Constance Markievicz: An infamous advocate for women and workers

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Constance Georgine Markievicz (1868-1927), Countess Markievicz, republican and labour activist, was born on February 4th, 1868, at Buckingham Gate, London. She was the eldest of the three daughters and two sons of Sir Henry Gore-Booth of Lissadell, Co Sligo, a philanthropist and explorer, and Georgina Mary Gore-Booth (nee Hill) of Tickhill Castle, Yorkshire. She was taken to the family house at Lissadell as an infant, and retained a strong attachment to the west of Ireland despite her frequent sojourns in Dublin and abroad.

She was born into a life of privilege. Descended from 17th-century planters, the Gore-Booths were leading landowners who entertained lavishly at Lissadell, and enjoyed country pursuits including riding, hunting and driving. An active and demonstrative child, she was known for her skill in the saddle and for her friendly relations with the family’s tenants. She and her favourite sister, Eva, were brought up in a manner which reflected their class and social standing. They are recalled as “two girls in silk kimonos” in the 1927 poem In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz by WB Yeats.

Educated at home, they were taught to appreciate music, poetry and art, and in 1886 were taken by their governess on a grand tour of Europe. She made her formal debut into society in 1887 when she was presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. She hoped to study art, but faced opposition from her parents who disapproved of her ambition and refused to fund her studies. They finally relented in 1893, and she went to the Slade School of Art in London. On her return to Lissadell, she took up the cause of women’s suffrage, presiding over a meeting of the Sligo Women’s Suffrage Society in 1896. But she remained interested in art, and in 1898 her parents were persuaded to allow her to go to Paris to further her studies.

An advocate of striking workers during the lock-out of 1913, she organised soup kitchens in the Dublin slums and at Liberty Hall

While in Paris she met fellow art student Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz, a Pole whose family held land in Ukraine. They were married in London in 1900 and a daughter, Maeve, was born the following year. The couple returned to Paris in 1902, leaving their daughter in the care of Lady Gore-Booth. The family was reunited in Dublin the following year, but from about 1908, Maeve lived almost exclusively with her grandparents at Lissadell.

Markievicz and her husband became involved in Dublin’s liveliest cultural and social circles, exhibiting their paintings, producing and acting in plays at the Abbey Theatre, and helping to establish the United Arts Club. However, in 1909 the couple separated amicably.

Her conversion to Irish republicanism dates from about 1908 when she joined Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). She also helped to found and became a regular contributor to Bean na hÉireann (Woman of Ireland), the first women’s nationalist journal in Ireland. She continued to advocate for women’s suffrage, but devoted most of her time to overtly nationalist causes such as the establishment in 1909 of Na Fianna Éireann, a republican youth movement.

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By 1911 she had become an executive member of Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann, and was arrested that year while protesting against the visit to Dublin of King George V.

Markievicz became increasingly interested in socialism and trade unionism. She spoke in 1911 at a meeting of the newly established Irish Women Workers’ Union and remained a strong supporter. An advocate of striking workers during the lock-out of 1913, she organised soup kitchens in the Dublin slums and at Liberty Hall. Markievicz became an honorary treasurer of the Irish Citizen Army, and was instrumental in merging Inghinidhe na hÉireann with Cumann na mBan, a militant women’s republican organisation which was established to support the Irish Volunteers.

An aggressive and flamboyant speaker, she enjoyed wearing military uniforms and carrying weapons and was known for her advocacy for armed rebellion against British authority

Fiercely opposed to Irish involvement in the British War effort, she cofounded the Irish Neutrality League in 1914, and supported the small minority who split from the larger volunteer organisation over the issue of Irish participation in the War. She remained active in labour circles, cofounding in 1915 the Irish Workers’ Co-operative Society, while also participating in the military training and mobilisation of the Citizen Army and the Fianna.

An aggressive and flamboyant speaker who enjoyed wearing military uniforms and carrying weapons, Markievicz was known for her advocacy for armed rebellion against British authority. She welcomed the Easter Rising, acting as second-in-command of a troop of Citizen Army combatants at St Stephen’s Green. As British troops occupied buildings surrounding the park, it became a deathtrap for the Citizen Army, who were forced to seek refuge in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. After a week of heavy fire, Markievicz and her fellow rebels surrendered. She was originally sentenced to death for her part in the rebellion, but this was commuted on account of her sex; she was transferred to Aylesbury prison in England and released under a general amnesty in June 1917, having served 14 months. While being held at Mountjoy prison just after her surrender, she began to take instruction from a Catholic priest, and shortly after returning to Ireland she was formally received into the church. Notoriously ignorant of the finer points of Catholic theology, she none the less embraced her new faith wholeheartedly, claiming to have experienced an epiphany while in the College of Surgeons during the Rising.

Markievicz threw her support behind Sinn Féin: she was elected to its executive board and was one of the many advanced nationalists arrested in 1918 on account of their alleged involvement in a treasonous “German plot”. During her incarceration, she was invited to stand as a Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin’s St Patrick’s division at the forthcoming general election. She was the first woman to be elected to the British parliament but, like all Sinn Féin MPs, she refused to take her seat at Westminster.

On her release and return to Ireland in March 1919, she was named minister for labour in the first Dáil Éireann, a position that bridged her commitment to labour and the fledgling republic. Arrested again in June for making a seditious speech, she was sentenced to four months’ hard labour in Cork, the third time she had been incarcerated in four years. After her release Markievicz continued to defy British authorities by maintaining her work for Sinn Féin and the Dáil. Such political activity became more dangerous and difficult after the outbreak of the Anglo–Irish war in early 1919, and Markievicz spent much of this time on the run, in constant danger of arrest.

Elected to the Dáil in 1923, she refused to take the oath of allegiance to the king and, like other elected republicans, thus disqualified herself from sitting

She was arrested again in September 1920 and sentenced to two years’ hard labour after a long period on remand. Released in July 1921 in the wake of a truce agreed between the British government and Irish republicans, she returned to her ministry, but any hope of political stability was dashed by the split in republican ranks over the Anglo–Irish Treaty of December 1921. Dressed in her Cumann na mBan uniform, Markievicz addressed the Dáil in a characteristically theatrical fashion, condemning the treaty and reiterating her advocacy of an Irish workers’ republic. Reelected president of Cumann na mBan and Chief of the Fianna in 1922, she reaffirmed her opposition to the treaty through those organisations.

As an active opponent of the treaty, Markievicz refused to take her seat in the Dáil and was once again forced to go into hiding while former comrades became embroiled in a civil war. She composed anti-treaty articles and continued to engage in speaking tours to publicise the republican cause. Elected to the Dáil for Dublin South in August 1923, she refused to take the oath of allegiance to the king and, like other elected republicans, thus disqualified herself from sitting.

She was arrested for the last time in November 1923, while attempting to collect signatures for a petition for the release of republican prisoners, and went on hunger strike until she and her fellow prisoners were released just before Christmas. Removed from parliamentary politics and increasingly detached from her former republican colleagues – some of whom remained suspicious of women politicians and of Markievicz in particular – she remained committed to the republican ideal, producing numerous publications which focused more on former glories than on disappointing contemporary realities.

She joined Fianna Fáil when it was established in 1926, finally breaking her ties with Cumann na mBan, which opposed the new political party. She stood successfully as a Fianna Fáil candidate for Dublin South at the June 1927 general election, but hard work and often rough conditions took their toll, and her health began to fail. She was admitted to Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital and, declaring that she was a pauper, was placed in a public ward, where she died on July 15th, 1927; she was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery.

From the Royal Irish Academy Dictionary of Irish Biography, published by Cambridge University Press

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