Countess Markievicz: The Only Woman Court Martialed for Her Role in the 1916 Easter Rising

Constance Markievicz was born in 1868 at Buckingham Gate London, the eldest daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet and Arctic explorer, and Lady Gore–Booth (nee Hill).  As an Anglo-Irish landlord and philanthropist, her father was not typical of his type (absentee British Landlords). Compassionate to a fault, he assisted his tenant framers in every way. During the famine of both 1845-1850 and 1879-80, he provided food at his Lissadell House Estate and allowed them to remain on their farms, unlike his counterparts - the absentee landlords who evicted their tenants for none payment of rent. 

Growing up in such a caring environment instilled within the Gore-Booth children a deep sense of concern for the poor and the working class.  Both Constance and her sister, Eva, shared the same passionate instincts as their father for ministering to the poor for life. They, too, would tend the poor and the tenant farmers, always ready to lend a helping hand to those who come to their door for assistance.

Constance's and Eva’s early life was typical of the privileges of a wealthy background, being a part of a social network of other wealthy children. They were educated at home and were always interested in artistic work.  Constance enjoyed painting, drawing, parties and hunting. They grew up sharing their time between their Lissadell House Estate in Sligo and their London homes.

William Butler Yeats, who came from a similar aristocratic background   and who was descendant of the first Earls of Ormond, spent his holidays in Sligo.  He spent much of his time with the young sisters, Constance and Eva. His artistic talent and his political opinions, plus his interest in Irish legends, were to leave a lasting impression on both sisters. He wrote a poem called "In memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markieviez," describing them as two girls in silk kimonos -- both beautiful, one like a gazelle. The two girls were a part of the high society crowd in London, as was Yeats. It was no surprise, therefore, that Constance was presented at the court of Queen Victoria in the Monarch’s Jubilee year of 1887.  

Constance was heavily influenced by Yeats. Being artistic herself, she made the decision to train as a painter. In this era, there was only one art school in Dublin who accepted female students. So, in 1893 her father sent her to study at the Slade School of Art in London. Since London was a second home to her, she had no problems settling into her studies there. Around this time, she began to understand all the political conversations that she and her sister had with W.B. Yeats. Having already been imbued with the kind and caring nature that she had inherited from her father, she joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in London to help further the cause of women’s equality and the right for women to vote. Eva had, by this time, become heavily involved in the labour movement and women’s suffrage in Manchester.

Markievicz travelled to Manchester in 1905 to support her sister and Emily Pankhurst in a protest at a political meeting being held by Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey (liberal politicians). The suffragettes stormed that meeting asking the men if they believed women should have the vote. Neither man answered the question. They were quickly shown the door; just  as  Markievicz was arriving;  flamboyantly dressed  with the reins in her hand, driving  an  old fashioned carriage and horse - a  male heckler asked her  “could  she cook a dinner “ to which she replied “Yes ; can you drive a coach and four “. Some sources say that Churchill lost this election partly due to the Suffragettes protest.

Following on from her studies in London, Constance travelled to Paris to continue her studies where she enrolled at the prestigious Académie Julian. This is where she met her husband, Count Casimir Markievicz, who was a Polish student at Académie Julian. He came from a wealthy Polish family who owned lots of land in what is now Ukraine. He was married at this time; however, his wife was very ill and died in 1899 leaving him a young widower with a young son. Constance Gore Booth and Count Markievicz then became a couple. They were married in London in September of 1900. She took on the role of a mother to the Count's son, Stanalas. The year following their move to Ireland, Constance gave birth to a baby girl called Maeve at the family estate Lissadell House, Sligo.

Following a period nursing her baby, she left her daughter in the care of her Gore-Booth grandparents, the Markieviczes, and moved to Dublin. Not seeing her daughter Maeve over long periods of time, they eventually became estranged.

Settling into Dublin artistic and intellectual society circles, the Markieviczs a rented cottage in the Dublin hills vacated by the poet Padraic Colum. She gained a reputation as a landscape painter, commissions coming from the more wealthy people in society. She was instrumental in founding the United Artists' Society in 1905 along with Sarah Purser, Nathaniel Hone, Walter Osborne, John Butler Yeats (father of William Butler Yeats), and none other than Douglas Hyde (a future President of Ireland from 1938-1945), who was a founding member of the Gaelic League. Markievicz became of member of the Gaelic League alongside all these people of note, who all associated themselves with intellectuals from all professions and the arts. Sarah Purser, being one of these intellectuals, hosted regular gatherings of all these artists, writers, and intellectuals from both sides of the national divide.

This is where Markievicz met the revolutionary patriots Michael Davitt, John O’Leary, and Maud Gonne. Having had access to the poet Padraic Colum's revolutionary journals (i.e. "The Peasant and Sinn Fein") left behind in his vacation of his tenancy in the Dublin Hills cottage, Markieviez had become very knowledgeable of Ireland's need to become an independent nation. Markievicz became very good friends with Maud Gonne and performed with her in the newly established Abbey Theatre on several occasions, so cementing their relationship in Irish revolutionary politics and in the arts.

She instinctively threw herself into the nationalist politics of Ireland and became highly active within these revolutionary circles. She joined Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (daughters of Ireland])in 1908. This was a revolutionary woman’s movement, which was founded by the activist and actress Maud Gonne, to promote all aspects of Irish nationalism in all its forms. The first ever meeting she was to attend for Inghinidhe na hÉireann happened to take place on a night where she was also attending a function with her husband Count Markievicz at Dublin Castle (the seat of British Rule in Ireland in this era). Rushing into the Inghinidhe na hÉireann meeting with a satin ball-gown and a diamond tiara on her head, she was unperturbed by the hostility that her appearance generated. In fact, she would later say that it was all rather refreshing that these people did not "kowtow" to her as a Countess. Apparently this, more than anything else, made her more determined to participate in the Inghinidhe na hÉireann aims.

By 1909, Markievicz was determined to involve the youth of Ireland in their national heritage and founded Fianna Éireann, a para-military nationalist scouts organisation that instructed both boys and girls in the use of firearms and military training. When the Irish Volunteers were founded in 1913, sources close to Patrick Pearse said that Fianna Éireann was just as important, if not more important, than the founding of the Irish Volunteers, as young minds and bodies would be more receptive to learning their history than adults.  Other sources like Bulmar Hobson have since disputed that Countess Markievicz did, in fact, establish Fianna  Éireann. However, Liam Mac an Ultaigh's (the Chief Scout of Ireland) research shows that it was, indeed, Countess Markievicz who founded this movement.  

By 1911, Markievicz was well and truly anti-British establishment. In front of 30,000 people at a demonstration organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (who were protesting against the visit of George V’s visit to Ireland), she handed out leaflets and helped erect huge flags which read: “Dear land thou art not conquered yet." In front of these 30,000 people she spoke in very strong terms about the need to free Ireland from British rule.

She also took part in stone-throwing at the King's and Queen's pictures, and attempted to set afire the British Flag taken from Leinster House. Eventually, the group that she was with did burn the British flag. For this, Markievicz was arrested. In court she protested strongly against the prison sentence imposed on her friend James MacArdie who was imprisoned for one month. She shouted that it was she who had organised the flag burning.  Her other friend Helena Maloney was also arrested and sent to prison for her part in the stone-throwing. None of Markievicz's verbal admissions convinced the court that she had acted on her own. She and Helena Maloney were the first women in Ireland to be tried and imprisoned for a political act since the time of the Ladies Land League Act of 1878 (founded by Douglas Hyde).

Not content with all the rebel movements that she had already joined, she joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizens Army to help defend the demonstrating workers in what has gone down in history as "the lockout."

Markievicz set up soup kitchens in Liberty Hall to help feed and support the workers and their families from police brutality while they were on strike against their big business employers. Jim Larkin was, of course, the instigator of the Dublin lockout, supported by all the rebel movements.

Markievicz recruited many volunteers to prepare the food while she and others distributed the food. Unknown to many people at the time, Markievicz paid for all this food with her own money. She was forced to take out many loans to continue this work, and towards the end of the strike she even sold all her jewellery to continue to fund the work. That same year (1913), she also set up soup kitchens with Inghinidhe na hÉireann to feed all the poor school children in Dublin wherever there was a need.

In 1914, Markievicz joined Cumann na Mbann. She participated in the Howth gun running with other members of the Irish  Volunteers and Cumann na mBann. The Howth gun cargo had been planned and executed by members of the Irish Military Army: Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke, Erskin Childers had offered his yacht, The Asgard, as a means of transportation with another ship called The Kelpie. The Kelpie landed at Kilcoole, County Wicklow where  they managed to load all of the armoury onto these two boats. Casement, Figgis and Erskine Childers had sealed the deal in Belgium for the weapons and armoury.

When the Asgard sailed into Howth Harbour it was met by the Irish Citizen Army and Cumann na mBan members, led by Markievicz. They were all ready with hand guns and wheelbarrows.  Markievicz had instructed all the Cumman na mBann memberz to “dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels at home, and buy a revolver." This armoury was stored all over Dublin. It was used to train the volunteers and, as history now records, it formed a major part of the armoury resources during the 1916 Easter Rising.

A very busy lady indeed, she also co-founded the Irish Neutrality League in 1914. It was totally opposed to Irish men going to fight what she determined was an English war. She was a regular contributor to Bean na hÉireann (Women of Ireland) and the United Irishmen.

By 1916, she had proved her worth to the Leaders of the Irish Republican Army [IRB], Sinn Fein, The Irish Citizen Army (ICA, founded by James Connolly]) Cumman Na mBan, and all the other Irish rebel movements that she had committed herself too. She wrote the theme tune for the Irish Citizens Army based on a Polish tune that she liked. She also designed the Irish Citizens Army uniform.

So with this staunch vigour of commitment to all the rebel movements, who were intent on fighting with guns for an independent Ireland if it became necessary, it came as no surprise that Markievicz was appointed to Lieutenant -- second in command to Michael Mallin in St. Stephen's Green on that fateful Easter Monday morning in 1916. She supervised the setting up of the barricades as the Rising began and was very instrumental in all tactics that were deployed by the volunteers in the Green. With sniper fire all around them by now, snipers were on the roof of the Shelbourne Hotel and other tall buildings which surrounded Stephen's Green. Markivicz took aim at a British officer and wounded him. Some sources say she shot him point blank through the head. Running out of armoury and bullets, she and other members of Cumann na mBan went through the side streets of Dublin to reach Trinity College, where they knew they would find rifles and bullets. On their return, the battalion had retreated to the Royal College of Surgeons. The Irish Army Volunteers and Cum na mBan held out for six days until the command came from Patrick Pearse to surrender.

The English officer who accepted their surrender order was none other than Captain Wheeler (a.k.a. Major de Courcy Wheeler) who was married to Markievicz's first cousin. She is said to have held her revolver to her lips and kissed it before she handed over to Captain Wheeler. They were all arrested and taken to Dublin Castle.

As the volunteers and Cumann na Mban  were led through a crowed Dublin City, they were jeered at by the ordinary citizens of Ireland who would later become a more republican nation when they observed and understood that all of these men and women were being imprisoned and/or shot for their convictions.

She was transferred to Mountjoy Prison and then transported to Aylesbury Prison in England. She was released after seventeen months with all the others. Some sources say that it was about this time that she converted to Catholicism. Other sources say that her inspiration while in prison was the fact that she had been deeply inspired by two men. One was James Connolly and the other Thomas Clarke who was a signatory of the 1916 Easter Rising Proclamation. Both men were shot in Kilmainham Gaol, both staunch Catholics and revolutionaries.

Ever after, she remained unforgiving in her attitude towards Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, Eoin MacNeil, who had tried desperately to prevent the insurrection of the 1916 Easter Rising.  

Her husband, Count Markievicz, never really settled in Ireland. In 1913, he went back to live in Ukraine. They corresponded on a regular basis and he was by her side when she died in a Dublin Hospital in 1927. The streets of Dublin were thronged  with ordinary working class people for her funeral. Such was the impression that she made in their lives and on Ireland's history.

After her release from prison, she became deeply involved in political life. December of 1918 saw her enter the general election as a Sinn Fein candidate. She became the first woman ever returned to the Commons in Westminster. As a member of Sinn Fein, she did not take her seat. Through politics and Cuman na mBann (before they were banned by T.W Cosgrave), she was able to serve the principles for which she joined the Rebel movements: an Independent Ireland, free of the rule of the British Empire.

Countess Markievicz, we salute you,

Top image: Countess Markievicz in the uniform that she designed for the Irish Citizen Army. 

More from this series:

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Éamonn Ceannt

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Cornelius Colbert

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Cathal Brugha

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Seán Heuston

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Seán Mac Diarmada

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Tomás Séamus Ó Cléirigh

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Liam Mac Piarais

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Edward 'Ned' Daly

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Tomás Mac Donnchadha

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Michael O'Hanrahan

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Sean Connolly

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Michael Mallin

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: James Connolly

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Patrick Pearse

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Joseph Mary Plunkett

Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising: Éamon de Valera

The Link Between the Capuchin Friars and the Leaders of the 1916 Ea...

Mary Thorpe is the author of "That's Just How it Was," available on Amazon, Kindle, Gardner's Wholesale Books UK, Bertems, and Ingrams.

 Now available to order from Waterstones  Stores from USA ; England / Ireland 

Views: 2110

Tags: 1916, Dublin, Easter Rising, Irish Freedom Struggle, Military History, Women

Comment by M.J. Neary on May 29, 2015 at 9:36am

Oh, Con was really something!  A flighty romantic, even into her middle age.

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on May 29, 2015 at 11:08am

That sounds about right - but one hell of a women 


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