Monday, 23 January 2017

Constance Markievicz: The Revolutionary Countess

By Marion Riley

Countess Markievicz by John Butler Yeats
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Countess Markievicz was born Constance Gore-Booth in 1868 in London to Sir Henry Gore-Booth, the famous arctic explorer. As an Anglo-Irish landlord, her father was not typical of his type and administered his lands with a degree of compassion for the peasantry who farmed it. He is reported to have provided famine relief in 1879 at his estate in Sligo, This act of compassion undoubtedly inspired humanity and concern for the poor in his daughter. Living in Sligo, the family were friends with the family of W.B. Yeats, the poet.

Lissadell House, Ballinful, Co. Sligo- Constance's childhood home.
Photo: Kay Atherton [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Constance studied painting in London in 1893 where she became involved in the issue of suffrage for women, joining the 'National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies'. She continued her artistic studies in Paris in 1898 where she met Count Markievicz, who was a Ukrainian aristocrat of Polish origin. They wed in 1901 and returned to Sligo where their daughter Maeve was born. They settled in Dublin in 1903 where the Countess co-founded the 'United Artists Club' which was a cultural and artistic organisation. In 1908 she joined Sinn Fein. She continued to participate in the Suffragette movement in England and by standing for election she helped to defeat Winston Churchill in a 1908 Manchester by-election.

Open Christmas letter from the Suffragettes of Manchester.
Eva Gore-Booth, Constance's sister, is listed on there.
Image: Manchester Archives+ from Manchester, United Kingdom
[CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1909 she established the radical 'Fianna Eireann' which was aimed at instructing a youth army in the use of firearms. She was jailed by the British authorities in 1913 after speaking at an IRB rally to protest the visit of George V to Dublin. She also joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) established by James Connolly.

As a Lieutenant in the ICA the Countess participated in the Easter Rising of 1916 where she was second-in-command at the fight on St. Stephens Green. Initially the rebels dug trenches in the green but soon retreated from this position once they became vulnerable to snipers positioned on the high buildings around the enclosed green. Under the command of Michael Mallin they occupied the Royal College of Surgeons, rebelling for a total of 6 days.

Studio portrait c.1915 of Countess Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth)
in uniform with a gun.
Photo: National Library of Ireland on The Commons (Flickr: Countess Markievicz)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They surrendered only when they received a copy of Padraig Pearse's surrender order. The Countess was jailed in Kilmainham and sentenced to death but her sentence was commuted on grounds of her gender. She was released from prison in 1917 by which time the tide of support had turned in favour of the rebels and the path to independence was set.

In 1918 she was again jailed for her anti-conscription campaigning but upon release was elected to the English parliament, refusing to take her seat. She was the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. She was a member of the first 'Dáil' (Irish Parliament) in 1919 and became the first Irish (and indeed European) Cabinet Minister, serving as Minister for Labour from 1919 to 1922.

Clare elections, victory procession led by pipers, with Countess Markievicz in white coat.
Photo: National Library of Ireland on The Commons [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

She joined DeValera in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 which partitioned the country and fought in Dublin in the ensuing civil war. She was again imprisoned but this time by her former comrades-in-arms. Upon her release, she became a founder member of Fianna Fail and was elected to the fifth Dáil in 1927. DeValera had by this time changed tactics and intended to participate in the parliament. The Countess however, never got her chance when, at the age of 59, she died of tuberculosis (or possibly appendicitis) in July of 1927. She likely caught the disease while working in the Dublin slums. Her husband and family were by her side.

Glasnevin Cemetery
Photo: William Murphy from Dublin, Ireland [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, the final resting place of so many Irish patriots with a farewell crowd of 300,000 in attendance.
Text: © Marion Riley

Marion Riley was born in Limerick city and emigrated as a teenager to Manchester. She has worked in Sardinia, Spain, Switzerland and France. A winner and runner up of Irelands Own writing competitions, the magazine has published many of her stories and articles. Her monologues have been performed at the Library Theatre and the Royal Exchange and her poems and memoirs have been published in various anthologies such as Write North West. 
Two of her short story Films 'Curls of the Past' and 'Letting Go' are on the BBC website Telling Lives. She has also edited and published her late mother's memoirs' From Kerry Child to Limerick Lady.' Marion now lives in Sussex, close to daughter where there is space and peace for quiet reflection on life's transience.

Marion wrote a monologue 'I Did What Was Right & I Stand By It' based on Countess Markievicz's life for MIW's commemorative event, '1916: The Risen Word'. 1916TRW was performed at the Irish World Heritage Centre, Manchester on March 10 2016. MIW received the generous support of the Embassy of Ireland for this event.

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