Noel Whelan: Sinn Féin is misrepresenting Countess Markievicz

Mary Lou McDonald’s centenary rhetoric fails of take account of historical reality

‘Mary Lou McDonald   failed to mention that Markievicz was among those TDs who left Sinn Féin in 1926 because of its refusal to change its hardline stance on the issue of taking the oath of allegiance.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

‘Mary Lou McDonald failed to mention that Markievicz was among those TDs who left Sinn Féin in 1926 because of its refusal to change its hardline stance on the issue of taking the oath of allegiance.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The history which surrounds the origins of our State is complex. We attained our independence through a combination of democratic parliamentary effort and violent revolutionary action. Neither of these traditions can be denied.

The various centenary commemorations around the 1916 Rising and again more recently around the first Dáil has been impressive, inclusive and respectful. The articulation of that approach has been delicately led by President Michael D Higgins.

There have, however, been some interesting, almost entertaining, attempts to deny or overlook the complexity of our political heritage or to shape it into politically self-serving narratives.

There has, for example, been intensification in recent years of a pattern of Sinn Féin organising its own annual commemorative events for various local happenings or heroes of the independence struggle even where there has long been a tradition of community-organised cross-party events.

In Soloheadbeg last Sunday the community and local historians had organised an inclusive centenary event for the mid-afternoon. Sinn Féin, however, felt the need to hold its own event the previous day at which Mary Lou McDonald was the speaker.

At these party commemorations Sinn Féin speakers regularly accuse other political traditions of “airbrushing” away the revolutionary dimension to leaders of the independence struggle.

Sinn Féin itself, however, has been adept at seeking to edited the narrative of our history. The tale of two revolutionary icons which Sinn Féin is particularly fond of these days illustrates the point.

Last December Sinn Féin organised a special event in the Coach House at Lissadell to commemorate Constance Markievicz and other female revolutionaries. Chairman of the organising committee, councillor Chris McManus, promised the local newspaper in advance that “historians, former political prisoners and national politicians” would attend.

‘Carrying the mantle’

At the event McDonald spoke of her great admiration for Markievicz as a revolutionary feminist and an abstentionist. She described Sinn Féin as “carrying the mantle” of Markievicz.

The extent to which Sinn Féin are anxious to include Markievicz in their hall of heroes was further evidenced at a special event in the party’s rooms at Stormont last month at which Michelle O Neill and “former republican POW Síle Darragh” unveiled a portrait by Tony Bell which the party had commissioned. In all the speeches, however, neither Sinn Féin leader felt able to mention that Markievicz in fact broke with the Sinn Féin tradition from which they claim their heritage.

Markievicz was among those TDs who left Sinn Féin in March 1926 because of its refusal to change its hardline stance on the issue of taking the oath of allegiance.

While this was fine rhetoric, the historical reality of course is more complex

Markievicz actually chaired Fianna Fáil’s founding event in the La Scala Theatre on O’Connell Street on May 16th, 1926. She was also among a group of prominent feminist nationalist elected to the first Fianna Fáil ardchomhairle. Indeed it is likely that Markievicz would have featured in all subsequent De Valera cabinets were it not for her early death from a sudden illness in July 1927.

In a promo video for the Lissadell event, McDonald spoke of how Markievicz was “a republican, a Sinn Féiner and an abstentionist”. There was no mention of the fact that Markievicz was ultimately a Fianna Fáiler.

McDonald spoke of how “one hundred years on Markievicz stands against the hypocrisy of Irish political leaders calling on others to swear an oath to a queen”.

Historical reality

While this was fine rhetoric the historical reality of course is more complex. Markievicz died before her Fianna Fáil parliamentary colleagues took the oath of allegiance and entered Dáil Éireann in August 1927. There is no reason to believe she would not also have done so. She had after all been elected in 1927 on the Fianna Fáil mandate of viewing absentionism as a tactical rather than a principled policy.

Last weekend at Soloheadbeg, McDonald paid particular tribute to another Sinn Féin icon, Dan Breen. The video of her speech on the Tipperary Sinn Féin website makes for interesting viewing , if only for her colourful concluding flourish. McDonald spoke of the need to honour “our Fenian dead” and to “finish the journey, where Tipperary leads Ireland will follow. Tiocháidh ár lá.”

Again, however, there was no space to mention the fact that Breen also broke from the Sinn Féin revolutionary tradition. He is most famously remembered as commandant of the Tipperary flying column during the War of Independence but Breen was later a Dáil deputy who split from Sinn Féin to join De Valera’s Fianna Fáil in April 1926. In fact, so impatient was Breen to abandon abstentionism that he resigned from the new party in January 1927 to take the oath of allegiance and his seat in Dáil Éireann many months before De Valera did so.

Breen’s move was described by this newspaper at the time as “the first breach in the ranks of the abstentionists”.

As I say, our history is very complex.

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