On Easter Monday wearing her Citizen’s Army uniform and distinct feathered hat, she nervously placed ammunition in her pistol. Her finger slipped over the trigger and a bullet tore through her bedroom door, the noise reverberating through the empty building like a thunderclap. She collected herself and marched alone into the quiet Dublin streets to join her Irish comrades in rebellion against the British Empire at the height of the muddy slaughter of World War One. A week later the rebellion had failed, Dublin city centre was destroyed and Countess Constance Markievicz was sentenced to death.
She was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in 1868 a stones throw away from Buckingham Palace. Her father was an Arctic explorer and an avid fisher and hunter of African game and polar bears. To fund his adventurous lifestyle he was a baronet who inherited a 32,000-acre estate in Sligo, one of the most impoverished rural areas in Ireland. He was notorious for helping his tenants and earning their admiration as a progressive landlord. One year after his marriage to Georgina Hill, the niece of the Earl of Scarborough, their daughter Constance was born.
Her childhood was spent in Lissadell House often feeding the poor with her mother alongside hosting regular guests to their estate such as W.B. Yeats and members of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy. In 1892 she enrolled at art school in London where she became politically active and joined the NUWSS (National Union of Women’s Suffragette Societies). Later when living in Paris she met her future husband the Polish Count Casimir Markievicz whose family owned huge tracts of land in modern-day Ukraine. Their early years of marriage were enjoyed in Dublin’s thriving literary and artistic circles which included a range of poets, writers and artists. However it was in 1906 that she found her patriotic calling.
While renting a rural cottage with her young daughter Maeve in the hills of Wicklow she came across piles of discarded Irish nationalist literature from newspapers to poetry. She read of the experience of the Irish people under British rule and became enamoured by their cause. She eagerly joined Sinn Fein and Daughters of Ireland with whom she became an active member. Over the following years she balanced this with helping the poor of Dublin and even working with English suffragettes. During Winston Churchill’s parliamentary campaign in Manchester she flamboyantly drove a carriage pulled by four white horses while promoting the cause of women’s suffrage. When heckled by a man asking if she could cook, she replied, “Yes. Can you drive a coach of four horses?”
However it was in Ireland where her passion lay. In 1909 she created the Fianna Eireann group as an Irish version of the Scouts to educate the disaffected youth of Dublin in outdoor activities as well as in Irish history and folklore. She even bought a large house in Dublin for the homeless boys to live. This generation of young men fought in the Easter Rising, War of Independence and Civil War citing their youth with the Countess as their inspiration.
During the lock-out of 1913 she worked tirelessly feeding the families of those involved in the socialist movement striking for better pay and conditions. Afterwards she joined James Connolly’s Citizen Army in which she joined preparations for rebellion and helped organise the gun-running of 1914. Influenced by republican history she saw armed insurrection as the only way to free Ireland from British oppression. Indeed her advice to young Irish women was to, “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”Her activities strained her marriage and in 1913 the Count left Ireland for Poland, never to return.
Mere weeks before the battle of the Somme in France, she was instrumental in the ultimately doomed Easter Rising of 1916. During the fighting she set up barricades in St Stephens Green and held out for six days under fire from British snipers on the roofs of surrounding buildings. Following their surrender she was marched through the city to the jeers of the residents whose neighbourhoods had been destroyed. Such loathing however would soon turn to worship as the leaders of the rebellion were executed. She was freed from her death sentence on the basis of being a woman. As her comrades were sent to a remote prison in Wales where they created lifetime bonds of friendship and devotion, she was kept in solitary confinement and reduced to stealing raw turnips to eat in her cell. In 1917 she was granted a reprieve from Whitehall.
Upon her release she found the once reticent Ireland now swept up in a wave of patriotic fervour. Sinn Fein had replaced the Home Rule party as the dominant political force. In December 1918 she became the first female elected to the House of Commons for the St Patricks Dublin constituency with 66% of the vote but refused to take her seat as her party refused to recognise the British occupation of Ireland.
Less than a year later she was imprisoned for delivering a seditious speech in Cork. From her cell in London’s Holloway prison she was elected as Minister for Labour and became the first female to hold a position in a government cabinet. Following her release she took up her position in the cabinet and continued her dogged work with the city’s poor alongside her government responsibilities.
Following the conclusion of the War of Independence in 1922 with the division of the country and the creation of Northern Ireland she left government alongside the future Taioseach and President Eamon de Valera. She returned five years later as a representative of Fianna Fail as the country licked it’s wounds from a horrendous civil war. Before she could take her seat she died suddenly due to complications from appendicitis. At the age of 59 she was buried in a poor ward cemetery among those she had helped for years in the city. The Free State government refused requests for a state funeral due to her role in the Civil War. Politicians, poets and the poor alike attended her service with Sean O’Casey stating, “One thing she had in abundance—physical courage; with that she was clothed as with a garment.”
As with other historical figures, let us judge her in the context of her time. As a woman in patriarchal Catholic Ireland and as a member of the aristocracy in a bitter working-class movement she achieved huge success through a dogged determination and feverous hard work. While some may look at her colourful career with a controversial stance on the role of violence in achieving political goals, let us continue to judge her in her time. As we know from World War One this was an era of romantic nationalism with goals achieved using the bullet rather than the ballot. She deserves so much more recognition than a faded statue on a Dublin side street, a footnote in feminist history and a teasing question in pub quiz folklore. Countess Markievicz should stand alongside, if not above, the heroes of feminist history. Most British school children can tell you about the drama of Emily Davison and the king’s horse yet are unaware of work and achievement of the Countess, not just with women’s suffrage but with the poor, disillusioned youth, Irish rebels and national politics.