Sidney Madge Gifford, the youngest of twelve children, was born to Frederick Gifford and Isabella Gifford in Rathmines, Dublin on August 3, 1889. Politically, the Giffords were conservative Unionists who supported British rule in Ireland.
Despite their wealth and privileged lifestyles the Giffords failed to instill in their six female children, Katherine, Helen, Ada, Muriel, Grace, and Sidney, an appreciation for the system that made their lifestyle possible. On the other hand their six male children fully embraced the British system and served it faithfully as adults.
After finishing her education at the prestigious Alexandra College, Sidney went on to study music at the Leinster School of Music in Dublin. One day on her way home from school, Sidney met the poet Séamas O’Sullivan at his family’s pharmacy. O’Sullivan noticed that she had a copy of a nationalist newspaper, The Leader – he in turn gave her a copy of the burgeoning Sinn Fein newspaper. During subsequent wide-ranging discussions, O’Sullivan suggested that she should submit articles to the newspaper for publication. Believing that her ideas and opinions were valued and validated by O’Sullivan whom she greatly admired for his literary genius and political insights, she started submitting articles to Sinn Fein and other publications under the pen name “John Brennan”. Her use of a pen name kept her nationalist views shielded from her Unionist family and friends, thus avoiding unnecessary conflict.
She attended weekly talks at the home of the renowned poet and Irish nationalist George William Russell, where many members of the Irish Literary Revival movement met on Sunday afternoons. It was there that she met many of Ireland’s historic figures including Padraig Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Padraic and Mary Colum, Eva Gore Booth, James Stephens, Roger Casement and many others.
In 1908 Sidney joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Women of Ireland) an organization founded by Maud Gonne, whose agenda was republican, socialist, and feminist. It opposed Home Rule under Britain for Ireland, opting instead to support full independence. The group promoted national self-awareness, organized local chapters and taught Irish language, literature, history, music and art classes.
In 1910, concerned with the infant mortality rate in Dublin and the rampant poverty in its teeming tenements, Sidney worked alongside political and labor activists and the Women’s Franchise League setting up canteens to feed malnourished schoolchildren in the worst areas in Dublin. Another less known campaign that Sidney took part in was the “Promotion of Home Industries” where activists would employ various tactics to force stores to carry Irish goods and convince fellow Irishmen and women to wear and use Irish-manufactured items whenever possible. She was also involved with the suffrage campaign of the Irish Women’s Franchise League.
To advance her journalist career Sidney decided to try a stint in the United States. She arrived in New York in June 1914, unaware that she would never again see so many other dear friends who gave their lives for the proclaimed Irish Republic in the 1916 Easter Rising.
One of Sidney’s first ports of call on arriving in the United States were the offices of John Devoy‘s Gaelic American newspaper with a letter of introduction in hand from Thomas Clarke, who was a close friend of Devoy during his years in America. She was taken aback by Devoy’s negative response to her offer as a writer for the newspaper, especially given their common objective and her previous work experience. Shortly after having been refused a job by Devoy, Sidney landed a job with the New York Sun. Once she got familiar with her surroundings and the politics that shaded the various journalistic spheres, she was able to find work with other outlets and later in 1920 with Joseph McGarrity’s Irish Press newspaper. She also worked translating Irish books into English at the personal library of Dr. Thomas Addis Emmet in Manhattan.
In October 1915 Sidney assisted Nora Connolly (daughter of James Connolly) with a mission she was sent to America for; these young Irish women made contact with the German embassy in New York and informed the German representatives of British war maneouvers taking place in Belfast shipyards. With the build-up of the war Irish men were encouraged to join the British Army, which they were promised would persuade Britain to grant Home Rule. Sidney penned articled critiquing this foolish proposal, but Devoy again refused to have them printed in The Gaelic American. Instead they were published in the Irish World, and proved so effective in fact that they persuaded the editor, John Ford, to abandon his support of the constitutional nationalists in favor of Sinn Féin republicanism.
The Easter Rising of 1916 saw two of her sisters, Grace and Muriel, widowed to their revolutionary husbands, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas McDonagh. Sidney was active campaigning against American involvement in World War One, and worked diligently for two successive organizations that represented Irish republican interests in America, Friends of Irish Freedom and the Irish Progressive League. Just as the Anglo-Irish Treaty divided nationalists in Ireland, it had the same effect in the U.S. Sidney sided with the anti-Treaty republicans.
In 1921, Sidney set about returning to Ireland with her son, Finian, whom she had as a result of a short-lived marriage with Arpad Czira who had returned to his home in Hungary. Having been denied a passport by the British for her activism, Sidney managed to borrow one from an Irish woman who had arrived in the United States with no plans of returning to Ireland. Despite obvious differences between Sidney and her passport pictures, she managed to make her way back to Ireland sometime in 1921, though most accounts had her returning in 1922.
Back in Dublin she resumed her career as a journalist, albeit a career stymied by her opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty and her long-standing republican ideals. She remained an activist too, working for the Women’s Prisoners’ Defense League to highlight and prevent the ill-treatment of anti-Treaty prisoners during the Civil War. Her activism was grounds for surveillance, intimidation and, oftentimes, imprisonment by the new Irish Free State. Nonetheless, she persisted. In 1926 she became a broadcaster wit 2RN, the precursor to Radio Éireann. In 1927, she lost her job with 2RN for criticizing a government official. She was reinstated in 1932 after a change in government. After WWII, Sidney took part in Operation Shamrock, a humanitarian initiative that brought refugee children from mainland Europe to Ireland.
Sidney Gifford Czira died in Dublin on September 15, 1974. She is buried in Deansgrange Cemetery in Dublin.
This article first appeared unabridged on FenianGraves.net
By Tomás Coisdealbha