Constance Markievicz was an Irish revolutionary, notably during the Easter Rising of 1916. As a suffragette, socialist, nationalist, and politician, she was one of the fiercest women in Irish history. Here’s how she went from imprisonment with a death sentence to becoming the first female cabinet minister in Europe:
Author’s Note: This post was originally featured in August 2019 on Valerie Gritsch’s blog historyisimportant.com. Val compiled Tales From Wo-Fan’s Land on her blog, a project inspired by English singer-songwriter Frank Turner and his album No Man’s Land, which features 13 songs inspired by women from history. You can take a look at Val’s introduction to the project here, and read other pages on other women, written by my fellow fans.
Born as Constance Gore-Booth in 1868, the woman who would become known as Countess and Madame Markievicz was the eldest child of Henry Gore-Booth, an Arctic explorer and Anglo-Irish landlord who actively provided food for his tenants in Co. Sligo during the famine of 1879-80 and was deeply concerned about their wellbeing. The family split their time between London and Sligo, and Constance saw the class and wealth disparity between the English landlords and Irish tenants first-hand. Constance inherited her father’s social justice advocacy, alongside her sister, poet and suffragette Eva Gore-Booth, and actively pursued it as her life goal.
She married Polish-Ukranian artist Casimir Markievicz in 1900 and they settled in Dublin. She became a prominent landscape artist, mingling with others in the Irish art scene. She was described as being vivacious and daring, with a fiery spirit. At the home of fellow artist Sarah Purser, Markievicz became involved with several Irish revolutionary patriots and in 1907 she discovered journals that promoted Irish independence from British rule. The more knowledge she gained, the more compelled she felt to do something. She joined left-wing Irish republican party Sinn Féin, as well as Inghinidhe na hÉireann, a nationalist women’s group, in addition to founding Cumann na mBan, a women’s paramilitary organization. She also founded a paramilitary scouting organization for young boys, essentially running a commune to house them and pull them out of poverty. She drifted from her husband, who was not Irish and therefore did not share her passion, and began referring to herself as Madame Markievicz during their separation.
Her views combined feminism, socialism, and Irish nationalism. She actively worked against poverty imposed by English law, such as schoolchildren’s meals being restricted; Constance fed them “Irish stew” in protest. She also helped run a soup kitchen that fed thousands of people each day during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, during which companies locked their employees out for attempting to unionize, though this was eventually unsuccessful. The 1914 Government of Ireland Act was supposed to give Ireland home rule from Britain, but the Suspensory Act prevented this as a result of World War I. The Easter Rising of 1916 was a response to the lack of home rule in Ireland. Markievicz joined the Irish Citizen Army as a liason officer and as a sniper. When she was arrested after the Rising failed, she kissed her pistol before surrendering. She was kept in a cell in Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin, the only woman of the 70 arrested to be kept in solitary confinement. She was found guilty and sentenced to death. While 16 men were executed, Markievicz was spared solely on the basis of her sex, instead having her sentence commuted to life imprisonment with hard labor. Her response: “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.”
She converted to Catholicism while imprisoned at Aylesbury in England and was released in June 1917 after the English government granted amnesty to all involved in the Rising. She became a major in the Irish Citizen Army and was the president of Cumann na mBan, an Irish paramilitary organization. Many Irish nationalists, including Markievicz, were imprisoned again in 1918 in a British attempt to stifle Irish uprising in favor of fighting in World War I. In 1918, despite being imprisoned, she became the first woman elected as a MP in the House of Commons. She refused to take her seat in solidarity with Sinn Féin, who were instead meeting as the First Dáil, the Irish Republic’s first parliament. She and her colleagues were released solely out of fear that death due to influenza would allow them to be martyrized. The Anglo-Irish Treaty set up an Irish Free State, which Markievicz opposed, and she left the government in 1922 as a result. She actively participated in the Irish Civil War and was imprisoned again briefly in 1923. Displeased with the Irish Free State and desperately wanting a socially just Irish Republic, she left Sinn Féin and joined its offshoot, Fianna Fáil, in 1926. She went back to her grassroots movement, opening bathhouses and participating in other social work. She died on July 15, 1927 from appendicitis complications. She passed dissatisfied with the lack of progress made in the revolutionary movement. Markievicz’s funeral was attended by thousands and she was eulogized by Eamon de Valera, who had also been arrested in 1916 and sentenced to death, and who would become the 3rd President of Ireland decades later.
Constance Markievicz was a remarkable woman. Rather than sitting idly by or even just using her voice without taking any real action, Markievicz first used her position of power and wealth to actively improve the lives of the poor, before becoming a radical revolutionary. As she gained more knowledge and passion about British oppression of Ireland, she used every resource she had to fight for the Irish Republic and never backed down from what she believed in, despite coming from a background that would have allowed her to live quietly and ignorantly. She overcame all adversity, including men on both sides critiquing her gender and class. She was adamant about using her privilege to improve the lives of others and of her entire country. As she told the court during her 1916 trial, “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.”
Information sourced from:
– Haverty, Anne. “Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary.” The Lilliput Press, 2016.
– Barton, Brian and Foy, Michael. “The Easter Rising.” The History Press, 2011.
– “Stuff You Missed In History Class” podcast episode – Constance Markievicz
– Several personal tours of Kilmainham Gaol