Countess Markievicz played an active part in the Easter Rising of 1916 and in post-1916 Irish history. Born in 1868 as Constance Gore-Booth, Countess Markievicz was sentenced to death for her part in the Easter Uprising but had the sentence commuted to life imprisonment on account of her gender.
Countess Markievicz was born in London into a wealthy family that had a large estate in County Sligo. Her father, Sir Henry Gore-Booth, was an explorer, but unlike many landowners in Ireland, he treated his tenants with concern. Therefore, Markievicz was brought up in a household that showed care and concern to those on the family estate in Lissadell. Her sister, Eva, would later involve herself in the labour movement in England – and women’s suffrage. The future countess did not share, at this time, her sister’s aspirations. Constance wanted to be an artist and in 1893, she went to London to study art at the Slade School. In 1898, she continued her studies at the Julian School in Paris. It was here that she met Count Casimir Dunin Markievicz. He was from a wealthy Polish family but was already married when he met Constance. However, his wife died in 1899 and he married Constance in 1901 making her Countess Markievicz.
In 1903, the couple moved to Dublin and the Countess gained a reputation for herself as a landscape artist. In 1905, the Countess founded and funded the United Artists Club which was an attempt to bring together all those in Dublin with an artistic bent. At this moment in time there was nothing tangible to link her to basic politics, let alone a drive for Ireland’s independence from British rule. Then in 1906, something happened which pushed the Countess headlong into Irish politics and away from art. In 1906, she rented out a small cottage in the countryside around Dublin. The person who had previously rented it was a poet called Pádraic Colum. He had left behind old copies of ‘The Peasant and Sinn Fein’. This was a revolutionary publication that pushed for independence from British rule. The Countess read those publications that were left behind and was taken in by what they wanted.
In 1908, the Countess became actively involved in nationalist politics in Ireland. She joined Sinn Fein and Inghinidhe na hEerann – a women’s movement. In the same year, the Countess stood for Parliament. She contested the Manchester constituency where her most famous opponent was Winston Churchill. The Countess lost the election but in the space of two years she had gone from a life oriented around art to a life oriented around Irish politics and independence in particular.
In 1909, she founded Fianna Éireann which was a form of Boy Scouts but with a military input, including the use of firearms. Patrick Pearse said that the creation of Fianna Éireann was as important as the creation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913. In 1911, the Countess was jailed for the first time for her part in the demonstrations that took place against the visit of George V. In the lock-out of 1913, she ran a soup kitchen to aid those who who could not afford food.
When war broke out in August 1914, many in Ireland were happy to support the suspension of Home Rule until the war was over. Thousands of Irishmen volunteered to fight in Britain’s hour of need. However, a hard core of people were not prepared to accept this situation and they were willing to use Britain’s involvement in the war as an opportunity they could exploit. This led to the Easter Uprising of 1916 and it was almost natural for the Countess to have got involved.
The Countess played a very active role in the fighting that took place in Dublin. Having joined JamesConnolly’s Citizen Army, she was second in command at St. Stephen’s Green. Those who fought there held out for six days and surrendered only when they were given a copy of the surrender order signed by Patrick Pearse. Ironically, the British officer (Capt. Wheeler) who accepted their surrender was a distant relative of the Countess. As with many of the arrested rebels when they were paraded through the streets of Dublin, the Countess was verbally abused by Dubliners who had seen part of their city devastated.
The Countess was not the only women arrested at the end of the rebellion. In total, 70 women were but the Countess was the only one held in solitary confinement at Kilmainham Jail. It is possible that the British authorities believed that by herself she was less of a problem; allowed to socialise with other women at the prison, she might be a source of trouble. However, from her cell the Countess could hear the firing squads. She was brought before a court martial and sentenced to death. She effectively admitted her guilt by saying:
“I did what was right and I stand by it.”
However, General Maxwell, the officer commanding the court martial procedure, commuted her sentence to life in prison on account of the fact that she was female. When she was told the news, she said:
“I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.”
The Countess was released from prison in 1917, along with others involved in the Uprising, as the government in London granted a General Amnesty for those involved in the Easter Uprising. However, her experiences did nothing to dampen her involvement in politics. In 1918, she was jailed again for her part in anti-conscription activities. While in prison she was elected an MP standing as a Sinn Fein candidate. The Countess refused to take up her seat as it would have involved swearing an oath of allegiance to the king. During the Anglo-Irish War, she was either on the run from the British authorities or she was, once again, in prison. She was a staunch opponent of the 1921 Treaty which gave Ireland dominion status within the British Empire. The Countess referred to those who supported the treaty as “traitors”. Michael Collins, the man who signed the treaty, claimed that she could never understand the rationale behind the treaty as she was English.
After the civil war in Ireland, she toured America. The Countess was also re-elected to the Dáil but her staunch republican views led her to being sent to jail again. In prison, she and 92 other female prisoners went on hunger strike. Within a month, the Countess was released. The hunger-strikes of the Suffragettes had been a huge embarrassment to the British government before the war. The newly created Dáil could barely afford a similar scandal. In 1926, the Countess joined Fianna Fáil led by Eamonn de Valera. She died in 1927. It is estimated that over 250,000 people lined the streets for her funeral in Dublin and de Valera read the eulogy.
|“One thing she had in abundance – physical courage; with that she was clothed as with a garment.” Sean O’Casey