COUNTESS MARKIEVICZ / Politician, revolutionary & suffragette

COUNTESS MARKIEVICZ

Politician, revolutionary, suffragette

1868 - 1927

Sligo / Dublin

In her native Sligo and in Dublin, government office blocks, playing fields, housing estates and even a swimming centre are named after Countess Markievicz, born Constance Gore Booth – probably the most celebrated Irishwoman after Queen Meabh.

Markievicz is known first and foremost for her role in the 1916 Rising. During Easter Week, she joined the Irish Citizen Army group that took over St Stephen’s Green and subsequently retreated into the Royal College of Surgeons. Her tall figure in full uniform topped with her favourite hat caused much comment, and a rumour later spread that she had shot dead a policeman at St Stephen’s Green on the opening morning of the Rising. Since she hadn’t yet arrived at the Green at the time, the story - which has taken a firm hold in 1916 folklore - should be treated with deep scepticism.  

When Markievicz surrendered at the RCSI, she famously kissed her gun before handing it over to Captain Charles de Courcy Wheeler, who was a distant relative.

Markievicz was a member of the tight-knit Anglo Irish ruling class, so it was little wonder that she was related to Wheeler. Born in 1868, she was the first of five children born to Sir Henry Gore Booth and his wife Georgina. An outgoing and happy child, she became well known locally for her skill as a horsewoman.

As a young adult, she studied art in London and later Paris, where she met her husband Casimir Markievicz. With their only child Maeve and Casimir's son Stanislaus, the couple decided to settle in Dublin in 1903, earning a living first as artists and later in the theatre.

Although a lively city, Dublin at the time had the worst slums in Europe and the highest rate of infant deaths. By 1908, Markievicz, with her social conscience awoken, had joined both Maud Gonne's Inghinidhe na hÉireann, a republican women's group, and Sinn Fein. A year later, with the help of Bulmer Hobson, she founded Na Fianna Éireann – a paramilitary version of the boy scouts. Without the Fianna, Padraig Pearse would say, 1916 would not have happened.

By the time of the great Lock-Out of 1913, Markievicz was a committed follower of James Connolly. Always a woman of action, she organised a soup kitchen at Liberty Hall for the thousands of families who were struggling to survive during this blackest of periods in Irish history. The ordinary people of Dublin would never forget her kindness.

After the shattering failure of the Easter Rebellion, Markievicz's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. She would spend several months in Aylesbury women's prison in England where she was treated as a common criminal, no better or worse than the thieves, murderers and prostitutes making up most of the prison population. It was the first of five terms of imprisonment.

In 1918, while back in jail at Holloway, Markievicz was elected to the House of Commons, creating history as the first woman to be elected a British MP. Like the other Sinn Féin members, she did not take up her seat, and in 1919 helped establish the illegal Dáil Éireann in Dublin. With her background in labour relations, she was the obvious choice for Minister for Labour. That made her only the second woman in the world after the Bolshevik revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai to hold a cabinet position in government.

After the Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in 1922, Markievicz left government along with de Valera and others who opposed it. The "hardliners", as they were called, would spend the next few years on the run when a brutal civil war erupted between those who supported the Treaty and those who saw it as a tainted compromise. Sinn Féin had refused to sit in the new Dáil but, as time went by, it was clear that a compromise was needed if the "hardliners" were to have any influence on Irish politics.

In May 1926, the inaugural meeting of Fianna Fáil at the La Scala theatre in Dublin was chaired by Markievicz, with de Valera as party leader. She was duly elected as a Fianna Fáil TD at the elections of June 1927, but already ill, was never to take her seat.

On 15 July 1927, Constance Markievicz died, aged 59. The funeral that followed was one of the largest ever seen in Dublin, with ordinary citizens turning out in their thousands to pay tribute to their "Madame" – a woman who had always fought their corner and whom they had taken to their hearts. A true patriot.

Thanks to author Lindie Naughton for this herstory. Lindie's book Markievicz: A most outrageous rebel is available through Irish Academic Press.