Constance Markievicz

Constance Markievicz (1868-1927) was an Irish nationalist, labor activist, and feminist, who fought against the British in the 1916 Easter Rising but, as a diehard republican, later refused to compromise in the creation of the Irish Free State.

The Irish Rebellion of 1916-22 was inspired chiefly by Catholic revolutionaries seeking to throw off the yoke of a centuries-old British domination, but the idea of Irish independence attracted a wide variety of enthusiasts and idealists. None was a stranger, or a more unlikely candidate for the role of Irish freedom-fighter than Constance Markievicz, a rich, privileged Protestant woman, who had once dabbled in art, theater, and feminism but who spent the later years of her life as a guerrilla fighter, parliamentarian, prisoner, and fugitive.

Constance was born in 1868 to the Gore-Booth family, one of the largest landowning families in County Sligo on the Irish west coast. Her wealthy Protestant family was part of the Anglo-Irish "Ascendancy," whose control of nearly all Irish farmland was a source of long-standing resentment to the Catholic Irish majority. From his estate at Lissadell, her father supervised his estates and acted the part of a paternalistic despot to his farm tenants, some of them desperately poor. Whereas many Irish landowners did not even live on their estates, treating them solely as sources of income, the Gore-Booths were at least physically present for part of every year. Her father's hobby was Arctic exploration and Constance, the eldest daughter, grew up like him to be adventurous, high spirited, and daring. She loved hunting and shooting and rode well. At 18, she became a debutante and enjoyed several London "seasons" but was unable to attract a husband, possibly because of her abrasive mockery and an inclination toward practical jokes.

By the age of 25, she had become an annoyance to her parents, and she in turn found living with them hard to endure. After months of persuasion, she won their consent to become an art student in the Slade School, London. From that time on, she and her sister Eva began to move in artistic and literary circles, the best known of their literary friends being the poet W.B. Yeats, who knew them well and admired both. After two years in London, Constance moved on to an art school for women in Paris, and there she met Count Casimir Markievicz. He was six years younger than she, a more talented artist who had won several portrait commissions and held the prospect of a distinguished future. The son of Ukrainian landowners, he too had come to Paris to make his career as an artist. He was already married, but his first wife died in 1899 in the Ukraine, just as Markievicz and Constance were beginning an intense relationship—he even fought a duel with swords to defend Constance's honor when a Frenchman insulted her at a ball. They wed the following year, and spent the early years of their marriage moving between Paris, Lissadell, and his family estates at Zywotowka. When Constance gave birth to a daughter, Maeve, she paid her child scant attention, leaving her to be brought up almost entirely by her grandmother. And when the Markieviczs settled in Dublin in 1903, it was his son Stanislas by his first marriage who moved in with them, while Maeve paid occasional visits before returning to her grandmother.

Dublin was then experiencing a cultural awakening, a widespread revival of the Irish language, and a burst of artistic creativity from Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Synge, Padraic Colum, and dozens of other writers, artists, and poets. The Markieviczs joined Yeats and George "AE" Russell in an arts society, wrote and performed plays, painted, and began to show an interest in nationalist politics, to the dismay of Constance's Ascendancy relatives. At first Arthur Griffith, a moderate Irish nationalist and leader of the nationalist group Sinn Fein, assumed she was a spy sent from Dublin Castle to keep watch on potential troublemakers, but gradually both he and the women's branch of the revolutionary movement "Daughters of Ireland" (founded by Yeats's unrequited love Maud Gonne), recognized that Constance was sincere and was abandoning her old way of life for the more alien and arduous life of politics. Moreover, Constance Markievicz quickly gravitated to the radical side of the Irish nationalist movement and came to regard Griffith's Sinn Fein, with its policy of parliamentary moderation, irritatingly slow. A member of its council from 1909, she constantly urged Sinn Fein to more direct action and provocation against the British.

Before her marriage, she and her sister Eva had organized a votes for women movement in their home parish; now Markievicz took up the issue of feminism more seriously and began to write for (and illustrate) the Daughters of Ireland journal Bean na hEirean. Eva was living in the north of England, agitating for improved working conditions for women and for women's suffrage, cooperating with the famous Pankhurst family in the Women's Social and Political Union. From Eva and from her new acquaintances and experiences in Dublin, Markievicz too began to develop a sympathy for socialism. These three convictions—Irish nationalism, feminism, and socialism—were to guide her through the rest of her life. She began to make speeches on these issues, especially women's rights, and as biographer Diana Norman notes, "she was always in demand as a speaker because she could rouse uneducated or apathetic audiences in a way more sophisticated orators could not."

Unconventional and increasingly impatient with upper-class family life, she and Casimir spent less time together as the years passed, and their marriage appears to have virtually dissolved by 1912. He was a colorful fixture in the life of the Dublin theater between 1907 and 1913 and still spent part of each year with Constance but rarely joined his wife in her political obsessions. He left Ireland for the last time in 1913.

In 1909, she founded the Na Fianna Eireann, an Irish nationalist version of the Boy Scouts. Just as Baden-Powell's scouts (founded during the Boer War) cultivated patriotic militarism in English boys, so she aimed to raise Irish patriot soldiers in the Fianna. At times, Fianna lads from the poor quarters of Dublin would attack Anglo-Irish Boy Scouts from the wealthier areas and fight pitched battles in the streets of Dublin, with her implicit approval. Thinking that a taste of rural life might also benefit boys from the slums, she hired a large country house and for two years ran it as a Fianna commune, at a steady financial loss and to the growing irritation of Casimir. One of her assistants, Liam Mellowes, spread the movement to other parts of Ireland and later helped organize the Irish Volunteers during the Easter Rising of 1916; Constance's coaching of the boys in marksmanship prepared some of them for roles in the coming revolution.

When Constance Markievicz and other Irish suffragists realized that John Redmond's Irish Party in the British Parliament intended to exclude women from the vote if they achieved their goal of Home Rule, these women went into open opposition and began to imitate the violent demonstrations of their English sisters, smashing the windows of public buildings and hunger striking in prison. Moderate Irish nationalists, supporters of Redmond, detested the suffragists for threatening their movement in this way, but Markievicz won steady support from the Irish Trade Unions and their mercurial leader Jim Larkin.

She repaid them by supporting the unions and unemployed workers during the massive lockout of summer 1913 in which Dublin employers tried to break the growing unions' power once and for all. Larkin stayed at the Markievicz house on the night before "Bloody Sunday," August 31, 1913, when a huge police contingent, possibly drunk, attacked a large crowd of trade unionists in O'Connell Street, killing two and injuring more than 450. Markievicz herself was severely beaten by the police:

One hit me a back hand blow across the left side of my face with his baton. I fell back against the corner of a shop, when another policeman started to seize me by the throat, but I was pulled out of the crowd by some men, who took me down Sackville Place and into a house to stop the blood flowing from my nose and mouth.

Despite the shocked public response to this outrage, the lockout continued into the winter and at last the men, hungry and defeated, were forced back to work, their unions in disarray.

Experiences like this made Markievicz implacable; hating industrial exploitation and male domination, she yet believed that British power lay at the root of all Irish evils. The year 1914 witnessed a general arming for battle in Ireland as the prospect of Home Rule increased. Protestant Ulstermen in northern Ireland took up arms to resist the nationalists and fight against independence. Republicans in Dublin countered by forming volunteer armies of their own and publishing strident manifestos. Markievicz helped organize the Irish Citizen Army and cooperated as gunrunners brought weapons ashore to arm it. The mounting crisis was interrupted, however, when the First World War began that summer. Redmond, leader of the Home Rule Members of Parliament, pledged the support of Ireland for the British war effort; he felt certain that Home Rule would be its quid pro quo (something received for something given), and thousands of young Irishmen responded to his call by enlisting for service in the trenches. Markievicz and the radical Irish Citizen Army, on the other hand, disdained Redmond's call; they saw themselves fighting against Britain, not for it, and did all they could to obstruct the British recruitment drive in Dublin, while carrying on their own drilling and marksmanship practice. She made shrill speeches, expressing the hope that Germany would win the war, and now seemed, to British eyes, a traitor.

Thousands of English and Irish men died in the trench warfare of the following years, and as British resources became thinly stretched to meet the crisis, the Irish militants realized that the perfect moment had come for them to strike a blow for independence. The secret military council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), led by Tom Clark and Sean MacDermott, planned the rising for Easter 1916, and gradually drew into their confidence the leaders of the Irish Citizen Army, including Markievicz; the leaders of the Volunteers; and key figures from the trade unions and universities. It was obvious to the British administration in Dublin, led by Augustine Birrell, that some Irish militants were planning revolt—the Volunteers marched in the streets quite openly with their rifles and bayonets. But Birrell, a mild Liberal, maintained a policy of salutary neglect and thought the drilling was more a matter of bluster than serious intent. He was wrong.

Despite a mix-up over timing and deployment, the IRB went into action on Easter Monday, seizing the General Post Office (GPO), the College of Surgeons, the Law Courts, and other prominently placed public buildings, with about a thousand men and women in arms. They raided Dublin Castle, seat of the British administration, and could have taken it since it was then badly understaffed, but decided it was too sprawling to be defensible. They declared themselves the provisional government of the Irish Republic and raised a tricolor flag—orange, green, and white—over the GPO, along with a flag bearing a gold harp on a green background designed and made by Constance Markievicz herself. The poet and activist Padraic Pearse read out the Irish Declaration of Independence from the steps of the GPO to bemused passers-by and Easter strollers.

After their initial amazement, the British retaliated powerfully, moving first troops, then artillery and a gunboat into action. Constance Markievicz, acting as a liaison officer, hurried between the different republican strongholds until the gunfire became too heavy; she spent the latter half of the week pinned down with a small group in the College of Surgeons. She was a crack shot with years of experience and acted as a sniper against British soldiers in the nearby Shelbourne Hotel. Soon she and all the rebels were desperately hungry; food supplies into the city were disrupted by the rising, and the rebels had been forced to retreat from St. Stephen's Green where they had stockpiled several days' supplies.

The rebels knew that much of the Irish population was indifferent to their action, and that some, whose relatives were fighting in the British army, were actively opposed to them. Nevertheless they believed that even if they failed, as seemed almost certain from the start, they would light the spark of revolution for others to follow. Within a week, British bombardment had battered them into submission and the survivors, including Constance Markievicz, surrendered and were marched off to prison. She felt exhilarated that they had held out for as much as a week, longer than any earlier Irish rising against the British, and now awaited her anticipated execution with equanimity. Sure enough, she was found guilty of sedition and sentenced to death, but the military judges, in view of her sex, commuted her sentence to life imprisonment with hard labor. She then had to sit in a lonely prison cell and listen each morning as volleys of shots announced the death by firing squad of nearly all her remaining comrades, some of whom she had known for 15 or 20 years.

As Clark, MacDermott, James Connally and the other leaders had anticipated, what the rebellion failed to achieve, its aftermath created. Public opinion swung around in favor of the rebels, each of whom, by his death, became a martyr to Irish freedom. News that Connally had been so badly wounded that he had to be tied to a chair to be kept upright at his execution and that the British army had killed such innocent bystanders as Constance's friend Francis Sheehy Skeffington (a radical pacifist who deplored the resort to arms) intensified the shift in Irish public opinion. The British retribution, far from ending the Irish Revolution, in effect brought it to life.

Because the British feared she would become the center of a cult if left in a Dublin prison, Constance was moved to a prison in Aylesbury, England. Treated as a regular criminal rather than a political prisoner, she was placed with prostitutes, thieves, and infanticides, and suffered the squalid miseries and perpetual hunger of the prison regimen for the next year and a half. While in prison, however, she converted to Catholicism, the religion of most of her fellow rebels. Meanwhile Irish friends were working to have her status changed to that of a political prisoner. Others were making propaganda tours of the United States, addressing its large Irish population and urging their support for Irish freedom. When the United States entered the First World War in the spring of 1917, the British government conciliated Irish opinion in America by releasing most of the remaining Irish internees from the rising, and in July of that year, Markievicz emerged from jail and returned to a hero's welcome in Ireland.

She was elected to the Sinn Fein executive council, but now the organization was a mass revolutionary movement with nearly 100,000 members, rather than a tiny cluster of Dublin moderates. It acted as though the Declaration of Independence, and the Irish Republic, were already political facts of life and gained a surge of new members when the British tried to impose military conscription on Irish men in early 1918. In response to Sinn Fein's anticonscription actions, the British arrested the party's leaders, including Constance Markievicz, and she was once more sent to prison in England, but this time granted political status and the company of other Sinn Feiners; one of them was Maud Gonne. Markievicz was still in prison when the First World War ended in November 1918, and Prime Minister Lloyd George called a general election. Sinn Fein ran her as its candidate in the St. Patrick division of Dublin and she won, thus becoming the first woman ever elected to the British Parliament.

Markievicz was one of 73 Sinn Fein candidates to win seats. Rather than go to Westminster, however, those who were at liberty met in Dublin and constituted themselves as the Dail Eireann (Irish Parliament). Eamon de Valera, who had fought in the Easter rising and added luster to his name by a daring prison escape (he had avoided execution because he was an American citizen and not technically guilty of treason), became the first president of the Republic and appointed Markievicz as his Minister of Labor. In March 1919, she was released from jail by a British government which was anxious lest she die in the influenza epidemic; she again received a hero's welcome on her return to Dublin. Throwing herself into political activity once more and trying to make sure that the nascent (budding) government held fast to its pro-Labor pledges, she urged Irish people to boycott everything British and to carry on their guerrilla war against the Royal Irish Constabulary and the notorious "Black and Tans."

She was rearrested for seditious speeches and jailed a third time in County Cork. Released in October 1919, she found that Sinn Fein was now an illegal organization and spent the following months on the run to avoid further imprisonment, moving constantly from place to place. The Dail had to meet covertly, but it made a point of taking over every aspect of administration it could handle, to give itself an image of effectiveness and plausibility in the eyes of the anxious, war-torn population. Meanwhile a fourth arrest led to another long stay at Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, for Markievicz, during which she learned to speak the Irish language.

When she emerged from this term in prison, momentous negotiations were under way in London between Dail representatives and the British government on the status of a self-governing Ireland. Markievicz and Eamon de Valera insisted on a completely self-governing republic, but the British would only grant Ireland "Free State" dominion status within the British Empire. Fearing renewed British hostilities throughout Ireland which they were ill prepared to repel, the Irish negotiators, led by the guerrilla captain Michael Collins, miserably accepted the Free State compromise, and then tried to defend it in the Dail debate which followed. Markievicz spoke passionately against the compromise and joined de Valera and the large antitreaty minority by walking out of the assembly. She toured the United States later that year, speaking on behalf of the Republic and against the Free State, but found on her return in 1922 that civil war had broken out between the two factions. Although she was now 54, she once more took to the barricades as a sniper, lived on the run, and was again arrested while speaking from a cart in Dublin. This fifth term of imprisonment was at the hands of some of the men she had fought beside in 1916, a bitterly ironic outcome of her work.

For the last years of her life, Constance Markievicz was a member of the Free State parliament but could not take her seat because she, like all the antitreaty diehards, refused to take the oath to the king of England which it required. She remained personally popular and helped de Valera, in 1926, to found the Fianna Fail, a party aimed at gaining entry to Parliament without taking the oath. But although she held her seat in another election, she never again spoke in Parliament. Constance Markievicz died disappointed at the outcome of her life's labors, dismayed that the Irish Free State was such a prosaic, compromised affair rather than the radical workers' democracy she had dreamed of and worked for throughout her adult life. Truckloads of flowers and thousands of mourners attended her funeral, though the Free State government refused to grant this hero of 1916 official funeral honors.

Further Reading on Constance Markievicz

Haverty, Anne. Constance Markievicz: An Independent Life. London: Pandora, 1988.

Norman, Diana. Terrible Beauty: A Life of Constance Markievicz, 1868-1927. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1987.

O'Connor, Ulick. The Troubles: Ireland, 1912-1922. Bobbs-Merrill, 1975.

Sebestyen, Amanda, ed. Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz. London: Virago, 1986.