Markievicz, Constance (1868–1927)
Markievicz, Constance (1868–1927)
Irish revolutionary who was both symbol and exemplar of the crucial role played by many active, though less visible, women in Irish nationalist politics between 1909 and 1922 . Name variations: Countess de Markiewicz; Constance Gore-Booth. Pronunciation: Mark-ee-vitz. Born Constance Georgina Gore-Booth at Buckingham Gate, London, England, on February 4, 1868; died in Dublin, Ireland, on July 15, 1927, of peritonitis; daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth of Lissadell, Sligo, Ireland, and Georgina Mary Hill of Tickhill Castle, Yorkshire, England; sister of Eva Gore-Booth (1870–1926); educated privately and at Julien's of Paris, France, 1897–99; married Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz, on September 29, 1900; children: Maeve Alys (b. November 14, 1901).
Founded Fianna na hEireann (1909); joined labor movement during Great Lockout in Dublin (1913); fought in Dublin during 1916 rebellion as member of Irish Citizen Army; sentenced to death but reprieved, and spent year in prison; elected to first Dail Eireann and appointed secretary for labour (1919); opposed Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and played active part in civil war (1922–23).
In 1966, when the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rebellion was the occasion of flamboyant and sometimes xenophobic celebration in Ireland, Countess Constance Markievicz occupied a unique position in popular Irish history: she was, apparently, the only clearly identifiable woman who had been actively engaged in revolutionary pursuits. She was, it was implied rather than stated, the token exception amongst the smallish group of women participants in the Rising (as the rebellion became generally known) whose role was to clerk, cook, nurse, load weapons, and eventually bear white flags. Much emphasis was placed on her patrician and Anglo-Irish background, and her conversion to Irish nationalist principles was quietly referred to as a further sign of the legitimacy of those principles. She was truly the "Rebel Countess," each side of that description lending support to the other. Unsurprisingly, the reality was a touch more complicated.
The society into which Constance Gore-Booth was born in 1868 was already developing into the state of crisis at the height of which she would have her finest hour. But had it not been for her own individual qualities historians would certainly have regarded her more as a part of the Irish problem than a partial key to its solution. For Constance was one of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, a socio-political group which has now all but disappeared but which between 1700 and 1920 was the ruling elite in Ireland. It was one of the less endearing characteristics of that elite to abandon their Irish estates and responsibilities for at least part of each year and repair to London for the social season. The Gore-Booths, it should be said, were not "absentees" in the true economically disastrous sense of the time; but Constance's mother Georgina Hill Gore-Booth was an English aristocrat, and Constance's birth in London was not quite the "mere accident" she herself liked to claim.
The Gore-Booths' Irish estate was "Lissadell" at Drumcliffe, Sligo, on Ireland's west coast. The family had first come to Ireland during the Reformation of the 16th century. By the time Constance arrived, however, her immediate forbears had begun to depart from the pattern of financial fecklessness, social unconcern, and political introversion which had long characterized Anglo-Irish rule. It was a process that Constance was to carry to its eventual self-destructive conclusion. During the Great Potato Famine of the 1840s, when most Anglo-Irish landowners wavered between genuine but helpless distress at the plight of their starving tenantry, and the dogmatic view that the forces of markets and nature should be allowed to take their course, the Gore-Booths continued to collect rents where possible, but returned much of it in the form of food to their tenants. When the rents were no longer forthcoming and the food finally ran out, the family went into debt to protect their tenantry. A generation later, in 1879–80, when conditions bordering on famine returned to the Irish countryside, the 12-year-old Constance joined her elders in distributing food to the hungry and so acquired some of the organizing skills and much of the sense of social responsibility for which she would one day become renowned.
But for the most part Constance's upbringing was conventional for a girl of her time and class, and both she and her family were quite content that it should be so. Her educational agenda, which she shared with her younger sisters, Eva Gore-Booth and Mabel Gore-Booth , consisted almost entirely of the acquisition of narrow social mannerisms and the polite skills of sketching and music. It was intended that she should be decorative rather than useful, and cultivated rather than intelligent. Only in middle age did she perceive the essential inadequacy of her early formal education, and only then also did she at last cross the boundary away from "Lady Bountiful"-type philanthropy and into a mental world where socialist and nationalist ideologies governed and informed her attitudes. In her youth much of her energy, drive and enthusiasm, which were later channeled into political objectives, found an outlet in horse-riding. As long as it was on a purely amateur (i.e. unpaid) basis, proficiency in handling horses was considered by upper-class Victorians—especially in the predominantly rural environment of Ireland—to be a perfectly respectable female accomplishment. It was a pursuit in which Constance excelled from an early age. When wintry weather kept them indoors at Lissadell, amateur theatricals occupied the girls.
Although known domestically and locally in Sligo as a young woman of spirit and determination, Constance showed little sign in her adolescent years that she was willing to press these personality traits beyond the ordinary boundaries laid down by respectable society. In due course, she was conducted by her governess on a "grand tour" of Italy, presented to Queen Victoria in that lady's golden jubilee year of 1887, then made her formal entry into society and its wellstructured marriage market. For some years, Constance seemed fully occupied by the glittering social whirl, and her progress was rendered only slightly unusual by her tardiness in acquiring a husband. Politically, she veered from her designedly "shocking" participation in 1891 in the procession through Sligo of the disgraced Home Ruler Charles Stewart Parnell, to occasional appearances at anti-Home Rule meetings in 1893. Her presidency of the Sligo Women's Suffrage Society (of which her sisters acted as secretary and treasurer) was short lived and her interest in the movement apparently superficial. The liberal outlook of Constance's parents,
which probably accounted for her continuing unmarried state, no doubt also underlay the fulfillment of her ambition to study art in Paris. A fellow student was Casimir Dunin-Markievicz, a Polish aristocrat and a widower with one son. Though he was six years younger than Constance, her parents raised no objection when the conventional courtship led to engagement and marriage in the summer and fall of 1900 (Constance's father Henry had, in fact, died in January). Their first and only child, Maeve Alys Markievicz , was born a year later.
Constance Markievicz's road to 1916 was a long one, and its stages are still not altogether clear. There was no dramatic moment of conversion or any indisputable evidence of a steady change in her personal ideology. The changes in Markievicz, such as they were, may have reflected simply the gradual, almost imperceptible, shifts in social and political attitudes which took place in the conservative society that was Edwardian Ireland. It was a time when the IRB (Irish Republican Brotherhood), that most long-surviving of Irish nationalist organizations, began to infiltrate and assume command of many of the country's sporting and cultural bodies.
Sacrifice, misunderstanding and scorn lay on the road she adopted, but she trod it unflinchingly.
—Eamon de Valera
The Markieviczs spent much of their abundant spare time acting and writing for the Dublin theater movement, which was then undergoing a revival that had strong Gaelic and cultural overtones. Her repeated performances in the role of "Ireland" as personified by a wronged maiden led her to enquire beneath the surface of the analogy, and inevitably she was brought into contact with active nationalist politicians. Because of her establishment credentials, however, she was treated with great suspicion, and even the female nationalist body of the time, Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland, pronounced in-y-ee-an na hair-on), regarded her as a possible government spy.
Markievicz was forced to prove the sincerity of her attachment to the nationalist cause through a unilateral gesture, but one which was to have the most profound long-term significance. Fianna na hEireann (pronounced fee-an-a na hair-on), founded by Constance in 1909, took their format from the then-omnipresent boys' brigades and their name from a body of ancient Irish warriors. Unlike the IRB which worked by subterfuge and infiltration, Markievicz had founded an explicitly militaristic body whose aim was the overthrow of the establishment. Many of the youths who filled its ranks would one day fight in the 1916 Rising and in the War of Independence of 1919–21. Its popularity became so obvious and its growth was so rapid that soon it was afforded the ultimate accolade: it was quietly taken over by the IRB. Constance believed that secret bodies like the IRB often proved to be fertile ground for the second-rate and the self-important, but she was helpless to prevent the development.
In any event, the boy-members of the Fianna needed time in which to grow up. Meanwhile Markievicz, now solidly integrated into the world of Irish underground nationalism, turned her attention to the developing labor movement. Several prominent nationalists known to Constance had become involved at one point or another with the labor unrest that had gradually threatened to paralyze Dublin during the course of 1913. Constance herself was catapulted from the periphery into the center of the unrest when she was savagely assaulted by the police in one of their most bloody and notorious efforts at crowd control. When a general lockout of the striking workers was introduced a few weeks later, she began to assist in a direct and, to her, very familiar manner. Of the several bodies which sprang up to feed and clothe the Dublin poor during the hungry locked-out winter of 1913–14, Constance Markievicz's was virtually unique in being apolitical and non-sectarian.
The strike eventually collapsed, a humiliating defeat for the workers, but by then it had been overtaken by events of far greater significance. To protect themselves against the attacks of the police and to preserve morale for as long as possible, the workers formed themselves into the Irish Citizen Army. It would eventually be an armed, uniformed, and well-drilled organization, and Markievicz was one of its first members.
At Westminster, home of the British Parliament in London, the Irish Parliamentary Party was about to crown a generation of effort with the attainment of Home Rule, a form of limited self-government for Ireland which kept it constitutionally still within the British Empire. The measure was resented by republican nationalists who desired a more total political separation of Britain and Ireland, but it was resented even more by the loyalists of Ulster in North-East Ireland who in 1913–14 armed themselves and prepared to resist Home Rule. In response to Ulster, southern Irish nationalists formed the Irish Volunteers in November 1913.
The drifting together of the socialist and nationalist armies was to be gradual, but Markievicz was by then involved in both movements. It was she who presided over the absorption of Inghinidhe na hEireann into the new Cumann na mBan (roughly, The Irish Women's Council, pronounced come-in na mon), the female wing of the Irish Volunteers. With the outbreak of the First World War, the British government postponed the implementation of the Home Rule measure. The resultant political vacuum was filled by the Irish Volunteers, now driven increasingly by the IRB, which laid plans for a military uprising, the goal of which would be an Irish republic independent of Britain. When the Volunteers secured rifles and ammunition in July 1914, Constance's Fianna boys were of particular service. Their "handbook" was quickly adopted for military training purposes by the adult Volunteers.
It was perhaps the measure of Markievicz's achievement as a woman in a male-dominated nationalist movement that, on the eve of the rebellion, she was confirmed in her role as a lieutenant in the Citizen Army rather than as a support-person of Cumann na mBan. Last-minute disagreement at the policy-making level led to confusion in the ranks and from the outset the 1916 rebellion was doomed to military failure. It was no fault of hers that Constance was posted to one of the most ludicrous and militarily suicidal positions. This was St. Stephen's Green, a park in central Dublin surrounded by high buildings. Due to shortage of troops, plans to seize the buildings were abandoned early and the Green itself was occupied instead, reducing the insurgents to the role of fish in a barrel. They eventually retreated to one of the nearby unoccupied buildings, and it was there, after a week of indifferent action, that she received orders to surrender. Many prominent leaders of the uprising were executed in the weeks that followed. Despite Markievicz's own account of her coolness and bravado in the face of the death sentence passed upon her, her defense counsel remembered her as having broken down and begged that her life be spared because she was a woman. It was a plea accepted by the military court which then commuted her sentence to penal servitude for life.
The executions of the 1916 leaders proved to be, from the British point of view, a grave error. During the year that Markievicz spent in prison, first in Dublin and then in Aylesbury, England, the political climate in Ireland changed drastically. The republican movement, once a minority pursuit (even if it was a somewhat large minority), became a national obsession. Ex-prisoners and relatives of the executed leaders succeeded in being elected to the British Parliament and by mid-1917 the bulk of the interned rebels had been released. As a prominent survivor of the rebellion, Markievicz's position in future nationalist endeavors was assured. In the election of December 1918, which saw the destruction of the old parliamentary party and its effective replacement by republican Sinn Fein (pronounced shin fane) representatives, Markievicz was elected with a large majority for a Dublin constituency.
By this time, however, she was again in an English prison, having been arrested for treasonable activities during the failed British attempt to introduce conscription to Ireland during the last critical spring of the First World War. She was not present, therefore, for the early meetings of Dail Eireann (pronounced doyle air-on), the parliamentary body into which Sinn Fein members had formed themselves by the simple expedient of refusing to take their seats at Westminster. On her release in April 1919, she was the only woman appointed to the Dail's "cabinet" or "government"; she was the first ever Irish secretary for labour. The British government, not surprisingly, refused to recognize the new Dail institutions. A shooting war involving the reconstituted Irish Volunteers (soon to be called the Irish Republican Army or IRA) began early in 1919 and the prospects for Markievicz's personal safety deteriorated rapidly. Along with her Cabinet colleagues and most of the Dail, she became a fugitive member of a fugitive administration. She spent two more periods in prison and was released only after hostilities ceased in July 1921.
The final years of Constance Markievicz's life were sad and unfulfilled. Her hopes (such as they may have been) of a ministerial career vanished when she became part of the opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. The Treaty, which set up the Irish Free State, contained an oath of allegiance to the British monarch and other clauses which were objectionable to die-hard republicans such as Constance. A tour of America in the spring of 1922 helped to raise public awareness of the anti-Treaty position, but, by the time Markievicz returned in June, a civil war was about to erupt between the two factions.
She played an active part in the conflict, but the years of imprisonment and hardship had taken their toll; her spirit remained unbowed but her once-formidable energy and drive had begun to slacken. Because the anti-Treaty party, even in the wake of defeat in the civil war, refused to participate in the democratic processes of the Free State's parliamentary system, Constance Markievicz was unavoidably excluded from the center of events. She remained loyal to the futile politics of extra-parliamentary opposition, but the unfamiliar lack of activity and her advancing years took their toll upon her health. She seemed much older than her 58 years when she collapsed at a political meeting in July 1927. An emergency appendectomy failed, and within a fortnight (two weeks) peritonitis had put an end to her brave, lifelong struggle.
Van Voris, Jacqueline. Constance de Markievicz: In the Cause of Ireland. MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1967.
Haverty, Anne. Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary. London: Pandora, 1988.
Marreco, Ann. The Rebel Countess. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1967.
Regrettably there is no single body (or even small bodies of any consequence) of Constance Markievicz's papers. However, a publication of some value, Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz, was edited by Esther Roper in 1934 (reprinted London: Virago, 1987).
Gerard O'Brien , Senior Lecturer in History, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland