Constance Markievicz’s prison letters: insights from inside
Through these letters, detailing her feelings, political beliefs and opinions on world events, as well as her domestic life, we hear the voice of a remarkable woman
Constance Markievicz: In the National Library of Ireland you can see and feel the paper she wrote on – a few are on toilet paper of the Bronco variety – and observe for yourself the squashed handwriting as Markievicz attempted to squeeze in as much as she could into her allocated sheets of paper. There are also the doodles and drawings she made – one particularly fine one, in watercolour, shows a horse leaping over a prison wall
Filed away in the miles of shelving at the National Library in Dublin’s Kildare Street is a large bound book that, like nothing else, brings to life the story of Countess Constance Markievicz, one of the towering figures in Irish history.
Open the pages of the book and before you are the words of Markievicz herself written in hundreds of letters during her time as a central figure in Irish life, culture and politics.
You can see and feel the paper she wrote on – a few are on toilet paper of the Bronco variety – and observe for yourself the squashed handwriting as Markievicz attempted to squeeze in as much as she could into her allocated sheets of paper. There are also the doodles and drawings she made – one particularly fine one, in watercolour, shows a horse leaping over a prison wall.
The letters were written by Markievicz to her beloved younger sister Eva, who had left Ireland in 1897 and lived in England with her life-long companion Esther Roper until her death in 1926; Markievicz survived her by only a year.
Most come from the eight-year period Markievicz spent in and out of jail between 1916 to 1924. Like the other leaders of the 1916 Rising, Markievicz was sentenced to death, escaping the firing squad only because she was a woman.
After she was sentenced to life imprisonment, she was transferred to Mountjoy Jail and the letters commenced. She quite enjoyed her time in Mountjoy: “... there was so much life. There were seagulls and pigeons, which I had quite tame, there were “Stop Press”cries and little boys splashing in the canal and singing Irish songs...”
Those early letters from Mountjoy, dated May 1916, are full of instructions. She worries about Bessie and Bridie, her housekeeper and housemaid in Surrey House on Leinster Road, where she had lived. She gives a list of the local traders to whom she owed money, and asks Eva to give their friend Susan Mitchell her clothes and maybe the garden bench and tools, plus one or two “decent” rose bushes.
“Now, darling, don’t worry about me for I’m not too bad at all and it’s only a mean sprit that grudges paying the price,” she says towards the end of the letter.
The tone was resolutely upbeat and rarely did she let it slip in the hundreds of letters she would write over the next decade. In August 1916, she was sent to Aylesbury prison in the heart of the English countryside, where it was felt she would attract little attention. Since there was no category for female political agitators, she was lumped in with prostitutes, child murderers and thieves as a common criminal. She kept her spirits up by reciting Dante in the original Italian while scrubbing floors and nabbing an extra onion or potato while in the kitchen. Other Irish women were held in a different section of the prison as internees. They did not mix with the “criminals”.
Prisoners were allowed to write only one letter each week. Initially, Markievicz was given only a single sheet to write on and she wrote in tiny writing, her thoughts and impressions spilling out onto the page. Later she was allowed two pages and could incorporate drawings and poems.
In her first letter from Aylesbury, she describes it as “queer and lonely” after Mountjoy. In a later letter, she remembers that she was always a “rotten correspondent” and hated writing. “...now it is such a joy”. She remembers friends, comments on the gossip Eva has passed on, and asks for a photograph of her daughter Maeve. She accepts her fate. “All my life, in a funny way, seems to have led up to the last year, and it’s all been such a hurry scurry of a life”.
The tone became more belligerent when, in 1918, after a brief year of freedom, she was sent to Holloway Jail in London, along with Kathleen Clarke and Maud Gonne. Republicans all over the country had been rounded up over an alleged “German plot”. It was while she was in Holloway that the first World War ended. Women got the vote as a reward for their war work, and Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, though quite relieved that as a “Shinner”, she would not have to take up her seat. “Oh to have to sit there and listen to all that blither(sic)!”
Later letters came from her four-month stretch in Cork Jail in 1919 and a period on the run, mostly in 1920 when, as Minister for Labour in the first Dáil, her every move was watched. “It is rather wearying when the English Man-Pack are in full cry after you, although I get quite a lot of fun out of it.”
Soon after, she ended up in Mountjoy, where she was held from October 1920 to June 1921. She occupied herself by continuing her studies of the Irish language. In 1922 came a tour of the US, resulting in a steady flow of letters both to Eva and others, and then one final month in prison at the North Dublin Union at Grangegorman at the end of 1923 following the civil war. This time, she had been jailed not by the British but by her fellow countrymen. “It’s just spite and fear of my tongue and voice. My real democratic principles I expect!”
Through these letters, detailing her feelings, her political beliefs and her opinions on world events, as well as the minutiae of her domestic life, we hear the voice of a remarkable woman, full of life and spirit; a supporter of the underdog, who never gave up the fight for a more equal society for all.
How the letters arrived at the National Library of Ireland is a story in itself. Markievicz had kept her sister’s letters with her until her final illness in 1927, reading and re-reading them. On the day before she died, she told Esther Roper that she wished her to have them. Unfortunately, the letters were destroyed by Maeve Markievicz before Roper found them.
Despite this setback, Roper published an edited selection of Markievicz’s letters, along with Eva’s poems to her in prison, and a short biography, in 1934. When Roper died in 1938, the Markievicz letters were passed on to the republican historian Dorothy Macardle. She kept them until her death in 1958 when they were donated to the National Library.
In Roper’s selection from the letters, many names were reduced to tantalising initials. Only by consulting the originals can the gaps be filled. The Markievicz letters are not only an essential document from a turbulent period in Irish history but a national treasure. They deserve to be republished so that everyone can read them.
Lindie Naughton is the author of Markievicz – A Most Outrageous Rebel, published by Merrion Press