Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markievicz by Lauren Arrington
The Sligo revolutionary and the Polish count were Dublin’s king and queen of Bohemia
Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casimir Markiewicz
Princeton University Press
It might seem a tall order to write another biography of Constance Markievicz; the glamour and drama of her life has been addressed in several volumes, usually written with varying amounts of gush. Lauren Arrington, author of a fine, scholarly study of the Abbey Theatre and censorship under the Free State, has prospected a new avenue by returning Constance’s husband Casimir to the picture. Apart from a study by Patrick Quigley, the Polish “count” has attracted less interest than his wife; but seeing them together enables the reconstruction of a fascinating segment of Dublin’s artistic life before the revolution, and adds an interesting trans-national dimension to the politics of Irish nationalism.
Constance inevitably dominates nonetheless. Her trajectory took her from the life of a county belle and intrepid horsewoman at Lissadell in Sligo, through debutante days in London, art school in Paris, a return to Dublin and conversion to nationalism and socialism. After co-founding the Fianna boy scouts’ movement she became a leading figure in the Citizen Army, fought in the Rising, had a death sentence commuted, was elected the first woman MP (for Sinn Féin), held office in the Dáil, opposed the Treaty and remained politically active up to her death in 1927. Casimir, who had periodically returned to Poland, was swept up in the first World War and worked in avant-garde artistic and theatrical endeavours in Kiev and Warsaw; they were briefly reunited on her deathbed, but had been amicably estranged for many years.
The titles of “count” and “countess” may have been a bit questionable, but in their early marriage they were reigning prince and princess of Bohemia. Arrington’s book (well-produced, though Princeton’s copy-editors should learn the difference between “palette” and “palate” and “principal” and “principle”) opens with a marvellous photograph. Markievicz and Althea Gyles (another Irish artist) sit in a London studio, c 1893: pictures in progress tacked to the walls, a candle in a bottle, two young women in carelessly stylish clothes, smoking like mad. Constance was then 25 and already attending socialist lectures in London, and determined to break away from convention.
Not that her family were particularly conventional. Yeats’s description, visiting Lissadell at this time, suggests something out of Somerville and Ross: father an Arctic explorer, brother preoccupied by co-operativist experiments on the estate, spritualist mother, all ruled over by a fierce old Tory grandmother obsessed by horses. Constance and her sister Eva, also interested in occultism and – tutored by Yeats – in Celtic revivalism, would break away on their own routes, involving suffragist, labour and nationalist politics.
But first there was art school in Paris. That other revolutionary ex-debutante Maud Gonne, also resident in Paris in the 1890s, did not cross her path; as Gonne rather snappily remarked, while she was working for evicted tenants and preparing the 1798 centenary, Constance was living it up at the Académie Julian. There she met Casimir, who had also escaped an upper-class landed background, in western Ukraine.
He had a wife, who soon vacated the scene and died; his alliance with Constance alarmed her family, who investigated his background, but they accepted him in the end (at least until his airy requests for infinite “loans” became untenable).
Some of the most interesting and unfamiliar material in the book concerns these negotiations, Constance’s visit to the Markievicz estates, and Casimir’s paintings, of variable quality but strong and interesting.
Setting up home in Dublin, the exotic couple took up theatre as well as art, writing and producing plays for their own company. They had one daughter, dispatched back to Sligo, and more or less ignored. Constance’s politics veered more and more towards Sinn Féin and the various women’s movements burgeoning in Dublin. From 1908 she became celebrated first for founding Fianna na hÉireann, and then for her articles in the notably radical journal Bean na hÉireann, to which Casimir also contributed. Arrington’s analysis of Constance’s journalism shows a significant preoccupation with Polish parallels. But her interests shifted decisively to socialism, at a time when labour politics in Dublin were being radicalised by Jim Larkin and James Connolly.
Casimir’s own writings show some sympathy with his wife’s nationalist politics (as reflected in his melodramatic play The Memory of the Dead, in which she acted), But he was far from a socialist and disassociated himself from her attempted commune at Raheny based on the ideas of the early 19th-century Owenite Robert Vandeleur.
By 1911 she was appalling her family by getting arrested for violent anti-monarchist demonstrations, while Casimir remained absorbed in dramatic experiments and what Arrington sees as social-realist painting; Arrington’s judgement that his “interest in Ireland was always mediated by his understanding of Polish nationality” seems convincing. (He would become violently anti-Bolshevik and stridently anti-Semitic before his death in 1932.)
And as both Irish and European history went into fast-forward mode from 1914, the Markieviczes were well to the fore: Casimir joining the Russian imperial army when the Tsar offered national rights for his homeland, and Constance calling for a revolution that would be both socialist and nationalist.
She took a leading part when it came in 1916, and earned a certain immortality. The jury remains out as to whether or not she shot a policeman (it seems fairly certain that she winged him, and he later died from his wounds). Her passionate journey to communism was certainly aided by her close relationship with James Connolly; but it is less often noted that his own conversion to nationalism may have been influenced by her.
Her return to Dublin after imprisonment in 1917 occasioned extraordinary scenes of public excitement; no longer a Dublin “character”, she stayed an icon for the 10 years of life remaining to her. But the compromises of the Treaty were impossible for this self-proclaimed “rebel”, and though she adhered to de Valera, she would not have been an easy member of Fianna Fáil. In the early 1920s she preached Bolshevism red in tooth and claw, and approved of burning houses like Lissadell. The affection felt for her by Dublin’s working classes was enormous and enduring.
So was the dislike felt for her by disillusioned nationalist intellectuals such as Sean O’Faolain, Liam O’Flaherty and Sean O’Casey: not to mention three powerful poems by Yeats, where her adult persona as shrill-voiced socialist agitator is set regretfully against her youth as a Sligo beauty. Arrington attributes these reactions to sexism, but I wonder; she was herself a good hater, and the manic, gushing, sometimes self-deluding tone of many of her letters suggest a difficult colleague.
Yeats’s prejudice was probably sharpened by the attraction he had felt towards her when they were young, and his dislike of her husband. Arrington’s beguiling and thoughtful book shows that there was much more to Casimir than the boorish cliche of Dublin legend, and helps to restore Constance’s radical profile. The interaction between these two bohemian refugees from ancien régime Irish and Ukrainian backgrounds suggests the world of William Gerhardie’s great comic novel set in this era, The Polyglots. But looking back at Constance’s extraordinary life you couldn’t, as they say, make it up.
Roy Foster is Carroll professor of Irish history at Hertford College, Oxford. His latest book s Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923