Amidst the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, one name hasn’t been mentioned as much as one might expect, though her absence from the siege at the Dublin Post Office and the fact she evaded execution perhaps excludes her from the roll-call of Republican martyrs. Countess Constance Markievicz was a remarkable woman in more than one respect, however. The fact that she was the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons should be enough to ensure her place in history, even though she didn’t take her seat on account of refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to the King, representing Sinn Fein in the 1918 Parliament when it was the third largest party with a tally of 73 seats.
She was an unlikely rebel, emanating from Anglo-Irish aristocracy and yet bearing the distinction of being the only uniformed woman officer of the Irish Citizen Army in 1916 and being posthumously honoured with a statue in Dublin, the sole female participant in the Easter Rising to receive such recognition. When Sinn Fein MPs formed the first Dali Eireann rather than head for Westminster, she was awarded the post of Minister for Labour, one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position.
Although I had delved into Irish history for many years, perhaps inspired by lingering childhood confusion at the reasons behind the Troubles and IRA mainland activity, the name of Constance Markievicz was totally unknown to me until I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a 1934 biography of her in a second-hand book shop around a decade ago. The book, written by an acquaintance of hers, Sean O’Faolain, opened a window onto a world when born beneficiaries of the British Empire questioned the right of Britain to rule over its nearest neighbour and were sufficiently enamoured with the rise of anti-imperialist socialist nationalism as a political force to sacrifice their social standing for the romanticism of rebellion. Markievicz could count the likes of poet WB Yeats and playwright Sean O’Casey amongst her closest friends and was prepared to take up arms when many of her class and upbringing would have run a mile.
Eventually labelled ‘The Red Countess’, Constance Markievicz entered the world as Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in the capital city of the Empire, London, in 1868. Her father, though an Anglo-Irish Baronet, had an independent streak that manifested itself as adventures exploring the Arctic; though a prominent landowner in Ireland, he had an unusual (for the time) sympathy with the workers on his County Sligo estate and distributed free food to them during one of Ireland’s periodical famines in 1879-80. His altruism made a deep impression on his two daughters Constance and Eva, both of whom developed an affinity with the perennial struggle of the poor and oppressed that was unconventional for their privileged status.
Whilst studying painting at London’s Slade School of Art, Constance joined the nascent battle for women’s suffrage; she was clearly a woman in need of a cause and the women’s movement seemed tailor-made for her. However, relocating to Paris removed her from the Suffragette frontline and it was in the French capital where she met her future husband, artist and Polish exile Casimir Markievicz, who styled himself ‘Count’ even though there was no concrete evidence he possessed such a title. Nevertheless, Constance Gore-Booth was known as Countess Markievicz from the moment of their London wedding in 1900.
The newlyweds set up home in Dublin and ingratiated themselves with the Irish artistic intelligentsia, picking up on the then current fad for reviving traditional Gaelic culture, which quickly morphed into nationalistic passion opposed to British rule; Constance found the circles she was mixing in revitalised her rebellious streak and she returned to the Suffragette cause. Her most notable contribution to the cause during this period was publicly opposing the re-election of Winston Churchill to Parliament during a Manchester by-election in 1908; that Churchill failed to be re-elected was attributed to the Suffragettes hounding his hustings campaign. By now a member of Sinn Fein, Constance’s political activities were growing increasingly radical and she suffered imprisonment for the first time in 1911 after speaking at a meeting of the Irish Republican Brotherhood opposing the Royal visit of George V.
Seeing the native poor as the most evident casualties of British imperialism on home soil, Constance joined the Irish Citizen Army, which was initially set up to aid striking workers combat the actions of police brutality in 1913. Her involvement with the paramilitary elements of the Nationalist movement meant that when the Easter Rising erupted she was at the forefront of the action. She held the rank of lieutenant during the six-day siege at St Stephen’s Green, which ended when news of the surrender of the Post Office reached the 200-plus insurgents holding out in the Dublin park. Evading execution purely on account of her sex, a sentence of life imprisonment ended at Aylesbury Prison in Buckinghamshire the following year when the British Government granted an amnesty for survivors of the Rising.
Her historic election to Parliament in 1918 tends to be overshadowed by Nancy Astor, the second woman MP (elected in 1919), largely because Astor took her seat at Westminster; ironically, Constance was more eligible to be there in that Astor had been born in the US and she had been born in London, but the new Irish Republican Government was her political destination. She was a member of that Government until 1922, when she left as a protest over the Anglo-Irish treaty that created the Irish Free State, and also left Sinn Fein for the newly-formed Fianna Fail party in 1926. Despite further spells behind bars during this period, she also played a part in the Irish Civil War and seemed set to remain a distinctive fixture on the Irish political scene until her untimely death as a result of complications arising from appendicitis at the age of 59 in 1927.
Constance Markievicz may well be revered by Irish historians, but she really deserves wider recognition as a key figure belonging to a generation of brave and groundbreaking women who broke down barriers that presented a far more imposing obstacle to female emancipation than the trivial concerns that so preoccupy certain sections of feminist thinking today.
© The Editor