Constance Markievicz, nee Gore-Booth, was born in 1868 into the Anglo-Irish gentry. Rejecting familial expectations, she pursued a lifetime of political activism guided by the principles of Irish nationalism, feminism and socialism.
A military leader in the 1916 Easter Rising, Markievicz was spared court martial on account of her gender. The brutally swift “trials” and executions of rebel leaders reshaped the political climate, and Constance Markievicz was elected on a Sinn Fein ballot in 1918. The first woman to be elected to Westminster was in an English jail at the time and was elected on an anti-English vote.
Here are 7 key facts about Constance Markievicz:
1. She rejected the social and patriarchal norms of her Anglo-Irish Ascendancy class
The Gore-Booths, one of the largest landholding families in Co Sligo, resided in Lissadell House and were firmly set within the Protestant Anglo-Irish gentry.
After rejecting eligible suitors throughout several ‘seasons’ in the court of Queen Victoria, London, Con went to Paris to study art and adopted a quasi-bohemian lifestyle. There she met another artist, albeit a titled one, Polish Count Casimir Dunin Markievicz, whom she married in 1900.
Born into the Church of Ireland, she would later convert to Catholicism. Con had dropped out of the evening-dress set to embrace Irish feminist and nationalist causes.
2. She was a champion of the Irish arts revival
Con operated within an illustrious network of artists and poets, cultural nationalists who collectively created a renaissance of Celtic Culture. She had attended the Slade School of Fine Arts, and was instrumental in the formation of the United Artists Club.
Constance and her sister Eva-Gore Booth were childhood friends of the poet W B Yeats; his poem “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz” described Constance as a “gazelle”.
As well as a radiant circle of cultural figures like Oscar Wilde, Maud Gonne, and Sean O’Casey, Con also worked and fought with the immortals of Irish rebellion such as James Connolly, Pádraig Pearse, Michael Collins and the rest.
3. She was a military leader in the 1916 Easter Rising
As a small group of dedicated rebels attempted to oust British forces from their strongholds in Dublin, Constance took on numerous roles.
In planning, she had been responsible for deciding strategic targets. In the course of fighting at her station in St Stephen’s Green, she shot a member of the Dublin police who subsequently died from his injuries.
District nurse Geraldine Fitzgerald, a first-hand observer, recorded in her diary:
‘A lady in a green uniform, the same as the men were wearing…holding a revolver in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was standing on the footpath giving orders to the men.’
As a result of the activism and agitation of Markievicz and other women rebels like Helena Moloney, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, read by Pádraig Pearse on the steps of the General Post Office on that dramatic morning in 1916, was the first political constitution anywhere to declare equal suffrage.
4. Her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment “only on account of her sex”
The Stephen’s Green garrison held out for 6 days, after which Constance was taken to Kilmainham Jail. At her court martial, Markievicz defended her right to fight for Ireland’s freedom.
Upon hearing of the decision to commute her death sentence she said to her captors, “ I do wish your lot had the decency to kill me”. Markievicz was transferred to Mountjoy Prison and then to Aylesbury Prison in England in July 1916.
5. She spent many stints in prison throughout her life for her nationalist activity
British PM Lloyd George granted a general amnesty for those involved in the Rising in 1917. Constance was arrested again in May 1918 along with other prominent Sinn Fein leaders, and was sent to Holloway Prison.
In 1920, in the context of Black and Tan involvement in Ireland, Constance was again arrested and charged with conspiracy for her earlier role in establishing the organisation of the Fianna nah Eireann, a paramilitary nationalist scouting organisation.
From her release in 1921 until her death 6 years later she continued to serve the cause of her beloved Ireland.
6. She was both the first woman elected to Westminster and vehemently anti-English
In the pivotal December 1918 Irish General Election, the moderate Irish Parliamentary Party suffered a landslide defeat to the radical Sinn Féin party.
Imprisoned Markievicz was elected for the constituency of Dublin St Patrick’s, the first woman elected to the UK House of Commons.
In line with Sinn Fein’s abstentionist policy, and personal deeply held abhorrence for English government, Constance did not take her seat in parliament.
Anti-English sentiment fuelled her involvement with revolutionary and political nationalist activity: her membership of political parties Sinn Féin and later Fianna Fáil on its foundation in 1926 as well as Inghinidhe na hÉireann (‘Daughter’s Of Ireland’) and the Irish Citizen Army.
Personally too, she challenged English hegemony; in the mourning period for Edward VII she wore a sensational red dress to the theatre. She also wrote a gardening feature with such outrageous humour:
“It is very hard killing slugs and snails but let us not be daunted. A good nationalist should look upon slugs in the garden in much the same way as she looks on the English in Ireland.”
7. She was the first woman in western Europe to hold a cabinet position
Markievicz served as Minister for Labour from April 1919 to January 1922, in the Second Ministry and the Third Ministry of the Dáil. She was the only female cabinet minister in Irish history until 1979.
A fitting role for Constance who, despite her wealthy background, had associated herself with socialist agitators such as James Connoly and had set up a soup kitchen to support the families of workers striking in the ‘Dublin Lockout of 1913’.
Constance’s sister Eva was a highly respected author and key trade union organiser and had established, for instance, the Barmaids’ Political Defence League in March 1908.
During the winter before Markievicz’s death in 1927 at 59, she was frequently observed carrying bags of turf to poorer people of her district.
During the coal strike, Markeivicz saw helping as a womanly thing to do. While men would hold endless meetings to discuss problems, she believed immediate action in carrying bags of turf directly to those who needed it: an unconscious act of protest against the pervasive version of politics which had consistently failed to affect the changes she laboured for.
Upon her final illness, linked to the long years of hunger strikes, police brutality, and guerilla warfare that had weakened her body, she declared herself a pauper and was placed in a public ward. She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
In her ambitious work, the story of the remarkable daughter of Anglo-Irish aristocracy with the improbable name of Countess Markievicz is interwoven with the epic of Irish republicanism.