30. Constance Markievicz: Papal Countess and Irish Rebel

Countess Markievicz is probably the best-known lady to feature in the historical narrative of the 1916 Easter Rising. Here is a piece about the countess that I wrote for ‘Island’ magazine many moons ago. Enjoy!

By any standards Constance Markievicz (1868–1927) was a remarkable woman. At first glance, she seems an unlikely candidate for inclusion in a list of Irish heroes and heroines. She was a member of society’s upper class and came from a landlord family. She had a privileged background and a sheltered upbringing. Yet she was no shrinking violet. Constance became one of the leading figures in the Irish Republican movement of the early twentieth century and achieved lasting fame in Republican circles as one of the principal leaders of the 1916 rising. Sentenced to death for her part in the rising, she saw her sentence commuted and went on to become the first woman to be elected as an M.P. She continued her efforts to achieve Irish freedom and supported the anti-treaty side in Ireland’s bitter civil war. Her later years were spent in tireless work for the poorer classes and she died in a Dublin slum hospital in 1927.

The early years

Constance Georgina Gore-Booth was born on 4 February 1868. Her family were wealthy landowners and owned the magnificent Lissadell House, about ten miles from Sligo town.[1] The Gore-Booths were an Anglo-Irish family, and the young Constance lived a life of luxury and ease. She was the eldest of three children – she had a younger brother, Joscelyn, and a younger sister, Eva. The Gore-Booth children grew up in post-famine Ireland, which was for many a place of poverty and a constant struggle for survival. The spectre of another famine constantly threatened the Irish small farmers. Such considerations did not affect the wealthy Gore-Booths, but their tenant farmers, and the tenants of estates neighbouring Lissadell, were not so lucky. Constance was eleven when the Land League was founded and she grew from girl to woman at a time when the questions of land reform and Home Rule dominated Irish politics. However, Constance later reminisced: ‘No one was interested in politics in our house’.[2]

The other great movement of late nineteenth Irish nationalism was the Irish cultural revival. The era witnessed a flourishing in interest and appreciation of Irish literature, both in the Irish language and on Irish themes in the English language. Other areas involved in the revival included Irish music, dance, drama, sports – and of course, Irish history. However, the young Constance was oblivious to all this, as Irish history was not discussed – nor allowed to be discussed – at Lissadell. The Gore-Booth attitude to Irish history was that grieving over past grievances was a futile exercise.[3] Like many of the landlord class, the Gore-Booths were aloof and saw themselves and their position in society as untouchable. Moreover, they were regarded as good landlords, who treated their tenants well and were fair in their dealings with them, helping them out whenever they could.[4] It is somewhat ironic that the ivory towers of landlordism were dismantled by the resurgent Irish nationalism and by the policies of successive British governments during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the Irish Republican movement, with which Constance would become so closely associated, delivered the death blows to the landlord system during the existence of the Irish Free State.

However, landlord privilege was very real when the young Constance was growing up. Constance described her life at Lissadell thus: ‘We lived on the beautiful, enchanted west coast, where we grew up intimate with the soft mists and the coloured mountains, and where we woke to the sound of the wild birds’.[5] Constance and Eva, who lived luxuriously in such idyllic surroundings, were educated by a governess. This added to Constance’s sheltered upbringing, but even as a girl she noticed the discrepancy that existed between the richer Protestant tenant farmers and the poorer Catholics, who often lived in wretched hovels. She helped these poor tenants in many little ways when she was a girl. One story tells of how Constance washed the clothes of a tenant family when the farmer’s wife was heavily pregnant and near the time to give birth.[6] Constance’s kindness endeared her to many tenants on her father’s estate.

When they were old enough, Constance and Eva spent many seasons in London society. They grew into society beauties and their portrait was painted by Sarah Purser. The poet William Butler Yeats also referred to their beauty in his poem ‘In memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’. This poem was written in Yeats’ later life, but he remembered: ‘Two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful’.[7] However, the Gore-Booth girls grew tired of the empty life and the non-stop whirl of society suppers, grand balls and other events. Eva found her cause when she met Ester Roper on an Italian holiday. The two would become firm friends, and much of Eva’s life from that point onwards was dedicated to trying to improve the working conditions of women in English factories. [8]  Constance had not found her cause yet, but in 1898 she went to Paris with a view to becoming an artist. She met her future husband, Casimir Markievicz, in Paris. He was a Pole, a Papal count and a widower. He had one son (another had died prior to Constance meeting him) and he was slightly older than Constance. None of these things stood in the way of a marriage between ‘Casi’ and ‘Con’, but there was one major obstacle – Casimir was a Polish Catholic and Constance’s Church of Ireland upbringing would not permit her to marry a man who was a member of the Catholic Church. However, it was a case of ‘Love conquered all’ and the two were married in a registry office at the Russian Legation in London. Poland was not a separate country at the time, so Casimir was officially a Russian subject. Constance’s father had died shortly before the wedding and the couple had a later Church of England ceremony on 29 September 1900 in Maryleborne Church in London.[9]

Irish cultural revival and  Irish freedom

Constance was thirty-two when she married Casimir Markievicz. In the following year, 1901, the Markieviczs returned to Lissadell House, with Constance expecting her first child, Maeve. Two years later, in 1903, they moved to Dublin. Ireland’s capital city was at that time a hotbed of nationalist fervour. In such a political climate, Constance could not hope to remain immune from the wave of nationalist sentiment that was sweeping through the city and the country. Moreover, once she began to learn of the struggle for Home Rule – and of the more subversive struggle for complete Irish independence – Constance became a willing pupil. Like Eva before her, this Gore-Booth had found her cause! In January 1904 Arthur Griffith wrote a series of articles in the United Irishman. Griffith was born in Dublin in 1871 and wanted to break Ireland’s connection with Britain completely. In 1905 Griffith founded the Sinn Féin party. The name ‘Sinn Féin’ meant ‘Ourselves Alone’ and Griffith’s political doctrine involved self-reliance and self-sufficiency for Ireland. The Sinn Féin party remained a small minority group within the broader spectrum of Irish nationalism, with mainstream nationalists campaigning for Home Rule (the establishment of a separate parliament in Dublin) rather than complete separation. However, the Sinn Féin ideal had captured Constance’s imagination and she threw herself wholeheartedly into the cause of Irish independence. She began to consider the idea of armed rebellion against Britain when she read Robert Emmet’s famous speech from the dock,[10] and as time passed, the countess became more and more convinced that rebellion was the only way to achieve Irish freedom.

During the following years, Constance Markievicz became a leading figure in the strongly nationalistic cultural revival. In particular, she became involved with the theatre. The countess used her theatrical connections to spread the message of Irish republicanism. Plays such as ‘Cathleen Ni Houlihán’ by W.B. Yeats and ‘Deirdre’ by A.E. (George Russell) were overtly nationalistic in theme and tone. Constance herself appeared in Edward Martyn’s play ‘Maeve’, and eventually broke away from the Abbey Theatre with Martyn and others.[11] Dublin’s theatre land at this time was rife with nationalism and many of the playwrights, actors and actresses were extreme in their views. Constance loved this world and she grew into her new role as an Irish nationalist quite naturally. She joined the women’s nationalistic movement Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland).[12] Here she met with like-minded women and her education and background meant that Constance was soon rising through the ranks of the organisation. Moreover, her education and background did not merit special treatment for her in other ways – Constance later claimed that Inghinidhe was the only place where she was not put on a pedestal and treated differently because she was a countess – and she enjoyed the fact that she was not ‘kowtowed to’ because of her social status. Constance was in charge of Inghinidhe’s drama classes for girls and soon she began classes for boys as well. By 1911 she was a member of the executive of Inghinidhe.[13]

Constance’s involvement with these classes led her to set up Fianna Éireann in 1909.[14] Named after the famous band of warriors from Celtic mythology, the Fianna was a national Boy Scout movement. It was established partly to oppose and nullify the influence of Baden-Powell’s English Boy Scout organisation, but also to promote Irish nationalism among its members and, later, to inculcate the boys in the ways of rebellion. By 1909 the militant Constance had also secured a place on the executive council of Sinn Féin. However, she was too militant for the leader, Arthur Griffith, and the two never really worked well together.[15] Moreover, the apparent success of the Home Rule Party from 1909 to 1912 (when the Third Home Rule Bill was passed in Westminster) marginalised extreme nationalists.  Despite this, and despite the fact that she was often at odds with Griffith, Constance continued her work with Sinn Féin, the Fianna and Dublin’s theatrical circles during the years that followed.

The Lockout

In 1913 the capital was hit by industrial unrest and the striking workers faced the wrath of the employers in the form of the Dublin Lockout. Always the champion of the poor, Constance threw herself into supporting the strikers. She worked tirelessly on their behalf, organising a band of voluntary workers, setting up a soup kitchen in the basement of Liberty Hall and visiting those who were too ill to fend for themselves. Constance’s views on social justice meant that she was now committed to the labour struggle as well as the national struggle.[16] Her husband, Casimir, was devoted to neither. He had been unhappy with his wife’s devotion to the cause of Irish freedom for some time, and her support of the Dublin workers only added to the couple’s social isolation among the Dublin Castle set and Dublin society at large. Casimir realised that, in these circumstances, he would not get many portraits commissioned by Dublin’s social elite. In the autumn of 1913, Casimir Markievicz returned to his native Poland and he was called to active service in the Russian army when World War One broke out in the following year.[17]

Meanwhile, and perhaps in an effort to compensate for her husband’s departure, Constance renewed her efforts on behalf of the nationalist cause. In 1913 a new organisation, the Irish Volunteers, was founded. Ostensibly the volunteers were established to defend the implementation of Home Rule, but from the outset the organisation was infiltrated by extreme nationalists who were planning an armed insurrection. Constance became proficient in the use of a rifle and she was there with members of her Fianna Éireann when the volunteers smuggled German guns into Howth Harbour on 26 July 1914.[18] Irish republicans looked on World War One as Britain’s difficulty and Ireland’s opportunity. A rising was planned for Easter Sunday 1916. However, the plans were changed at the last minute, when Eoin MacNeill discovered that he had been tricked regarding the proposed disarmament of the volunteers and the imminent arrival of more German guns. Despite the cancellation of the original rising, a small group of extreme republicans, including Patrick Pearse, James Connolly and Tom Clarke, decided to go ahead with a smaller scale rising on the following day, Easter Monday. They probably knew that it had little chance of success, but they thought that such a gesture and their sacrifice might reawaken the spirit of Irish republicanism and the tradition of armed rebellion.

The Rising

On Easter Monday morning, the rebels took over various vantage points around Dublin city. Pearse read the proclamation of the Republic outside the now rebel-occupied General Post Office. Thomas MacDonagh’s group had seized Jacob’s biscuit factory, Eamonn Ceannt was in possession of the South Dublin Union and Eamonn de Valera had taken control of Boland’s Mills. Constance Markievicz found herself second in command to Michael Mallin, in charge of a group of rebels in the small Dublin park, St. Stephen’s Green. Militarily the tactics of taking over such positions and waiting to be attacked by superior forces was disastrous. Moreover, Constance’s position in St. Stephen’s Green was one of the worst of these positions, as the park is surrounded by tall buildings on all sides. This allowed the attacking British forces plenty of opportunity to use these buildings as cover, while sniping at the rebels below them. The rebels had dug trenches and erected barricades of motor cars, but they very soon realised that these afforded little protection from gunfire from above, so they retreated across the road into the College of Surgeons. From here, Constance and her group offered spirited but futile resistance to the Crown forces until the surrender of Pearse and Connolly brought hostilities to an end on the following Saturday.[19] The rebellion had failed, but the execution of many of its leaders in its immediate aftermath meant that public sympathy swung behind the rebels and this in turn meant that, in the long run, British rule in Ireland became untenable.

Initially imprisoned, female prisoner number B374 Constance Markievicz was also sentenced to death in the aftermath of the rebellion. However, the implementation of her sentence would have posed many problems to the authorities. Her status as a countess meant that she had many influential friends and connections. Moreover, she was probably a Russian subject by marriage, and Russia was Britain’s ally. She was also distantly related to the new British Commander in Chief in Dublin, General Sir John Maxwell. And – above all – she was a woman, and no ordinary woman at that. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment,[20]  but she was released after only a year in Aylesbury Gaol, during which she converted to Catholicism, and she returned in 1917 to a changed country and found herself a heroine.[21] On her return, she was made honorary president of the Irish Women Workers’ Union,[22] a sister organisation to the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

The aftermath

Constance continued to campaign for Irish freedom after her release and in May 1918 she was rearrested for her part in a German plot. There was no such plot, but the British government had moved against many Sinn Féin leaders, including Griffith and de Valera, on mere suspicion of its existence. This time Constance was incarcerated in Holloway Prison along with other prominent female Irish nationalists such as Maud Gonne and Tom Clarke’s widow, Kathleen.[23] By this time, her estranged husband Casimir had been wounded in the war, but had recovered, only to find that he lost his title and position in Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution. While in prison, Constance was nominated as a Sinn Féin candidate for a Dublin constituency. She was duly returned and thus became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons.[24]

In accordance with Sinn Féin Policy, Constance did not take her seat at Westminster. However, she became a member of the first Dáil Éireann and was made Minister for Labour.[25] On her release from prison, Constance continued to work tirelessly toward the goal of complete independence for Ireland, and she took an active part in the Treaty debates of December 1921 and January 1922.[26] In the Civil War that followed, Constance fought with Oscar Traynor and Cathal Brugha on the anti-treaty side.[27] However, the anti-treatyites were in the minority and ended up as the losing side in that conflict. Following the Civil War, Constance was suspected of continued subversive activity and in August 1923 she was again imprisoned, this time in an old Dublin workhouse, where she went on hunger strike. However, she ended her protest on the orders of her superiors, and was eventually released.[28]

During the mid-1920s Constance renewed her work with the boys of Fianna Éireann, but her health was gradually worsening. Her sister Eva died in 1926 and the loss of her sibling hit Constance very hard. The winter of 1926 was marked by a coal strike in Dublin, but Constance bravely continued her work among the city’s poorest people, bringing relief wherever she could. Her selflessness meant that much of her wealth had vanished and, in reality, she was now little better off than many of the people she helped.[29] These people called her ‘Madame’ and that simple epithet was much dearer to her than her title of ‘Countess’. As her health worsened, she was admitted into a public ward in a Dublin slum hospital and there she died, worn out from her remarkable life of giving, on 15 July 1927.[30] She was buried in the Republican Plot in Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery and Eamonn de Valera delivered her funeral oration.[31] However, perhaps the greatest tribute to this extraordinary woman was that several thousands of people paid their respects at her funeral,[32] many of them members of the poorest classes of Dublin society, among whom her kindness would never be forgotten.

By any standards, Constance Markievicz lived a remarkable life. From a wealthy and sheltered upbringing, she emerged as one of the most prominent figures in the struggle for Irish independence. Her conversion to that cause was gradual, but once it was made Constance worked tirelessly toward her goal. It has been suggested that she was fanatical about her causes – both independence and labour. However, to the poor of Dublin, ‘Madame’ was not a fanatic, but a kindly heroine, and her work on their behalf endeared her to Dublin’s working classes, at a time when poverty in the city was truly shocking. She was a woman in a man’s world and her activities struck a blow for women’s rights at a time when this was a burning issue in Dublin and beyond. She overcame the trauma of marriage breakdown in a period when the stigma attached to this was huge,[33] and by her boundless enthusiasm helped to bring about the end of British rule in Ireland. She may have been tactless and had tunnel vision regarding her causes, but this extraordinary woman was among the founding mothers of the modern Irish state. Today a bust of Constance, which was unveiled by President Seán T. Ó Kelly on 2 April 1956,[34] stands in St. Stephen’s Green, the little park where in 1916 she was prepared to defy the might of the British Empire, and it is fitting that her story should be remembered.

ENDNOTES

[1] S. J. Connolly (ed), The Oxford Companion to Irish History (Oxford, 1998), p. 348.

[2] Constance Markievicz, ‘Mr Arthur Griffith and the Sinn Féin Organisation (1)’, in Éire, 18 Aug 1923.

[3] Ibid.

[4] UCD Archive, Irish Folklore Collection, The Schools’ Collection, Carrowrile School, vol 172, f. 326. See also http://lissadellhouse.com/famine/ (visited on 14 Nov 2015).

[5] https://thewildgeese.irish/profiles/blogs/constance-markievicz-the-countess-of-irish-freedom-part-1-of-2 (visited on 4 Nov 2015).

[6] Lindie Naughton, Markiecvicz: A most outrageous rebel (Newbridge, 2016), p. 27.

[7] A. Norman Jeffares, W. B. Yeats: Selected Poetry (London, 1966), p. 141.

[8] For a concise account of the life and career of Eva-Gore Booth, see Deirdre Clancy, ‘Remember’, in Island, vol 1, no. 1, (Winter, 2006/7).

[9] Dictionary of Irish Biography, online version at https://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a5452&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes (visited 14 Oct 2015).

[10] On 3 January 1922, Markievicz referred to the first time she read Emmet’s speech from the dock in her own speech against the Anglo-Irish treaty. https://theirishrevolution.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/markievicz-speech-against-the-1921-treaty/ (visited on 12 Aug 2019).

[11] Christopher Morash, A History of Irish Theatre 1601-2000 (Cambridge, 2002), p. 152.

[12] S. J. Connolly (ed), The Oxford Companion to Irish History (Oxford, 1998), p. 348.

[13] Dictionary of Irish Biography, online version at https://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a5452&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes (visited 14 Oct 2015).

[14] Dorothy Macardle The Irish Republic (London, reprint, 1968), p. 64.

[15] Constance Markievicz, ‘Mr Arthur Griffith and the Sinn Féin Organisation (2)’, in Éire, 25 Aug 1923.

[16] Macardle, Republic, p. 89.

[17] http://www.irishplayography.com/person.aspx?personid=39894 (visited on 23 Mar 2013).

[18] Chris Lawlor, The little book of Wicklow (Dublin, 2014), p. 111.

[19] Macardle, Republic, pp 136 et seq.

[20] N.A.I., General Prisons Board Collection, GPB/PEN/1916/51. Her file stated that she was: Aged 43; place of birth, County Sligo; Artist; sentenced to Life for took part in rebellion against His Majesty; convicted in County Dublin on 04 May 1916 and imprisoned in Mountjoy Prison.

[21] Dictionary of Irish Biography, online version at https://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a5452&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes (visited 14 Oct 2015).

[22] S. J. Connolly (ed), The Oxford Companion to Irish History (Oxford, 1998), p. 348.

[23] Macardle, Republic, p. 240.

[24] https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/10/05/the-raucous-irishwoman/ (visited on 3 Dec 2018).

[25] N.A.I., Department of the Taoiseach Papers, TSCH/3/S10004

[26] Her anti-treaty speech is available at https://theirishrevolution.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/markievicz-speech-against-the-1921-treaty/ (visited on 12 Aug 2019).

[27] Macardle, Republic, pp 681 et seq.

[28] Dictionary of Irish Biography, online version at https://dib.cambridge.org/viewReadPage.do?articleId=a5452&searchClicked=clicked&quickadvsearch=yes (visited 14 Oct 2015).

[29] Markievicz’s effects totalled a mere £329 6s 11d in her will. N.A.I., High Court Collection, CS/HC/PO/4/80/1958

[30] S. J. Connolly (ed), The Oxford Companion to Irish History (Oxford, 1998), p. 348.

[31] In February 1968, President Eamon de Valera also attended centenary ceremonies marking Markievicz’s birth. N.A.I., Office of Secretary to the President Collection, 2012/89/31

[32] The Irish Times, 18 July 1927.

[33] Despite this, Markievicz’s marital status was described as ‘married woman’ in the Calendar of grants of probate of wills and letters of administration. N.A.I., High Court Collection, CS/HC/PO/4/80/1958

[34] N.A.I., Office of Secretary to the President Collection, 2012/89/31

 

 

 

 

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