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.