Constance Markievicz: a life

These are biographical notes on the ‘Red Countess’, Constance Markievicz, prepared for the London Socialist Feminist Discussion Group on 10 October 2008. Also attached are two one-page files giving a timeline of her life.

Constance Georgine Gore-Booth was born on 4 February 1868 at Buckingham Gate in London, the elder daughter of Arctic explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, and Lady Georgina née Hill.

Sir Henry was an Anglo-Irish landowner, and the family lived on the estate of Lissadell in the north of County Sligo in the West of Ireland. Unlike other landlords, he was ‘enlightened’: for example, in the 1879–80 famine, Sir Henry provided free food for tenants.

Previously, there had also been a severe famine in 1845-9. Three decades later, in the 1870s, a land war raged between tenants and farmers, with the Irish National Land League – which campaigned on behalf of tenants, against evictions – had 200,000 members.

Constance and her younger sister, Eva Gore-Booth, gained a deep concern for the poor. But poor and working-class people do not need charity and ‘concern’ from the rich – the best a rich individual can do is come over completely to the side of the workers, which is what Constance went on to do. But not yet.

Eva became politically active first, moving to England (Manchester), where she was a lifelong suffragist and socialist along with companion Esther Roper.

The sisters were childhood friends of the poet W. B. Yeats, and influenced by his artistic and political ideas. Later, Yeats wrote a poem, In Memory Of Eva Gore-Booth And Con Markievicz.

The 1890s saw a movement for Gaelic cultural revival. In 1893, the Gaelic League formed, the first nationalist society to accept women on the same terms as men. The Celtic Literary Society, Irish National League and others excluded women.

Constance decided to train as a painter (something she has in common with Sylvia Pankhurst), but at the time only one art school in Dublin accepted female students. So in 1892, she went to study at the Slade School of Art in London. There, she became politically active and joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).

Later, she moved to Paris and enrolled at the prestigious Académie Julian where she met her future husband, Kazimierz Dunin-Markievicz, Count Markievicz, a Ukrainian aristocrat of Polish ethnicity. In 1901 they married, and Constance became Countess Markievicz. She gave birth to their daughter, Maeve, at Lissadell shortly after the marriage. The child was raised by her Gore-Booth grandparents and eventually became estranged from her mother. Constance also undertook the role of mother to Nicolas, Kazimierz’s son from his first marriage, and was very close to him.

In 1903, the Markiewiczes settled in Dublin in 1903 and moved in artistic and literary circles.

In 1905, along with others including John Butler Yeats, Constance formed the United Artists Club. Through this, she met leading figures in the Gaelic League, and met other republicans.

In 1906, she rented a small cottage outside Dublin, and read old copies of The Peasant and Sinn Féin, left behind by the previous tenant.

In 1908, the Irish Women’s Franchise League set up by Francis and Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington.

Also in 1908, Sinn Féin was founded. Although it was not anti-feminist, neither was it actively pro-feminist. Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith was disinterested in feminism and hostile to the labour movement – he called for the 1913 Dublin strikers to be bayoneted.
In 1908, Constance joined Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (‘Daughters of Ireland’), a revolutionary women’s movement founded by the actress and activist Maud Gonne in 1900. Markiewicz came directly to her first meeting from a function at Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule in Ireland, wearing a satin ball-gown and a diamond tiara.

The same year, Constance played a dramatic role in the women’s suffrage campaigners’ tactic of opposing Winston Churchill’s election to Parliament during the Manchester North West by-election, flamboyantly appearing in the constituency driving an old-fashioned carriage drawn by four white horses to promote the suffragist cause. She had plainly not yet broken from her upper-class background!

In 1909, she founded Fianna Éireann, a para-military organisation that instructed teenage boys in the use of firearms.

In 1911, the Countess as jailed for the first of several times, for speaking at an Irish Republican Brotherhood demonstration attended by 30,000 people, organised to protest against George V’s visit to Ireland.

In 1912, the Sheehy-Skeffingtons launched the Irish Citizen, a suffrage weekly; and the Irish (Home Rule) Party voted down Conciliation Bill which would have given limited suffrage for women. The main party of Irish nationalism, it was forcefully anti-feminist.

The Dublin Lockout

The big turning point for Constance Markievicz was the 1913 Dublin lockout, in which she threw in her lot with the workers.

By 1913, Jim Larkin’s Irish Transport & General Workers had 10,000 members, and had won significant improvements for workers.

Larkin was a union organiser, who had worked in Liverpool then Belfast then Dublin. He advocated women’s rights, and with his sister Delia, established the Irish Women Workers’ Union in September 1911.

The other leading figure of Irish labour movement was James Connolly, who had founded the Irish Socialist Republican Party in 1896. He wrote that, “The worker is the slave of capitalist society, the female worker is the slave of that slave”, and was widely recognised as a champion of women’s rights. The Sheehy-Skeffingtons described Connolly as “the soundest and most thoroughgoing feminist among all the Irish labour men”.

The labour movement’s male leaders were noticeably more pro-feminist than other political leaders.

On 2 September 1913, more than 400 firms, working together through the Employers’ Federation, announced a general lockout of workers. They issued workers with a statement to sign, pledging to resign membership of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (or never to join it) and to obey all instructions from their bosses.

Countess Markievicz ran food provision for locked-out workers at Liberty Hall, union HQ. But it would be wrong to assume that women only played this sort of supportive, backroom role. On 13 September, a women workers’ demonstration marched to Inchicore, site of a tram garage which was a Larkin stronghold, held up tramway traffic. Women also took an active part in mass pickets and demonstrations.

Constance also joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), a small volunteer force formed to defend demonstrating workers from the police. In the ICA, women and men drilled together, unlike in the Irish Volunteers, a similar force set up by non-labour movement republicans.

In late October, social worker and feminist Dora Montefiori suggested the kids of locked out workers go to stay with supportive families in England. The Catholic Church denounced the plan for fear of the children’s religion being undermined. Archbishop Walsh attacked the mothering qualities of women who were prepared to allow their children to be cared for in England. Priests seized children from the Corporation Baths where they were being washed in preparation for their departure, and each evening, priests led many Catholics in pickets of Dublin Quays.

A special TUC conference voted down a proposal for sympathetic strike action by British workers. Many analysts at the time and since have blamed this decision for the eventual defeat of the locked-out workers.

Also in 1913, Kazimierz moved to the Ukraine, and never returned to live in Ireland. However he and Constance continued to correspond and Kazimierz was present by her side when she died in 1927.

In 1916, Constance Markievicz was made an Honorary Member of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, when the union and the Irish Citizen Army presented her with an address commending her relief efforts during the Lockout.

Biographer Levenson argued that “it was during this struggle that Constance learned from James Connolly that national freedom would be worthless without the overthrow of the exploiting class.”

Constance was by this time living in Surrey House in Dublin, which she used as an organisational base for campaigners in the labour, suffrage and republican movements.

Easter Rising and Prison

The next major event in Constance’s political life was the Easter Rising.

In 1914, the leader of the Irish Party, John Redmond, declared his party’s support for Britain in the War. Anti-war republicans planned attack on British rule.

By late 1915, the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was planning an uprising. The IRB had been founded 1858, and was also known by the name of its American branch, the Fenians. It was a highly secretive organisation which excluded women. James Connolly joined them in planning an uprising.

The Rising began Easter Monday 1916. The rebels read out a Proclamation on the steps of the General Post Office, which had been seized as the headquarters of the rebellion. It was addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”, and claimed “the allegiance of every Irishman and Irishwoman”; it declared the intention to establish a national Government for the Republic of Ireland, “representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women”, with “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens”.

Constance was a member of the ICA, and very close to its founder James Connolly. She designed the ICA’s uniforms, composed their anthem, a Polish song with changed lyrics. Markievicz held the rank of an officer, making her a decision maker, and giving her the right to carry arms.

The picture of the involvement of women in the Rising is as follows. In the Citizen Army, there were two women commissioned – Constance Markievicz and Dr Kathleen Lynn, medical officer. Nine women were involved in the attempted capture of Dublin Castle. Thirty-four women took part in the occupation of the General Post Office. A party of Cumann na mBan women were stationed in Jacob’s. During the Rising, 77 women were arrested and five women interned.

Lieutenant Markievicz was second in command to Michael Mallin in St Stephen’s Green. She supervised the setting-up of barricades as the rising began and was in the middle of the fighting all around Stephen’s Green, wounding a British army sniper. Inspired by newsreel footage from the Western Front, they initially began to dig trenches in the Green. British fire from the rooftops of adjacent tall buildings, including the Shelbourne Hotel, though, convinced them of the folly of this tactic, and they withdrew to the adjacent Royal College of Surgeons.

Mallin, Markievicz and their men held out for six days, finally giving up when the British brought them a copy of Pearse’s surrender order. The English officer, Captain Wheeler, who accepted their surrender was a relative of Constance.

She was taken to Dublin Castle, and from there to Kilmainham Gaol. The prisoners were jeered by crowds as they were walked through the streets of Dublin.

Constance was the only one of seventy women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. She was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life in prison on “account of the prisoner’s sex.” She told the court, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”.

16 men – including James Connolly – were executed by the British. These executions began to turn the tide of opinion towards the rebels.

Constance was released from prison in 1917, along with others involved in the Rising, as the government in London granted a general amnesty for those who had participated in it.

Around this time, she converted to Catholicism, having been born into the Church of Ireland.

In 1918, Constance was jailed again for her part in anti-conscription activities.

Election and beyond

In the 1918 general election, Constance was elected for the constituency of Dublin St Patrick’s, one of 73 Sinn Féin MPs. She was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons (NOT Nancy Astor as many believe), but along with the other Sinn Féinners, refused to take her seat in a Parliament whose authority over Ireland they did not recognise.

Instead, she took up seat in Dáil Éireann, the unilaterally-declared Parliament of the Irish Republic. In 1921, she was re-elected to Second Dáil.

From April 1919 to January 1922, Constance served as Minister for Labour, making her the first Irish female Cabinet Minister (there would not be another until 1979) and the first female Cabinet Minister in Europe.

In January 1922, she left the government with Éamon de Valera and others, opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty. She fought actively for the Republican cause in the Irish Civil War helping to defend Moran’s Hotel in Dublin. After the War, she toured the USA, fundraising for the republicans. Because of these activities, she was not elected in the 1922 General Election.

In 1923, she was elected for Dublin South constituency, but did not take her seat. The same year, she was imprisoned again for Republican activities, went on hunger strike with 92 other female prisoners, and was released within a month.

In 1926, Constance joined Fianna Fáil on its foundation, chairing its inaugural meeting in La Scala Theatre.

In the June 1927 general election, she was re-elected as Fianna Fáil candidate, but died five weeks later, before she could take her seat. Constance died aged 59, on 15 July 1927, in Sir Patrick Dunn’s Hospital for the poor in Dublin, possibly of tuberculosis (contracted when she worked in the poorhouses of Dublin) or complications related to appendicitis. Her estranged husband and daughter, and her stepson, were by her side. She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. Éamon de Valera, the Fianna Fáil leader, gave the funeral oration.

Download Page Content (.pdf)