100 years ago, Constance Markievicz received a letter confirming her return as MP for Dublin St Patrick’s. Ireland’s first elected female politician was in prison at the time, and the letter was addressed: “Dear Sir”. Robert Hume investigates her colourful life
An unlikely socialist
Riding with the local hunt, garden parties, wafting down marble staircases in a silk kimono and pink stockings, are scarcely typical of your average revolutionary. But Countess Markievicz was a radical who spent her life helping the needy and the oppressed.
Born in London in 1868 to Anglo-Irish Protestant landlord, Henry Gore-Booth, and his wife Georgina, Constance was educated by governesses at the 48-roomed family home in Co Sligo. Its grand sitting room was as “high as a church”, commented W B Yeats, who became a regular visitor to Lissadell House.
The Gore-Booths accepted the status quo “almost as if it had been the will of God”, writes Lindie Naughton (Markievicz. A Most Outrageous Rebel, 2018). Constance and her sisters, Eva and Mabel, were given an aristocratic upbringing, taught painting and good deportment. They heard stories how their grandfather had evicted tenants during the Famine, sending them to sea in a “rotten boat”.
Constance and her mother gave food to their tenants during the Famine of 1879-80.
Soon after returning from the “Grand Tour” with governess “Squidge”, she chanced across The Peasant and Sinn Féin. These revolutionary journals greatly influenced her: “Soaking in the slime and ooze of the boglands”, she wrote: “you find the dispossessed people of the old Gaelic race in their miserable cabins.”
With few opportunities in Dublin for women to study, in 1893 Constance went to train as a painter in London.
She joined the Suffragettes. The sooner women “begin to make a row, the better”, she announced in 1896 at Drumcliff, Sligo, before moving to Paris where everything new in art was happening.
On 29 May 1900, she married the widowed artist and playwright, Casimir Dunin Markievicz – the “Polish Count with the unspellable name”. In the wedding service, the vow to obey her husband was omitted.
That same year, Constance had travelled to Lissadell to attend her father’s funeral. She returned in 1901 to give birth to a daughter. Maeve Alyss was farmed out to her grandmother whenever the couple journeyed to France or Poland.
The Markieviczs performed in plays at the Abbey Theatre, and exhibited dozens of paintings at exhibitions.
They became part of the “Dublin Castle set”, and cut handsome figures: six foot four inches tall Casimir, in military uniform; and ‘Madame’ – she preferred that title to Countess – an imposing six foot, her hair sprinkled with jewels.
Constance attended her last “purposeless” ball at Dublin Castle on St Patrick’s Day, 1908, before beginning a “Bohemian” lifestyle: cycling in the French countryside and sitting in cafés smoking cigarettes. When short of money, Casimir would wash trams at night.
His son, Stanislas, said Constance was drawn to “any struggle against authority and for those suffering injustice”.
Naughton notes how many who listened to her were attracted by “her exotic name, her accent… her beauty and her height.” But her “flamboyant rhetoric” irritated Arthur Griffith; and Seán O’Casey called her a “scintillating harlequin”.
“Leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver”
Constance’s thoughts turned towards Irish independence. To her, English invaders were “slugs”, Ireland a “poor wee bulb” buried in the “dust and dirt” of English rule.
Her kindred spirits were not moderate Sinn Féiners but ardent republicans like James Connolly, and “Big Jim” Larkin. In 1909, she helped found Fianna Éireann, a paramilitary organisation teaching teenage boys to use guns. When King George V and Queen Mary visited Dublin in 1911, Constance threw gravel at police and burned the giant Union Jack from Leinster House. Her family and society friends were appalled. From the basement of Liberty Hall during the 1913 Dublin lockout, she ran a soup kitchen, selling her jewellery and taking out loans to keep it going. “Madame had a personal contact and real sympathy for the poor”, commented Hanna Sheehy Skeffington.
During the 1916 Easter Rising, with her beloved Irish cocker, “Poppet”, never far away, she helped Fianna boys build trenches for the Irish Citizen Army on St Stephen’s Green, and proved an expert sniper on the roof of the Royal College of Surgeons.
After six days, the call came to surrender. Constance gently kissed her revolver goodbye: “I am ready”, she said.
“I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me!”
“I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me”, she told her court martial. When the British commuted her execution to life imprisonment, she exclaimed: “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me!” From Kilmainham prison she was taken to Mountjoy, then Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, where she registered as Catholic. Her weight plummetted from 11 stone, to 7 and-a-half stone, but she kept cheerful by writing “unauthorised” letters to Eva on toilet paper, and working on a secret pin cushion, embroidered with: “Easter Week, 1916”.
On her release in June 1917, Kilkenny and Sligo welcomed her home with foghorns.
In February 1918 she celebrated women winning the vote, and put herself forward as a Sinn Féin candidate at the forthcoming general election.
Challenging the British government’s right to enforce compulsory military service in Ireland earned a stretch inside Holloway, London, where she went on hunger strike.
Wins election from prison cell
On 28 December 1918, Markievicz was returned for Dublin St Patrick’s with 66% of the vote.
But like other Sinn Féin MPs, she refused to take her seat at Westminster. In June 1919 she made “seditious speeches” in Cork, cursing the drop of “black English blood” running through her veins, and, like Swift, exhorting the Irish to “burn everything English except their coal”. She was arrested and escorted to the Mallow assizes by 30 soldiers. When sentenced, she yelled: “Three cheers for the Irish republic”.
As Minister for Labour in the Dáil, she was entrusted with resolving trade union disputes from a clandestine office masquerading as a letting agency and piano school in Frederick Street. The authorities caught up with her in December 1920 and she was sentenced to two years hard labour for drilling Fianna boys a decade earlier to use guns. In 1922 she left the government in protest over the Anglo-Irish partition treaty: a betrayal of everything she had been working for. She travelled to the USA as a republican delegate and aroused considerable interest in the cause. After engaging in a week’s siege on the roof of Hammam Hotel, O’Connell Street, she was imprisoned a final time in Dublin in 1923. In 1926 she and Éamon de Valera split from Sinn Féin and founded Fianna Fáil.
Dies in poverty
Weakened by years of protest and imprisonment, Countess Constance Markievicz died from peritonitis on July 15, 1927, aged 59. Having given away all her wealth, she spent her final days in a public ward in St Patrick Dun’s Hospital, Dublin. When de Valera suggested she might prefer a private room, Constance retorted:” I have spent my life helping the needy and want to die alongside them.”