Flamboyant rebel woman

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A century ago Constance Markievicz was preparing for the Irish Easter Rising. Mary Smith outlines the remarkable life of an upper class woman who was both a paramilitary leader and the first woman MP.

Countess Constance Markievicz was a brave and flamboyant rebel, a traitor to her upper class background and an uncompromising revolutionary for most of her life. Her extraordinary life also exemplifies a more general truth: namely that in revolutionary upheavals women come to the fore in the struggle and in the process challenge their own oppression and subordination.

Constance became politically active while at the Slade School of Art in London in the 1890s, joining the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Later she moved to Paris where she met her future husband, Count Casimir Markievicz, an artist from a wealthy Polish family. They married in September 1900, making her Countess Markievicz.

In 1908 she attended her first meeting of the revolutionary nationalist women’s organisation Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) wearing a ball gown and diamond tiara, having just come from a function at Dublin Castle. The Inghinidhe were not impressed by this countess in full regalia, but she was impressed by them. This debut was as far removed from her subsequent contribution to the struggle as can be imagined. She turned her back on her privileged background, threw herself wholeheartedly into building Inghinidhe, and later Cumann na mBan, another Republican women’s organisation. She joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizens Army, and played a heroic role in the Easter Rising of 1916 and subsequent events.

She famously offered pre-revolutionary fashion advice (to whom it might apply): “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.” She was an actor on the stage of the newly founded Abbey Theatre — an important institution in the Irish cultural revival of those years. She campaigned with the suffragettes in Britain along with her sister Eva Gore Booth.

Eva and her partner, a working class woman Esther Roper, were prominent in the suffragist movement and played a significant part in defeating Winston Churchill in the Manchester North West by-election of 1908. They also worked to unionise female flower-sellers, circus performers, barmaids and coal pit-brow workers. Eva was later to come to Dublin to campaign for Markievicz’s release when she was imprisoned for her part in the Easter Rising.

In 1909 Markievicz founded Na Fianna Eireann, a sort of paramilitary scouts group for boys and girls, who trained in the use of weapons. She was jailed for the first time in 1911 for speaking at a 30,000 strong Irish Republican Brotherhood demonstration organised to protest against King George V’s visit to Ireland. She worked tirelessly during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, organising food kitchens in Liberty Hall (the union headquarters) for the strikers and their dependents. Much of the funding for this came from the sale of her own jewellery.

During the Easter Rising she was appointed second in command to Michael Mallin of the Irish Citizens Army in St Stephen’s Green and then the nearby College of Surgeons, shooting a policeman in the head and fatally wounding him. At her court martial on 4 May 1916 Markievicz pleaded not guilty to “taking part in an armed rebellion...for the purpose of assisting the enemy”, but proudly pleaded guilty to having attempted “to cause disaffection among the civil population of His Majesty”, and she told the court, “I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.”

She was sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on “account of the prisoner’s sex”. It was widely reported that she told the court, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.”

Elected to the British House of Commons in 1918 for Sinn Féin, she was the first woman MP, though she refused to take her seat. Later she became the second woman in the world (after Alexandra Kollontai in Russia, following the Bolshevik Revolution) to hold cabinet rank in government as minister of labour in the Dáil of 1919. Not until 1979 did another woman serve in an Irish cabinet. Markievicz left government in January 1922 in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which entrenched the division of Ireland. She fought for the Republican cause in the Irish Civil War.

In 1926 she joined Republican political party Fianna Fail at its inception. She did not live to see it become the major party of the Irish bourgeoisie with all the cronyism, corruption and reaction that entailed.

When she died aged 59 in 1927 it was in a public ward “among the poor — where she wanted to be”.

Markievicz is only the best known of a generation of remarkable women, such as Margaret Skinnider, Rose McNamara, Winnie Carney, Mollie O’Reilly and Rosie Hackett, many of them working class women and socialists, who played a huge role in the Easter Rising and in the subsequent Irish Revolution. It was a hallmark of the counterrevolution that triumphed in the Civil War and after that women, in the name of Catholic values and the sanctity of the family, were forced back into a wretched second class citizenship from which they did not start to emerge until relatively recently. The emancipation of Irish women, like the emancipation of the Irish working class, remains unfinished business.