Constance Markievicz - a most outrageous rebel

Constance Markievicz - a most outrageous rebel

Markievicz – a most outrageous rebel – Lindie Naughton, Merrion Press 2016 and 2018

‘While Ireland is not free, I remain rebel, unconverted and unconvertible... I am pledged to the one thing – a free and independent Ireland... a state run by the Irish people for the people. That means a government that looks after the rights of the people before the rights of property ... My idea is the Workers’ Republic for which Connolly died’ – speech to the Dail [Irish Parliament], 3 January 1922.

Countess Constance de Markievicz (née Gore-Booth) was a remarkable woman – an aristocrat who turned her back on privilege to fight for Irish freedom and socialism by all available means, including grassroots community work, armed struggle and election to parliamentary office. This biography by Lindie Naughton was originally published in 2016, the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, in which Constance played an active role, and was then republished in 2018 – the centenary of her election to the British Parliament.

Constance Markievicz stood for election to Westminster while detained in Holloway prison; even had she been free, she would not have taken her seat due to Sinn Fein’s principled abstentionist stance. In the grand scheme of struggle, and although she was happy at her success, the achievement was of fairly minor importance to her and the biography records how: ‘When an election was called for 14 December [1918], Sinn Fein asked Constance to stand... She agreed “for sport”. Nonetheless, it is a historical fact worthy of celebration that the first woman in British history to be elected as a Member of Parliament was a principled Irish republican and not the anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic Lady Astor, who entered Parliament in 1919 after winning a by-election following the death of husband, the previous incumbent.

From privilege to revolutionary

Constance was born on 4 February 1868 in London. Her father Henry Gore-Booth was an Anglo-Irish landlord and Arctic explorer and she grew up on the family estate in County Sligo. Her comfortable upbringing there gave little indication of the revolutionary she would become, but her well-off Protestant family ‘although privileged, was socially aware’ and she was always a non-conformist, rebelling in small ways. At her wedding to Count Casimir de Markievicz in September 1900, she ‘promised to love and honour but left out the traditional promise “to obey” ’.

In 1908, having settled in Dublin a few years earlier, following some time living in Paris and travelling to Ukraine with her husband, Constance was drawn into the growing political movements of the day: ‘On the night of St Patrick’s Day 1908, Constance attended her last ever ball at Dublin Castle, dancing Irish reels with her husband. Eleven days later...Constance was one of the few women to attend a meeting... where [Sinn Fein founder, Arthur] Griffith was speaking’.

From here on in she became rapidly and completely immersed in the movement, and ‘quickly realised that the Irish nationalist movement was divided into factions. At one extreme was the Irish Parliamentary Party... James Connolly, the socialist, humanitarian and defender of workers’ rights, stood at the other extreme’.

In August 1909 she was co-opted onto the Sinn Fein executive and the same summer began training the Fianna boys, an Irish nationalist alternative to the British imperialist boy scouts, which would help to avoid these boys ‘growing to manhood and enlisting in the British army or police forces, and being used to batten their own class into submission in a class war at home, or giving their lives in an imperial war made to hold Ireland as a slave state within the British empire’.

It was through the Fianna that she got to know Connolly, via his daughters Nora and Ina who had helped to organise the only girls’ sluagh (branch) in the Fianna.

In October 1909 she attended a lecture by Frank Ryan, of the newly formed Socialist Party of Ireland on ‘Socialism and Nationalism’.

Increasingly drawn into the struggles for nationalism and socialism, she also fought for women’s rights, taking inspiration from heroic women of the past: ‘She saw Joan of Arc as an appropriate icon for women in the early twentieth century. Unlike Cathleen Ni Houlihan or Dark Rosaleen, urging their sons to fight for their honour, Joan of Arc was a Catholic soldier, taking up arms herself, unafraid of dying for her beliefs’.

The story of a rebel and a rebellion

While Markievicz – a most outrageous rebel is of course primarily the story of Constance Markievicz herself, the biography is also a chronicle of the history and politics of the period. The book therefore documents all the major episodes of Irish history, which are currently being remembered as they come up in turn to their 100th anniversary, including the Dublin Lock-out of 1913, Easter Rising of 1916 (depicted as farcical but heroic), the cruel repression meted out by the Black and Tans, the Government of Ireland Act 1920, under which two parliaments were formed in Dublin and Belfast, and the devastating descent into partition and civil war.

Against this backdrop we meet a wide range of fascinating characters, whom Naughton describes skilfully, from ‘the exotic Joseph Plunkett who, despite his many rings and bracelets, was considered an expert military tactician’ to the ‘implacably republican and socially conservative’ Eamonn de Valera.

Debates and discussions on the formation of the Irish Free State are set out in some detail as Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins agree the Treaty under which Ireland is partitioned: ‘The new Irish free state would have far greater powers than before but would give up its aspiration to a 32-county Ireland’. Speaking to the Dail on 3 January 1922, Constance passionately opposed the Treaty, and especially the oath to King George.

In and out of prison

After the 1916 Easter Rising in which she played an active military role, Constance was imprisoned and court-martialled, and expected to be executed along with the other leaders, including Connolly, Pearse and Plunkett. Instead, purely on account of her gender, she was reprieved from the death sentence and ‘condemned to live’. She was sent to Aylesbury prison in England and the book contains some fascinating and detailed descriptions of prison conditions and describes how Sinn Fein began using the tactic of prisoners standing in elections.

Although she was initially expecting to remain in prison for many years, following political changes in the period which followed the Rising and preceded the end of the First Imperialist War, Constance was in fact released on 17 June 1917. She returned to Dublin to a hero’s welcome, converted to Catholicism and ‘soon resumed her work with the labour movement... was on the Irish Citizen Army executive and... raised money for the James Connolly Labour College’.

Her freedom was short-lived as organising resistance to Irish conscription into the British army led to re-arrest and imprisonment for giving ‘seditious speeches’. The book contains a comical account of her being transported to prison in England, together with her dog, Poppet, whose train fare she was asked to pay six shillings for.

It was during this prison stint in Holloway that she was elected to the British Parliament. None of Sinn Fein’s elected representatives took their seats in Westminster; instead they treated their election as a mandate to form an Irish parliament. The first Dail Eireann met in the Dublin Mansion House on 21 January 1919: ‘only 24 members were present, with a further 35 described as... “In a foreign prison”.

Released again in March 1919, in May Constance met and shared a platform with socialist suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. By June she was back in prison for another speech, serving four months - this time remaining in prisons in Ireland.

In November 1923 she was imprisoned for the last time. This time her captors were the Irish Free State and her ‘crime’ was campaigning in support of anti-Treaty prisoners of the June 1922-May 1923 civil war, which saw former comrades pitted against one another. Constance was released after five weeks, exhausted both physically and mentally.

Principles, politics and romanticism

The book contains lots of examples of Constance’s almost instinctive ability to take a principled position, such as during the Dublin Lock-out of 1913. Despite her own privileged upbringing and involvement prior to that point with Irish nationalists who were not interested in workers’ rights, Constance was never seduced by bourgeois nationalism. While the likes of Griffith ‘believed the workers should be “bayoneted”’, she immediately sided with the locked-out workers being organised by Connolly and Larkin. She worked tirelessly through the Lock-out, organising, speaking at meetings and cooking food for the workers and their families at the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union headquarters at Liberty Hall.

Her determination to hold to political principles is illustrated by numerous examples, such as her anti-Treaty speech to the Dail (quoted above), or her opposition in 1917 to the election to the Sinn Fein executive of Eoin MacNeill, whose dithering in the run-up to Easter 1916 had lethally damaged the Rising.

Nonetheless, there are those today who consider that Constance Markievicz’s otherwise substantial contribution to the Irish republican and socialist struggles is irreparably marred by the fact that, following the defeat of the anti-Treaty forces in the civil war and creation of the Irish Free State, in 1925 she accepted de Valera’s invitation to work with him in founding a new parliamentary political party, Fianna Fail. Naughton does not offer any analysis but simply describes the process at Sinn Fein’s annual convention, ‘when a motion condemning any TD who entered the newly formed parliament was passed’, Constance being ‘the only dissenter’. This was followed by her resignation from Cumman na mBan, the military organisation of Irish women of which she had been the chair.

There is no doubt that in the later years of her life, having survived both prison and civil war, Constance was exhausted and to an extent disillusioned with organised politics. The collection of her letters republished at the same time as this biography includes lots of hints at this, as she declares ‘Leaders can be such a curse’ and opines that she is ‘growing pessimistic’ about the chances of socialist progress*. At the same time, she appears to have turned increasingly towards a romanticised vision of an Ireland in which the ‘ideals of an ancient Gaelic civilisation [were] pitted against the “modern, moral anarchy of industrialisation”.

Constance died on 15 July 1927, aged 59. Her funeral was ‘one of the biggest ever seen in Dublin’. The continuing contradictions of the time were evident even there as De Valera - who less than a month later would sign the hated Oath of Allegiance and take up his seat in the Dail – gave the oration, while ‘in the crowd were members of the old Citizen Army, mothers from the poorer parts of Dublin, and thousands more whose lives had been touched by a big-hearted, generous and brave woman, whose essential humanity had sometimes found her at odds with the harsh and often brutal reality of Irish politics’.

The final paragraphs of the book are then dedicated not, as might have been expected, to saluting the contribution of the amazing woman whose story it tells, but to describing the bitter reality of the de Valera years, during which the role of women as ‘housewives and mothers’ was enshrined in the 1937 Constitution: ‘All over Europe, the gains made by strong, brave women like Constance Markievicz were eradicated. Romantic Ireland was – emphatically – dead and gone.’

Whether ‘Romantic Ireland’ is dead or indeed was ever alive, it is clear that the battles for national liberation, socialism and women’s emancipation are not over and continue to be fought today. In dedicating ourselves to continuing those struggles, we can take inspiration from reading about the life of Constance Markievicz, an amazing and dedicated revolutionary woman fighter.

Nicki Jameson

*Markievicz – Prison Letters and Rebel Writings – Edited by Lindie Naughton, Merrion Press, 2018


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