On April 26, 2016, in Dublin, Sabina Higgins, wife of Michel Higgins, the President of Ireland, laid a wreath at the grave of Countess Constance Markievicz, who is buried at Glasnevin Cemetery along with many other veterans of the 1916 Easter rebellion. This tribute was one of the first steps in the national celebration Ireland is holding to commemorate the Easter uprising that happened 100 years ago.
Markievicz is not an Irish name and you may find it hard to understand how a woman born into a wealthy Protestant family, raised in luxury, and married to a Polish Count is now lying in a grave close to the burial sites of many of the revolutionaries who fought for Ireland’s freedom from Britain. Constance Markievicz’s transformation from a famous beauty to a hard-fighting, hard-working social activist is one of the romantic stories that has become part of the legend of Irish history.
Like many of the other fighters in the Irish rebellion, Constance first became involved with the cause of Irish independence through the arts. She joined Sinn Fein and became enthusiastically anti-British, refusing to stand up in public places when the National Anthem was played, for example. And she embarrassed some of her family members by declining to drink the king’s toast at the end of formal dinners. To further Irish culture she supported the famous Abbey Theater and worked with Maud Gonne to see that the works of Irish playwrights were presented there. Her husband Casimir Markievicz was a portrait painter and interested in writing for the theater, but after a few years of working together, the couple gradually grew apart. In 1914, after fourteen years of marriage, Casimir returned to Poland and never again lived in Ireland although he and Constance continued to be friends.
When World War I broke out, some nationalists in Ireland saw the Germans as natural allies to help the fight for Irish freedom. Constance was among many others who tried to buy arms and supplies from Germany to help the Irish cause. Unlike many of the other women working for Irish freedom, Constance knew how to shoot and was comfortable using a gun. She started a national scout organization to teach teenaged boys and girls how to shoot. When the Easter uprising started, she was ready to join the military and served as second in command to Michael Mallin, a captain of the Irish Citizen Army.
The Easter rising was a brief war, but the consequences for Ireland and for the men and women who fought in the rebellion were dramatic. When, after a week of fighting, the rebels surrendered, the British decided that all of the leaders should be made examples to demonstrate the fate awaiting rebels. Almost all of the men were summarily executed, but Constance Markievicz’s sentence was changed to life imprisonment on the grounds that she was a woman.
Constance was sent to prison, first in Ireland and later in England. There she scrubbed floors and sewed prisoners’ nightclothes. One of her few solaces was embroidery. She used to draw colored threads from the rags she used for cleaning and kept white pieces of material from the nightclothes to embroider on. Oddly enough, this echoed the activity of Mary Queen of Scots centuries before who passed her time in prison by embroidering elaborate scenes. Perhaps both of these women understood the idea of art therapy many years before psychologists recognized its value.
When Constance Markievicz was released from prison in 1917, she continued her work for Ireland. The Easter uprising marked the beginning of Ireland’s successful journey to independence and Constance was an honored leader. She was the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons, although in a protest against accepting the British parliamentary rule, she did not take her seat. Later, when Ireland had its own Parliament, she became the second female government minister in Europe.
Although she died at the early age of 59, she continued her active life until the end. By the time she died she had given away all of her early wealth and died, as wished, among the poor of Dublin, in a public ward of the hospital. Her life story is well told in Anne Marreco’s biography The Rebel Countess: The Life and Times of Constance Markievicz. It is a life well worth remembering.
2016 is the 100th anniversary of Ireland’s Easter Rebellion, which erupted in Dublin early in World War I and was quickly put down by the British. Nonetheless, it was the rebellion that finally set Ireland on the path toward independence. The leaders of the rebellion were an unusual group of revolutionaries—most were not soldiers or politicians, but artists,
playwrights and poets. And one of them was a woman, Constance Markievicz, who grew up in the Downton Abbey atmosphere of her family’s estate, Lissadell, but spent most of her adult life as a freedom fighter. Her journey was the opposite of Tom Branson’s in Downton Abbey. He made his first appearance as a fighter for Irish freedom, but ended the series as an automobile salesman—I can’t help but wonder what Lady Sybil would have thought of that. Tom Branson, however, is fictional. Constance Markievicz was a real woman and her life was far more exciting than the life of any character in Downton Abbey.
Born to an aristocratic life at her family’s estate, Constance Gore-Booth and her sister Eva grew up as admired society leaders. They were both considered great beauties and William Butler Yeats later described them in a poem as “Two girls in silk kimonos, both/Beautiful, one a gazelle…” They went to parties and balls, but instead marrying into the aristocracy, they followed very different paths. Eva became a champion of women’s rights and a suffragette, while Constance determined to be an artist and studied art in Paris, but later turned to politics and the struggle for Irish freedom.
Constance married Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz, which is why she had a Polish name despite being associated far more with Ireland than with Poland. In fact, she only visited Poland once for a few months shortly after her marriage. Casimir Markievicz was also an artist who became a well-known portrait painter, but never shared her passion for politics or Irish rebellion. For most of their marriage they lived quite separate lives, although they remained friendly.
How then did a woman with this kind of background become a fighter in the middle of the Easter uprising? A woman condemned to execution by the British army who said at her trial that “I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.” ? And finally the first woman elected to the British House of Commons?
This is a story too long to tell in one post, so I will continue it in my next post.