St Stephen’s Green is a beautiful place any time of the year but spring is particularly magical.
One aspect that strikes you about living in a city like Dublin is just how steeped in history and literature it is. WB Yeats’ house across the street — no doubt his beady eye glanced the lovers in one another’s arms and the birds in the trees.
His words are never far from my mind as I take my weekly stroll through this oasis of calm. And, like Yeats, as I watch the youthful parade, I come to the same, rather pessimistic conclusion, ‘that is no country for old men’.
My self-consumed concerns of ageing aside, I often find myself standing by a bench, reading the lime granite bust that overlooks it. ‘Constance Markievicz – A valiant Woman who fought for Ireland’.
A valiant woman, indeed. Born in London, her father was the philanthropist Henry Gore-Booth. A fascinating man in his own right, an Arctic explorer and a landlord in the west of Ireland. Constance was educated at the family estate in Lissadell, Co Sligo.
Their father’s example ignited a lifelong concern in Constance and her younger sister, Eva Gore-Booth, for working people and the poor. Significantly, the sisters were childhood friends of Yeats.
The poet frequently visited the family home, Lissadell House, and the sisters were deeply influenced by his artistic and political ideas.
They also inspired Yeats. He wrote a poem, ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz’, in which he described the sisters as “two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle” (the gazelle being Constance.)
It was her friendship with Yeats that was to prove one of the most influential in her life as she became interested in Irish nationalism and social issues at a time when women were not allowed vote in elections or become MPs.
On a day like today, as we celebrate International Women’s Day, it is important that we remember women like Markievicz, not merely because they helped shape the Ireland of today, but because she is one of the strongest women in our nation’s history. And we are a country rich with strong women.
In 1903, Markievicz moved to Dublin where she joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) and later founded, with Bulmer Hobson, Na Fianna Éireann (1909).
She was inspired by the work of the great socialist revolutionary James Connolly, and together they ran a soup kitchen at Liberty Hall during the 1913 Lockout, after which she joined the Citizen Army.
It was her involvement in the 1916 insurgency for which she is, perhaps, best remembered. During the birth of this terrible beauty, Markievicz stood out for her courage and determination.
As a woman, fighting for Ireland, she tore down the social construction of the time, that women were weaker than men. She offered women new hope for what they could achieve and how they should think about themselves.
Even though the British machine guns proved too much for the poorly trained and ill equipment insurgents, they only surrendered when they were given a copy of Pearse’s surrender order. On her surrender she kissed her gun. A powerful image that defied social discourse about women at the time.
She refused to allow herself be viewed as a victim of patriarchy. This wasn’t a man’s war that she had been duped into. This was her fight, for her country. She was a soldier, like everyone else who picked up arms on that fateful day.
After her death sentence was commuted to a life sentence, she stoically declared ‘I do wish you lot had the decency to shoot me.’
The British tried to diminish her by releasing false testimonies from the trial, which had her begging for her life. It seems the British knew they had someone unique in front of them and they didn’t want the public to see how ferocious this woman actually was.
Far from begging for her life, Markievicz calmly stated; “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.”
Markievicz was released under the general amnesty of 1917. In 1918 she was the first woman elected to the House of Commons but did not take her seat, adhering to the policy of abstentionism followed by her party, Sinn Féin.
Throughout her life she never lost that feverish determination towards a united Ireland. She opposed the treaty, and, like many, saw it as a stain on the memory of those who had given their lives for a vision of Ireland. Markievicz joined Fianna Fáil in 1926 and was elected to the Dáil.
She died in a public ward in Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, Dublin, on July 15, 1927. She refused a state burial and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery.
Seán O’Casey summed her up well, “One thing she had in abundance —physical courage; with that she was clothed as with a garment.”
Constance Markievicz — a true hero who transcended gender and laid the groundwork for all the wonderful women who followed.