Constance Markievicz’s fight for a free Ireland
In 1916, the countess took up arms in a bid to rid Ireland of British rule, and later made political history as the first woman to win a seat at Westminster. But what shaped Constance Markievicz’s beliefs?
There wasn’t much in her youth to suggest that Constance Georgine Gore-Booth would fit the role of a nationalist, socialist revolutionary willing to take up arms and face numerous spells in prison, and so be remembered as the Irish heroine and political pioneer Constance Markievicz. Born on 4 February 1868 into Anglo-Irish aristocracy, hers was an upbringing of privilege and high society, either in London or at the family estate of Lissadell in County Sligo. Before she was 20, she would be presented at court to Queen Victoria herself.
Yet Constance grew up socially conscientious and aware of the plight of the working classes. When a famine struck in 1879, she saw her landowning father, the Arctic explorer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, provide his staff and tenants with free food; an inspiring deed both for Constance and her sister Eva, a future suffragist. Constance looked to go a similar way: in 1893, while studying art in London, she joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
Continuing her studies in Paris, she met a Polish count named Casimir Dunin Markievicz. The pair married in 1900, had a daughter (Constance would also help raise Casimir’s son from a previous marriage), and moved to Dublin in 1903. There, they threw themselves into the artistic world, and, increasingly for Countess Markievicz, the political one, too.
Fighting on the frontline
In 1908, aged 40, Markievicz embraced Irish nationalism, joining the political party Sinn Féin and the radical women’s organisation Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). She also became close with members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), although, as their name suggests, she couldn’t join due to her gender. Wishing to do more, Markievicz formed her own group, Na Fianna Éireann (Soldiers of Ireland), a paramilitary version of the Boy Scouts committed to training future soldiers to fight for independence.
Over the next few years, her revolutionary activities intensified. Markievicz took part in suffragist opposition to Winston Churchill’s election campaign in Manchester (he lost); was arrested for the first time for demonstrating against George V’s visit to Ireland; and during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, a major industrial dispute involving 20,000 workers, she tirelessly collected food and essentials – even selling her jewellery to buy them – for the protesters.
Markievicz was willing to fight for real, though, and she got her chance with the Easter Rising of 1916. The insurrection against British rule, at a time when focus was on World War I, erupted in Dublin with the involvement of the IRB, Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army, which Markievicz helped train and organise. She greatly admired its founder, James Connolly, for “quite ignoring the conventional attitude towards the work of women”.
During the Rising, Markievicz was on the frontline, a living example of the advice she had once given to women who wished to help fight for independence: “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots. Leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.” Wearing her Citizen Army uniform and accompanied by her cocker spaniel Poppet, she fought for six days with her garrison. But the Rising failed, and Markievicz was eventually forced to surrender, kissing her revolver before handing it over to a British officer.
After her arrest, the countess was court-martialled. Defiant throughout, she declared to the court, “I did what I thought was right, and I stand by it,” and only had her death sentence commuted because she was a woman. This was much to her chagrin: she had seen her friends executed and told her captors, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”.
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From guns to government
Markievicz was released after 14 months – as part of a general amnesty of those who participated in the Rising – but she was soon behind bars again for allegedly engaging in treasonable communication with Germany. It was during this stint in Holloway Prison that, in December 1918, she put herself forward as a candidate for the St Patrick’s constituency in Dublin and became the first woman elected to the House of Commons in Westminster.
She did not take her seat, however, along with her Sinn Féin comrades, as it would have meant taking an oath of allegiance to the king. Instead, the republicans formed their own provisional government, Dáil Éireann, and Markievicz, once released, was invited to serve – the only woman to do so. She opposed the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which created the Irish Free State (independent from the United Kingdom, but still part of the British empire), and went on to support the anti-Treaty forces in the ensuing civil war.
But as fighting raged, Markievicz continued to work for an independent nation. This came at the cost of her fortune and her health. In 1927, just a month after being elected again – this time for the political party Fianna Fáil, formed from a split within Sinn Féin – she died at the age of 59. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of Dublin for her funeral: a tribute to the rebel countess.
This article first featured in the September 2022 edition of BBC History Revealed
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.