Countess Constance Markievicz

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Countess Constance Georgina Markievicz [née Gore-Booth] (1868-1927), revolutionary and politician; born at 7 Buckingham Gate, London, on 4 February 1868. Her father, the philanthropist Henry Gore-Booth, was also an Arctic explorer and a landlord in the west of Ireland, and was married to Georgina May Hill, of Tickhill Castle, York. Constance was educated by a governess at Lissadell, Co. Sligo where the family held extensive estates. She was the eldest of three daughters and two sons and her sister, Eva Gore-Booth would later become a campaigner for women’s suffrage. In the monarch jubilee year of 1887 she was presented at court to Queen Victoria and was called ‘the new Irish beauty’, and took her place in society as a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. She was also noted as a fine horsewoman, and as an excellent shot. William Butler Yeats was a frequent guest at Lissadell. After listening to his stories of Irish myths and folklore and to his passionate political ideas, she was stirred to action. At that time women were not allowed to vote in elections or to become Members of Parliament. Markievicz decided to join the suffragettes who were fighting for women’s rights. Around this time she joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, a cause she was to remain devoted to throughout her life.

In 1893 she moved to London to study at the Slade School of Art in London. In 1898 she moved to Paris where she continued to study art at the Julian School. While there she met and later married fellow artist and Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz. The Polish widower’s family owned a large estate in Ukraine. After travelling abroad, they returned to Sligo where their daughter Maeve was born in 1901. Maeve was raised by her grandparents. In 1903 Markievicz moved to Dublin where she began to make a name for herself as a landscape artist. Dublin was a vibrant city at the time, a centre for artists, actors, writers and politicians. Markievicz was attracted to the Gaelic League and the Abbey Theatre. She helped to found the United Arts Club in 1907, which helped bring together people of the artistic renaissance. Markievicz expressed her dissatisfaction with this kind of life ‘nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for’. In 1906 she rented a cottage at Ballally, Co. Dublin, and came across a number of old copies of the revolutionary publications the Peasant and Sinn Féin left by a previous tenant, the poet Pádraig Colum. After reading these, Markievicz knew she had found a cause to inspire her life. Her interest in the struggle for freedom was aroused.

Markievicz became active in nationalist politics and her aim was to make Ireland an independent nation. In 1908 she joined Sinn Féin and Maud Gonne’s women group, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). She also became a regular contributor to Bean na hÉireann (Women of Ireland), Ireland’s first women’s nationalist journal and the United Irishman. She went to Manchester in 1908 and stood unsuccessfully for election with her sister Eva, who was deeply involved in social reform. At the suggestion of Bulmer Hobson, she founded Na Fianna Éireann (1909), an organisation for boys, who were taught to drill and use arms. The movement aimed to establish an independent Ireland and also to promote the Irish language.

In 1911 Markievicz was arrested when she took part in a demonstration against the visit of King George V to Ireland. She worked closely with James Connolly who fought for Irish nationalism and social equality. She ran a soup kitchen in Liberty Hall during the 1913 Dublin lockout. Markievicz then joined the Irish Citizens Army. She had separated from her husband about 1909 and later worked as a war correspondent in the Balkans. She was strongly opposed to Irish involvement in the Great War and co-founded the Irish Neutrality League in 1914. During the 1916 Rising Markievicz was appointed second in command to Michael Mallin at St. Stephen’s Green. Although condemned to death when the rising was crushed, she had her sentence commuted to penal servitude for life (on account of her sex) and was imprisoned in Aylesbury Jail. Under the general amnesty of 1917, Markievicz was released and immediately became a convert to Catholicism—she claimed to have experienced an epiphany during the rising. In August 1917 she was made a freeman of Sligo. She was made honorary president of the Irish Women Workers’s Union.

In 1918 she was again arrested by the British during their bogus ‘German Plot’, which was aimed at defeating the anti-conscription forces in Ireland. While in prison, she was returned in the general election of December 1918 for St. Patrick’s division of Dublin. Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament, but in accordance with Sinn Féin policy she did not take her seat. She refused to take the oath of allegiance to the King. She was a member of the first Dáil Éireann, which met on the 21 January 1919, and was appointed Minister for Labour. She was arrested in the summer of 1919 for making a seditious speech, and was sentenced to four months’ hard labour. After being arrested again in 1920 she received a sentence of two years’ hard labour.

She denounced the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, which established the Irish Free State within the British Commonwealth, in the Dáil after being released from prison early under the general amnesty that followed its signing. She toured America in 1922 to enlist support for the Republican cause. She stated:

‘It is the capitalist interests in England and Ireland that are pushing this Treaty to block the march of the working people in England and Ireland ... Now I say that Ireland’s freedom is worth blood, and worth my blood, and I will willingly give it for it, and I appeal to the men of the Dáil to stand true’.

She was also leader of Cumann na mBan. An opponent of the Irish Free State, she supported the ‘Irregulars’ during the Civil War, for which she was imprisoned. She was released soon after she went on hunger strike in protest. In the general election of 1923 she was elected as Sinn Féin abstentionist TD for Dublin City South. When de Valera formed Fianna Fáil in 1926 Markievicz became a member. During the general election of 1927 she conducted her own campaign and was re-elected to the Dáil. For some years her health was failing, and she died in a public ward in Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, Dublin on 15 July 1927. The working-class people of Dublin lined the streets of Dublin for her funeral. Eamonn de Valera was one of the pall-bearers. She is commemorated by a limestone bust in St. Stephen’s Green, by a plaque in St. Ultan’s Hospital and by the Yeats’s poem ‘In memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Constance Markievicz’. She is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Co. Dublin.

 

Writings, biography & studies. Constance de Markievicz, A call to the women of Ireland: being a lecture delivered to the Student’s National Literary Society, Dublin (Dublin 1918). Richard Michael Fox, Rebel Irishwomen (Cork & Dublin 1935). Jacqueline Van Voris, Constance de Markievicz: in the cause of Ireland (Amherst 1967). Anne Marreco, The Rebel Countess: The Life and Times of Constance Markievicz (London 1967). Brian Farrell, Markievicz & the women of the revolution (London 1967). Eibhlín Ní Eireamhóin, Two great Irishwomen: Maud Gonne MacBride & Constance Markievicz (Dublin 1971). D. J. Smith, ‘The Countess and the Poets: Constance Gore-Booth Markievicz in the Work of Irish Writers’ in Journal of Irish Literature 12 no. 1 (1983) 3-63. Diana Norma, Terrible beauty: a life of Constance Markievicz, 1868-1927 (London 1987). Constance Georgina Markievicz, Prison letters of Countess Markievicz (London 1987). Seán Ó Faoláin, Constance Markievicz (3rd Edition London 1987). Anne Haverty, Constance Markievicz: an independent life (London 1988). Sari Oikarinen, ‘A dream of liberty’: Constance Markievicz’s vision of Ireland, 1908-1927 (Helsinki 1998). Karen Steele, ‘Constance Markievicz’s allegorical garden: femininity, militancy, and the press, 1909-1915’, in Communication Abstracts 24 no. 2 (2001) 155-296. Joe McGowan, Constance Markievicz: the people’s countess (Sligo 2003). Louise Ryan & Margaret Ward (ed), Irish Women and nationalism: soldiers, new women, and wicked hags (Dublin 2004).

Tomás O’Riordan