substantial part in the planning of the Rising and the running of the nationalist magazine, The Irish Review. Through the magazine he met Grace Gifford, another creative soul who submitted cartoons and caricatures, and simply put, it was love at first sight.
The pair were meant to marry on April 23rd, the day before the Rising began, but in the chaotic events leading up to the day it was postponed. Plunkett was captured and sentenced to death a few days later, having fought in the GPO alongside his comrades.
His health plummeted and he was left lying on a mattress by the end of the battle. The day before his execution on May 4th, Grace came to Kilmainham Gaol and they married there, as British soldiers pointed bayonets at them while acting as their witnesses.
Grace continued to fight for the Nationalist cause after her husband’s death and was even imprisoned in Kilmainham herself during the civil war.
She painted on the walls of her cells, and the images are still there today. She never remarried, and when she died in 1955 she was given a funeral with full military honours, with the President of Ireland in attendance.
Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O’Shea
Charles Stewart Parnell was a renowned politician and public speaker in late 19th century, who campaigned for an end to British rule in Ireland.
He was one of the most talented and powerful orators the country has ever seen. He amassed huge crowds of followers everywhere he went (he even received a standing ovation from the House of Commons. Which was something of a rarity for an Irish politician advocating anything anti-British!).
He was on the brink of causing major revolutionary change in Ireland when a public scandal broke that made his world come crashing down around him. He had been having an affair with a married woman named Kitty O’Shea for several years, in full knowledge of her husband, Captain O’Shea, and most of London too.
The Captain had been waiting for a large inheritance to come through from Kitty’s aunt, but when it never appeared, he filed for divorce. In the 19th century this was virtually unheard of and caused public outcry.
Parnell knew this of course, but was unwilling to give up the woman he loved and wanted to be free to marry her, so he let the proceedings go ahead in public for all to see.
Naturally, the entire country rapidly lost faith and respect for him and he was forced to give up his political career. His health deteriorated during one last attempt to win back the affections of the Irish people and get re-elected. He died soon afterwards.
200,000 people attended his funeral, while poor Kitty O’Shea was left to live the rest of her life in relative obscurity and isolation.
Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas
The love story of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas is a classic tale of two people who can’t live with each other, but can’t live without each other.
Everyone has heard of the flamboyant, witty, and highly charming playwright Oscar Wilde, who kept audiences and readers on their toes with each of his outrageous works and was always ready to provide a classic quotable answer to any question.
Most (although not all) people also know that he was jailed for gross indecency, exiled from his homeland, and died miserable and alone in Paris at the age of 46. This was all down to his tumultuous relationship with Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. A man 15 years his junior, who was perceived by most to be a spoiled and selfish brat.
Although, he was a seemingly happily wedded man, Oscar’s marriage was all for show. He was in fact hopelessly in love with Bosie for decades. They even lived together, much to the outrage of Bosie’s father, who began a campaign against Oscar to discredit him.
Their relationship was one of both intense passion and intense tension, and when Bosie’s father’s campaign began to get attention, Oscar accused his lover of failing to support him when he needed it most.
They reconciled briefly in Paris when Oscar was eventually released from prison.
Inevitably their ups and downs. Proving too much for Bosie, he left the love of his life to live alone, depressed, living in poverty and heartbroken. He returned home bitter and equally heartbroken, spending the rest of his days lambasting his former lover in attempt to regain his own credibility.
Tristan and Isolde
Depending on who you ask, the mythological tale of Tristan and Isolde and their forbidden yet eternal love is either an Arthurian legend, an Irish fable, or just a general medieval love story.
Whatever its origin, significant events in the story happened on Irish shores, so we’ll claim it as our own! Tristan was a nephew of King Mark of Cornwall and a valiant, honorable and talented champion.
When the King of Ireland sent a champion named Morholt to demand a tribute from Cornwall to fight, Tristan was the obvious choice and defeated him easily. He was badly wounded however, and when he heard that Morholt was returning to Ireland to be healed by a princess named Isolde, he followed in disguise.
Tristan praised Isolde’s healing skills so greatly on his return that King Mark decided to take her for his wife, and sent Tristan to fetch her. Isolde’s mother had given the pair a special potion for the journey back, which made them fall deeply in love with each other. Neither could bear to dishonour their respective Kings however, but couldn’t resist each other at the same time, and began a secret love affair.
Eventually they were found out and Tristan was exiled, tearing the two apart forever. He reluctantly married someone else and continued to fight, and when he was mortally wounded in a battle some years later, demanded for Isolde to be sent to him to heal him once again.
Should she accept and get on the ship, it was to have white sails, and if not, black sails. When the ship arrived his wife, who was always jealous of the love he still had for Isolde, told him the sails were black even though they were white.
Tristan died from despair before Isolde could arrive at his bedside, and when she finally did and saw that he had perished, she too died instantly of a broken heart.
Diarmuid and Grainne
Another mythological tale of love is that of Diarmuid and Grainne. This legend comes from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, and has parallels with similar stories from central European mythology too.
Essentially, this story is the classic love triangle but with an epic twist. It begins with Ireland’s legendary mythological hero and leader of the band of warriors known as the Fianna, Fionn MacCumhaill.
Fionn is tormented with grief after the death of his wife Maignei and in a bid to ease his pain, his followers set out to find him the loveliest woman of all to replace her. They decide that Grainne, the daughter of the High King Cormac MacAirt, is the most worthy woman for the job, and make arrangements for a wedding.
Understandably Grainne isn’t too happy about this, especially when she arrives at the betrothal feast and sees that Fionn is older than her father. Instead, she takes a fancy to one of Fionn’s best warriors, Diarmuid.
Although he resists her advances at first out of loyalty to his leader, Diarmuid quickly relents without much persuasion after Grainne threatens him with a spell. She gives a sleeping potion to the rest of the unwitting guests at the feast and the two run away together. They cross the river Shannon and hide in a forest, with the help of Diarmuid’s foster father who hides Grainne under an invisibility cloak. Fionn and the rest of the Fianna begin an epic chase but the couple evade them every time in a series of hair-raising scenarios.
Seeing that their love for each other is so strong that they will never give up the chase, Fionn is eventually persuaded by Diarmuid’s father to negotiate a peace, and settles for marrying Grainne’s sister instead, leaving the couple to live happily ever after in county Sligo.
James Joyce and Nora Barnacle
Arguably one of the greatest novels ever written (or at the very least one of the greatest Irish novels ever written), James Joyce’s Ulysses has a lot to do with the woman behind the great author – Nora Barnacle. Born in Galway in 1884, Nora had a troubled early life.
Largely raised by her grandmother, her mother separated from her alcoholic father and threw him out of their home when she was twelve years old. Her first two loves coincidentally and tragically died while she was a teenager, and at 20, she was asked to leave her Galway home when her uncle discovered her dubious relationship with a Protestant.
She moved to Dublin and worked as a chambermaid in Finn’s Hotel, where she met an up-and-coming writer by the name of James Joyce.
Although they met on June 10th 1904, their first date was not until a few days later on the 16th. This date was the beginning of a long-lasting relationship that endured through various ups and downs for the couple. They married in 1931, followed by a move to continental Europe, two children, one miscarriage. Added to that there was Joyce’s writing and financial struggles, their daughter’s mental illness and internment in an institution, and their naturally opposed personalities and interests.
Nonetheless, they stuck with each other through the bad times and the good. Joyce commemorated their relationship by choosing the day of their first date, 16th June 1904, as the time and setting for his greatest work Ulysses (as well as using Nora herself as inspiration for the character Molly Bloom and her famous soliloquoy).
This day is still celebrated every year by Joyce fans, who hold events all over the world to celebrate the writer, his work, and the woman he loved.
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