The aristocrat who became an Irish revolutionary

Renouncing a life of wealth and privilege, the spirited and compassionate Constance Markievicz devoted herself to fighting for the causes of Irish freedom, women’s rights, and the poor

Constance Markievicz in the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army.

Constance Markievicz in the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army.

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A colourful and striking figure, Constance Markievicz could not be said at first glance to be a typical revolutionary of that revolutionary time. Born Constance Gore Booth in one of the great ascendancy houses, Lissadell, a few miles outside Sligo, her manner and voice made her stand out and her background gave her a dash and confidence that would serve her well in her political future.

But it could be an impediment as well, causing some of her co-revolutionaries to distrust her motives and her seriousness. Many other women were involved in the different movements of the day – feminist, socialist and nationalist. But in the national movement, ultimately the most important and the most popular, she was almost alone in acting alongside the plotters and planners, who were all men.

She had more in common with them, though, than might appear. Born in 1868 with an independent streak, those years of the late 19th century in which she grew up were also a time of political ferment. Social and political radicalism was in the air. Ownership of the land by landlords such as her father, Sir Henry Gore Booth, was a hot political issue in her youth. Constance and her younger sister Eva were happier among the tenants and workers on his estate than in their own milieu, though she loved riding to the hunt and the other traditional country pursuits of the gentry – her father taught her to shoot and she was an excellent horsewoman.

Votes for women

In the 1890s, when the issue of votes for women was also hotting up, she and Eva organised suffrage meetings at Lissadell and made their first foray into politics when they electioneered in Manchester for a candidate who promised to support votes for women. When Constance, beautiful and eligible, did the London Season and was presented at court like other girls of the aristocracy, Sir Henry and Lady Gore Booth expected her to find a suitably titled husband. But she insisted on studying art at the Slade School and soon moved to Paris to continue her studies. It was there she met her husband, Count Casimir Markievicz, who was Polish and a fellow art student and whose name she took.

Constance and Casimir returned to Ireland in 1903, setting up house in Dublin with their little daughter, Maeve, and Stasko, Casimir’s son from a previous marriage, to find an Irish cultural renaissance in full swing. They both became involved in the Gaelic revival, a movement dedicated to the restoration of the old Gaelic culture that Constance was already aware of from her Sligo childhood and from her friend, poet WB Yeats. They painted and exhibited their work, and Casimir wrote and directed plays with Irish themes in which Constance acted. The revival had a nationalistic fervour and by 1908 political issues began to replace art as her main interest. At last she had found the cause and purpose she had perhaps always been looking for. From now on, her life would be devoted to achieving Ireland’s independence from Britain and the freedoms and social equality, for men as well as women, that she was sure must come with it.

When she first tried to enter nationalist circles she was suspected of being a spy. But she knew, to use a modern idiom, that she had found her tribe. Many of those active in the movements for independence, or for women’s rights or economic rights – and often they overlapped – were poets or writers, artists like herself. Her conviction and enthusiasm won them over and her ability to inspire others and to act decisively were soon obvious.

She would be influential in almost every organisation – from Inini na hÉireann, writing for its republican newspaper, Bean na hÉireann, to the Irish Women’s Franchise League to Sinn Féin. But from a practical perspective, her most important achievement in these years may have been her founding and training of the Fianna as a nationalist answer to Baden Powell’s Boy Scouts. From the Fianna sprang, in the form of the Volunteers, a corps of trained soldiers – and there was also a girls’ branch of the Fianna – that the Rising of 1916, unlike any previous uprising, was able to call on. If it weren’t for the Fianna, the Rising could hardly have lasted as long or had the success, relatively speaking, that it did.

She was deeply involved in James Connolly’s labour movement and walked with him at the head of the Irish Citizen Army in their weekly marches. In the Rising – sensibly wearing breeches as part of her revolutionary costume, though many considered them scandalous – she was the Citizen Army’s second-in-command when it occupied St Stephen’s Green. After a week’s fighting and the debacle of the general surrender, she was saved from being executed with the other leaders because she was a woman. She got life imprisonment instead and sent to serve her sentence in grim Aylesbury Jail in England.

Political career

This looked like the lowest point in her life. The revolution had failed, many of her friends were dead and she faced a future apparently without hope. But a new kind of political career was about to begin. Released the following summer in a general amnesty, by the end of the year she had been elected to the executive of a resurgent Sinn Féin, was president of Cumann na mBan, a major in the Citizen Army and chief scout of the Fianna. In 1918, as an opponent of conscription, she was back in prison, in Holloway together with Maud Gonne and Kathleen Clarke. This was the year women were given the right to vote, and from prison Constance, standing for Sinn Féin, was elected an MP – the first woman ever elected to the British parliament.

As the War of Independence raged, she was Minister for Labour – the first woman minister – in the Dáil, democratically elected but acting underground. Many of its TDs, including Constance, were on the run, which led to another term of confinement, in Mountjoy this time, when she was caught. However, the treaty that brought an end to the war was a bitter disappointment to her and in the Civil War that ensued she took up her revolver, as she had in 1916, and was imprisoned once more.

To idealists like her, life in the new Ireland of the 1920s was bleak. A form of independence had been achieved but not the kind of co-operative republic they believed in. She went on bravely working for it, however, and was elected to Rathmines District Council, where she championed the interests of the working class. To observers, she could seem broken and dispirited but she never quite lost hope. In 1926, the year before she died, she presided at the first meeting of Fianna Fáil, a new party committed to establishing a Republic but by constitutional means.

In his oration at her funeral, Éamon de Valera spoke of her as “the lover of the poor”. She had put aside, he said, “ease and station” and experienced “sacrifice, misunderstanding and scorn” on the way that she “trod unflinchingly”. He did not exaggerate. Giving her life to the cause of Ireland, she achieved much politically, but her spirit, her compassion and her fearless integrity are no less admirable.

Anne Haverty’s Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary is published by Lilliput

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