Joseph Plunkett is an undoubted Irish hero. His crucial involvement in the planning of the 1916 Easter Rising, and his tragic marriage to sweetheart Grace Gifford in Kilmainham Gaol just hours before he faced the firing squad, have earned him many pages in Ireland’s history books.
There’s an element to Plunkett’s life, however, that you’re not likely to find on any history course – his unusual sporting past as a roller-skating champion in Algeria.
In the Irishman’s Diary column in the Irish Times, Frank McNally investigates the possibility that Plunkett, confirmed as an enthusiastic roller-skater, could in fact have been an Algerian champion.
In the early 20th century, roller-skating was a common and popular pastime in Dublin and one that Plunkett was certainly a fan of. He is reputed to have been a regular skater at the American Roller Rink on Earlsfort Terrace. The Irish roller-skating trend appears to have gone into quick decline even before the War of Independence, however, and there is little mention of roller-skating events in Irish newspapers past 1912.
Plunkett is also known to have spent much time in Algeria as a result of his tuberculosis. Throughout his youth, he spent many months in the warmer climates of the Mediterranean and North Africa in an attempt to bring some relief to his condition.
There is even some evidence that he skated during this recuperation outside of Ireland within his diary entries of his time spent in Algiers in the later part of 1911.
The entry for October 20 reads, “Went to a rink in evening and skated. Just like Dublin! (IDT!)” [IDT stands for “I don’t think.”] He is said to have sent home for his skates later that month and a further entry just before Christmas reveals that he badly hurt his knee in a skating fall.
The diary entries themselves are interesting not just for the proof of his skating prowess but for the way in which mentions of his hobby are written alongside more serious matters of the day. On November 29, 1911, he writes “Arabic lesson. To rink in evening. Irish Times\[:] 17 Italians Crucified by the Turks (or Arabs) in Tripoli. P.S. Perhaps.”
Despite his earlier fall, it does seem that Plunkett was a somewhat proficient skater. He was good enough, at least, to be offered the position of manager at a local rink in Algiers when its previous manager ran off with the owner’s wife.
So does this prove that he was a skating champion? Possibly not, but there is still a chance.
McNally heard the story second-hand that Irish scholar and writer, Professor Declan Kiberd, mentioned the Rising leader’s sporting talent at an event in the Abbey Theatre over Easter. Despite not being able to confirm the new information, McNally believes that it is entirely plausible based on the concrete evidence we already have on Plunkett.
His diary in Algiers ends in January 1912 and between the short, in places uninformative, nature of his entries and the time he spent in Algiers not chronicled in this diary, there is a possibility that he never mentioned the competition.
Leading up to the 1916 centenary next year, interesting trivia such as this helps us to celebrate the full lives of the Rising’s leaders, not just the role they played on that Easter weekend. In a blogpost for O’Brien Press, Lorcan Collins, co-editor of the book “16 Lives” says, “How wonderful to discover that James Connolly enjoyed sledge riding with his family for a time in New York or that Joseph Plunkett often went roller skating in the Rotunda Rink.
“These kind of stories serve to humanize the revolutionaries of 1916 and help to prove that they were just regular people who were brave enough to step over the line to create change.
“They had wives and children, they had jobs, homes and security yet they were willing to risk it all and indeed, paid the ultimate price.”
Joseph Plunkett was one of the original members Irish Republican Brotherhood Military Committee that was responsible for the planning of the Rising. He had acquired some military knowledge from the Officers’ Training Corps when he attended Stonyhurst College in Lancashire in England and his proposed plan for the implementation of the Rising was the plan that was largely followed.
Suffering with TB all his life, Plunkett had an operation on his neck glands just days before his own rebellion plan was set to take place. Leaving his hospital bed still bandaged, he took his place in the GPO with the Rising’s other leaders but was physically unable to be extremely active.
On a his surrender, he was court martialed and executed. The British Army’s execution of a sick man, who may only have lived another few months in any case, is often believed to be one of the reasons for the wave of support for the Rising in the weeks following its initial failure.