Constance Markievicz: The Countess of Irish Freedom

By Joseph Gannon

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.

From William Butler Yeats'
In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth
and Con Markievicz

Constance Gore-Booth was born into a famous Anglo-Irish family on Feb. 4, 1868 at Buckingham Gate, London. Her father, Sir Henry Gore-Booth was an explorer and philanthropist with a large estate in Co. Sligo. The Gore-Booths were known as model landlords in Sligo. Perhaps being raised in this atmosphere of concern for the common man had something to do with the way Constance and her younger sister Eva would conduct their later lives. Moving in the circles of the Ascendancy and then comparing that to the lives of the poor dispossessed Irish families along the western coast must have affected them as well. Eva would become an advocate for labor and women's suffrage in England, and Constance would become the most famous women of the Irish revolutionary movement.

Below left, the Gore-Booth estate at Lissadell, Co. Sligo, where Constance Gore-Booth and her sister, Eva, lived childhoods of privilege, but were taught concern for the plight of the poor.


A frequent guest to their estate at Lissadell, Co. Sligo was a young W.B. Yeats. Later, in a poem, would speak of the sisters as, "Two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle." That gazelle would flourish in the west of Ireland. Constance once said, "We lived on a beautiful, enchanted West Coast, where we grew up intimate with the soft mists and the colored mountains, and where each morning you woke to the sound of the wild birds" Living the somewhat rough live of the countryside, Constance grew to be a noted horsewoman and also a crack shot and a beautiful young woman, as well.

In 1887 she and Eva were presented at the court of Queen Victoria with Constance being called "the new Irish beauty" by some. But young Constance was not aspiring to the ornamental life of a "great beauty," she had ambition, she intended to be an artist and in 1893 she went to London to study at the Slade School. 


Then, in 1898, she left for Paris where she attended the Julian School. It was there in Paris that she met Count Casimir Dunin Markievicz, an artist from a wealthy Polish family that owned land in the Ukraine. Markievicz was a Catholic, and he was already married, but his wife was back in the Ukraine and seriously ill. In 1899 she died and Casimir and Constance married on Sept. 29, 1901; Constance Gore-Booth was now the Countess Markievicz.

Below, the Countess with her daughter, Maeve, and her stepson. National Museum of Ireland


The couple had one daughter, Maeve, born at Lissadell in 1901, which tells us that the Countess was pregnant when the couple married. Maeve was raised by her grandparents and would eventually become estranged from her mother. In 1903 the couple moved to Dublin and Constance began to make a name for herself as a landscape artist. The couple was also involved with the Dublin social scene. She and Casimir founded the United Arts Club in 1905 to help bring together people of the artistic renaissance then going on in Dublin, but she was not satisfied with this life. "Nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for," she said. Then in 1906 a small incident, as so often happens in peoples lives, helped her find that "something" she was searching for, something that had been all around her whole life. In 1906 she rented a cottage in the Dublin hills. The previous tenant had been Pádraic Colum, a poet, and he left old copies of the revolutionary publicationsThe Peasant and Sinn Féin there. Reading these, Constance knew she had found the cause to inspire her life.

In 1908 she became active in nationalist politics, joining Sinn Féin and Maud Gonne's women's group,Inghinidhe na hÉereann. She went to Manchester, England, in 1908 and stood for election there with her sister Eva, who was now deeply involved in social reform there, running her campaign. It is no surprise that she was unsuccessful in this attempt given the attitude toward women at the time and her radical politics, and also given that her opponent was Winston Churchill. In 1909 she foundedFianna Éireann, an organization which was similar to the boy scouts but began teaching young boys military drill and the use of firearms. Pádraic Pearse would say that without Fianna Éireann, "the Volunteers of 1913 would not have arisen."

In 1911, now an executive member of both Inghinidhe and Sinn Féin, she would go to jail for the first time for her part in a demonstration against the visit of George V. Constance had also involved herself in the labor unrest of the time, running a soup kitchen during the lockout of union workers in 1913 and supporting labor leaders James Larkin and James Connolly. All this activity took a toll on her marriage, however, and Casimir left for the Balkans, where he served as a war correspondent and then joined the Imperial Russian cavalry during World War I.

She was born with a "silver spoon in her mouth", but Constance Markievicz soon spit it out and went to work in the cause of Irish independence. Read the story of her remarkable life in: The Rebel Countess: The Life and Times of Constance Markievicz by Anne Marreco

As the war began, Constance was in the center of the pressure cooker of social and political upheaval that was building in Dublin. Home rule had been promised and then put on hold for the duration. Irish boys were dying in their thousands on the Western Front, and in England there was talk of conscripting Irishmen. The valve of the pressure cooker was capped now, but the pressure was building quickly, something had to give. On the 24th of April, 1916, it exploded in the streets of Dublin.

'Something to Die For'


Most women in the movement participated in the '16 Rising as nurses or by running messages through the streets between groups. Not Countess Markievicz. She had earlier joined Connolly's Citizen Army, and was second in command to Michael Mallin in St. Stephen's Green. She supervised the setting up of barricades as the rising began and was in the middle of the fighting all around the Green. At one point, when a young girl was wounded with several bullets and undergoing surgery, Markievicz left the room, returning in a minute to tell her, "Don't worry, Margaret, me dear, I got the wretched blighter for you." It was during the fighting, moved by the faith of many of the men around her and that faith's connection to the long struggle for Irish independence, that she first contemplated conversion to Catholicism.

Markievicz' home in Dublin became a lodging for James Connolly, above left, who died at the hands of a British firing squad.

Mallin and Markievicz and their men would hold on to Stephen's Green for six days, finally giving up when the British brought them a copy of Pearse's surrender order. The English officer who accepted their surrender was Capt. Wheeler. He was a distant relative of Markievicz and offered to drive her to jail. "No offence, old feller, but I much prefer to tag along with my own," she replied. As they were marched through the streets she came in for special ridicule from many Dubliners who had were upset with the rebels for the shut down of the city for a week.

Below right, a view of the destruction in Dublin in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in April 1916.


They were taken to Dublin Castle and the Countess was then transported to Kilmainham jail. There she was the only one of 70 women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. No doubt, she fully expected to be executed. On May 3rd she sat in her cell and heard the three volleys of the first executions, each followed by a single pistol shot as the commander of the firing squad put one bullet in their heads. Thomas Clarke, Thomas MacDonagh, and Patrick Pearse were dead, though she had no idea whom the victims might have been. As prepared as she may have been to die, alone there in her cell, the sounds must have been chilling.

At her court martial she told the court, "I did what was right and I stand by it." Her conviction was assured, only her sentence was in doubt. She was sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on "account of the prisoner's sex." Given a choice she would probably have been added to the list of those dying for the cause. She told the officer who brought her the news , ".... I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me."

"I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me."
-- Countess Markievicz

Constance was released from prison during the General Amnesty of 1917. Soon afterwards she kept her promise to herself and converted to Catholicism. The revolutionary fire within her had not been extinguished by the tragic events of 1916, and she continued the struggle. In 1918 she was jailed by the British during their bogus "German Plot," aimed at defeating the anti-conscription forces in Ireland.

While in prison in England, Countess Markievicz became the first woman elected to the British Parliament, running as a Sinn Féin candidate. Like all the other Sinn Féin candidates, she did not take her seat, refusing to take the oath of allegiance to the King. (As Sinn Féin candidates still do today in NI.) When the first Dáil Éireann was seated two months later, she was appointed the first Minister of Labour and went on the run from the British. She would go to jail twice during the course of the Anglo-Irish War of Independence and was released from jail to attend theAnglo-Irish Treaty debates. She strongly opposed the treaty and had an angry exchange with Michael Collins the day the anti-treaty forces walked out of the hall. She called the pro-treaty advocates "traitors." Collins replied by calling her something that would cut even deeper: English.

The Countess called Michael Collins, below left, and other advocates of the Treaty "traitors." Collins called her something that would cut even deeper: English.


When the Irish Civil War broke out Constance was once more involved with the actual fighting, helping to defend Moran's Hotel in Dublin. Later she toured the US raising funds for the Republican cause. After the Civil War she regained her seat in the Dáil, but her Republican politics ran her afoul of the Free State government again and she was jailed. Along with 92 other women prisoners, she went on hunger strike and was released after a month. She joined Eamon de Valera's Fianna Fáil party in 1926 and was elected as one of it's candidates in 1927. However, a month later that she became sick and died in a public ward at Sir Patrick Dunn's Hospital. It may have been appendicitis or cancer, some say it was simply overwork.

When Countess Markievicz was taken to the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin for burial, it was said that as many as 300,000 people turned out on the streets to bid her goodbye. At the graveside, de Valera gave the eulogy.

"One thing she had in abundance -- physical courage, with that she was clothed as with a garment."
-- Sean O'Casey


Constance Markievicz was a woman who was both born to and then married into wealth and privilege. Most people like her live a life insulated from the trials and tribulations of the common man, but the Countess intentionally risked her life for those common people. During the Treaty debates, when few were considering them, she spoke up for those common people, and the affect that the treaty would have on them. Playwright Sean O'Casey, who quit Connolly's Citizen Army in a dispute with Markievicz, once said of her: "One thing she had in abundance -- physical courage, with that she was clothed as with a garment." When young girls are searching for history's female heroes, they should be told the story of Constance Gore-Booth, the Countess of Irish freedom.

Bibliography:

 

  • Boylan, Henry: A Dictionary of Irish Biography, St. Martin's Press, 1988
  • Coogan, Tim Pat: The IRA: A History, Robert Rinehart Publishers, 1993
  • De Rosa, Peter: Rebels: The Irish Rising of 1916, Fawcett Columbine Books, 1990
  • Haverty, Anne: Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary, HarperCollins (paper), 1993
  • Ó Céirín, Kit and Cyril: Women of Ireland: A Biographical Dictionary, Irish Books and Media, Inc., 1996
  • Norman, Diana: Terrible Beauty: A Life of Constance Markievicz, 1868-1927, Living Sacrifice Book Company, 1987
  • Wallace, Martin: Famous Irish Lives, Appletree Press Ltd., 1991

Copyright © 2012 GAR Media LLC. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@garmedia.com.

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Tags: 1916, Co., Constance, Ireland, Lissadell, Markievicz, Sligo

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