When it comes to Irish history, there is often talk of the men who fought for independence, who created modern Ireland, and who shaped the progress of the country to make it what it is today. However, there were plenty of women working towards the same goals too. Many of them helped plan military operations, worked as spies or messengers, helped raise awareness for the Irish cause through various means, and some proudly fought alongside male soldiers too. The most well known of these fearless women is Constance Markievicz, a revolutionary nationalist who tirelessly fought for the cause and ended up being the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons. Her life story is fascinating and not often told, so here's what you need to know...
Markievicz's Early Life
Constance Markievicz was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in London in 1868. She was the first daughter of an Arctic Explorer from Sligo called Sir Henry Gore Booth and his wife Georgina, an aristocrat from Yorkshire, England. Sir Henry was a wealthy landlord with a whopping estate spanning 100 square kilometres. The family lived for the most part in Lissadell House in northern county Sligo, an almost entirely agricultural area. A childhood friend of Constance and her little sister Eva was none other than the most well known Irish poet ever to have lived; William Butler Yeats. He would later describe the sisters as 'two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle' – the gazelle referring to Constance. Between 1879 and 1880 there was another, less severe famine in Ireland (after the original devastating potato famine of the 1840s), and during this time Sir Henry reportedly offered free food to his tenants, which taught the young Constance and her little sister Eva to appreciate their wealthy upbringing and instil in them a concern for those less fortunate.
Constance had a deep appreciation of both politics and art thanks to her education and upbringing, and decided to train as a painter. However, there was no art school in Ireland that would accept female students at the time, so she left for London in 1892 to enrol in Slade School of the Art. While studying there she became involved in the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, a cause that she would remain highly passionate about throughout her life. Having finished up in the Slade School of Art she moved onto the Academie Julian in Paris. There, she met Count Casimir Markievicz, another artist. He came from a wealthy Polish family and was married. His wife passed away in 1899 however, and he married Constance not long after her death in 1900. Casimir already had one son, Stanislaus, so Constance took over his care, and the family moved back to Ireland. In 1901, she gave birth to a child of her own, Maeve, in Lissadell House.
Involvement in Nationalism
The Markievicz family settled in Dublin in 1903, already established among the social elite of the day. Constance was enjoying success as a landscape painter, and in 1905 founded the United Artists Club with some of her fellow artists (John Butler Yeats, William's father, was one of them). In doing so she brought together all of the leading figures that would soon take part in the struggle for Irish independence in many different ways. One was Douglas Hyde, founder of the Gaelic League, a non-political organisation that had been established to promote Irish language and culture as part of the Gaelic Revival. Soon she was mixing with revolutionary leaders like Michael Davitt and John O'Leary. When she came across copies of old journals like The Peasant and Sinn Fein in a cottage she rented near Dublin in 1906, it served as a tipping point.
She was compelled to join the Nationalism movement in whatever way possible. However, Constance was unlike anyone these revolutionaries interacted with in their everyday lives. She was a countess, she came from a rich and powerful family and had a rich and powerful husband, and she was extremely intelligent, passionate, ambitious, and creatively talented. She arrived to her first official meeting with them having come from a function at Dublin Castle, wearing a ball gown and tiara! Naturally this created quite a stir, and she was met with some hostility at first, but this only spurred her on to prove her worth and show them how wrong they were about her. In 1909 she founded Fianna Eireann, a paramilitary nationalist scouts organisation that trained teenagers in the use of firearms in preparation for joining the revolutionary army. Although this may not be considered a particularly courageous thing to do nowadays, back then it was the only option the rebels had in their struggle for independence.
The ball gown incident was not the only time Markievicz made heads turn. As part of her suffrage campaign in England, she once toured around a constituency in a carriage driven by four white horses. When asked by a male heckler if she could cook a dinner, she quipped 'Yes. Can you drive a coach and four?' In 1911, by which time she was a well known figure around Ireland, she spoke at an Irish Republican Brotherhood demonstration in front of 30,000 people, threw stones at pictures of the British monarchy and burned a British flag stolen from Leinster House. She was jailed for one month as a result. In 1913 she joined the Irish Citizen Army, which was a small volunteer force formed in response to trade union conflicts and lockouts. She personally paid for food for all of the workers, taking out several loans and selling all her jewellery to do so. Allegedly some advice she gave to other female army volunteers included instructing them to 'dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.' She went on to design a uniform for the ICA and compose its anthem.
Markievicz and the Easter Rising
It should come as no surprise that when the time came for Ireland to start fighting for independence (literally), Markievicz was right in the middle of the action with the rest of the leaders. She was appointed second in command to their station at St. Stephen's Green, supervising the setting-up of barricades and even wounding a British army sniper. When British forces started shooting from the tops of the buildings surrounding the Green, they retreated to the Royal College of Surgeons, where they held out for for six days. They only gave up when they were shown a copy of Padraig Pearse's official surrender order. Having strong ties to Britain through her mother and her education, fighting against the British forces would have been something of a conflict for Constance despite her unwavering passion for Irish nationalism. And on top of that, the British army officer who accepted her surrender was married to her first cousin.
After the surrender Markievicz and all of the other instigators of the Rising were arrested and transported to Kilmainham Gaol. She was sentenced to death, but the judge reduced it to life in prison 'on account of her sex'. In response, she gave another memorable one-liner, saying 'I do wish your lot would have the decency to shoot me.' She spent some time in solitary confinement in Kilmainham before moving to Mountjoy Prison on the other side of Dublin, and then Aylesbury Prison in England a few months later. She was released in 1917 along with the other rebels who had not yet been executed after the government granted them amnesty, but it wouldn't be the last time she was put behind bars; just two years later she was in Cork Gaol for making a seditious speech.
Markievicz in Politics
By the time the Rising was over Constance had long since proved her value to the rebels and was an integral part of the independence movement. Like the rest of the high profile leaders, she turned her hand to politics instead of fighting, and was elected to the British House of Commons in 1918; the first woman to ever be elected. She refused to take her seat and instead joined her comrades in the newly established Dail Eireann – although she was unable to actually attend because, again, she was arrested and imprisoned. She served as Minister for Labour between 1919-1922 in this unrecognised Irish government, making her the first female cabinet minister and only the second ever female government minister in all of Europe.
In 1922 Ireland was in the throes of civil war, and siding with Eamon de Valera, in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty (the cause of all the trouble) Markievicz left government and took up arms once again. She fought for the republican cause by helping to defend Moran's Hotel, and following the war spent some time in the United States before being elected to government again in 1923. Once again, she was sent to jail for not taking up her seat, and this time went on hunger strike along with 92 other female prisoners. They were all released within a month. In 1926 the Fianna Fail political party was officially formed and Constance was one of its first members, chairing the inaugural meeting. The next general election was in 1927, and she was re-elected once again.
Sadly, Constance died just 5 weeks before she was due to take up her Dail seat, from complications arising from appendicitis. She had deliberately given away all of her money and wealth and died in a public ward 'among the poor where she wanted to be'. Her husband Casimir (who had moved back to Poland in 1913) and step son Stanislaus were by her side, along with Eamon de Valera and fellow suffragette Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington. She was refused a state funeral by the Free State government, and was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. Nonetheless Eamon De Valera, who was probably the most well known figure in Ireland at the time, gave her funeral oration.