Countess Constance Marchievicz (née Gore-Booth) was a painter, revolutionary, activist and politician. She was born February 4th, 1868 at Buckingham Gate, London, the daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth, explorer, philanthropist and heir to extensive estates at Lissadell, County Sligo. When Sir Henry inherited his estates, the family moved to Lissadell, where Constance and her younger sister Eva Gore-Booth were educated by governesses. The young W.B. Yeats was a frequent visitor, as was A.E. George Russell, and other literary figures of the time.
Constance was presented at the Court of Queen Victoria when she was nineteen and took her place in society. She intended to be a full time artist, and in 1893 went to London to study at the Slade School, and to Paris in 1898, to the Julian School. Here she met her future husband, Count Casimir Dunin Markievicz, a practising artist from a land-owning family of Polish extraction in the Ukraine, Russia. The couple settled in Dublin in 1903, and had one daughter Maeve, born at Lissadell in 1901, who was reared by her grand-parents.
Constance and her husband soon became part of the artistic and social life of the capital. She began to make a name for herself as a landscape artist, and though her output was small some of her work is represented in Municipal collections and other Galleries.Soon they were the center of Dublin’s artistic set. As he painted, she painted; he wrote plays, she starred in them; and both were the darlings of Dublin Castle. Some time later when asked why she no longer attended balls at the Castle, the Countess didn’t hesitate – “Because I want to blow it up.” The Markievicz marriage was not a success; the couple separated and Casimir left Dublin. Thereafter, the Countess, as she was known, became increasingly interested in nationalism and social issues.
Her transformation from society doyenne to rebel was swift, beginning innocently enough on a painting retreat in the country. It was there she found the writings of Irish revolutionary poet Padraic Colum and, as she put it, “the lightning struck at last.” Back in Dublin, she joined, in quick order, Sinn Féin, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland),a revolutionary women’s movement—and teamed up with her sister Eva to oppose the election of Winston Churchill to the British parliament. As the nationalist cause gained momentum, Constance founded the Warriors of Ireland (Fianna Éireann), which trained teenagers in the use of firearms. Speaking at a rally of 30,000 people opposed to King George V’s visit to Ireland in 1911, Countess Constance experienced her first arrest, after she helped stone the likeness of the King and Queen and tried to burn the British flag.
During the Lock out of 1913, in which workers who supported the union were shut out of their places of employment, the Countess assisted in the soup kitchens where she worked tirelessly, then personally delivered food to the poor and starving of Dublin.
She joined with “Big Jim” Larkin and James Connolly in the Lockout of 1913, that led to the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, a band of trade union workers. The Countess, a lieutenant in the Army, was its most enthusiastic member – she designed the Citizen Army uniforms and wrote its theme song. Its leader, James Connolly, became, forever, her hero.
In April 1916, Irish republicans staged an insurrection; Constance was appointed staff lieutenant, second in command at St. Stephen’s Green, the park in central Dublin. With her troops responsible for barricading the park, fighting flared after Connolly shot a policeman who had tried to prevent him from entering City Hall. Rumor had Constance shooting a British army sniper in the head, but she was never charged in such a death. Pinned down by British fire at St. Stephen’s Green, she pulled her troops back to the Royal College of Surgeons, where they held out for nearly a week before surrendering.
Taken to Kilmainham jail, Constance Markievicz was isolated from her comrades and court-martialed for “causing disaffection among the civilian population of His Majesty”; she was convicted and sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison because of her sex.
A few days later, she heard a volley from a firing squad at dawn and was informed that her mentor, James Connolly, had been executed.
“Why don’t they let me die with my friends?” she asked.
At her court-martial, Constance was defiant, taunting the court, “At least Ireland was free for a week!” Overjoyed at being condemned to death, she was soon outraged when her sentence was reduced to penal servitude – “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” The British government, fearing a cult would grow around her, sent Constance to Aylesbury Prison in Buckinghamshire where she was denied the status of political prisoner.
Eva Gore-Booth, a highly skilled activist, saw her sister’s failing health, lobbied for more humane treatment of prisoners, and in 1917 helped to get her sister included in an amnesty for participants in the Easter Rising.
Constance returned to Ireland a hero and was practically carried by a welcoming crowd to Liberty Hall in Dublin, where she declared herself back in politics. As Sinn Fein’s new leader Eamon de Valera saw Constance Markievicz elected to the 24-member executive council. But in 1918, she was back in jail after the British arrested Sinn Fein’s leaders for working against the conscription of troops for World War I,.
While in Britain’s Holloway Prison, incredibly she ran for a seat in Parliament. The Irishwoman with the Polish name won and became the first woman elected to the British Parliament on 28th December, 1918 beating her opponent with 66% of the vote. In accordance with Sinn Féin, Madame refused to take an oath of allegiance to the King and when the other Irish M.P.s voted to form the Dáil Éireann she cast her vote as fé ghlas ag Gallaibh (“imprisoned abroad”). Sinn Fein MPs did not take up their seats, because they would be required to swear allegiance to the crown, which explains why establishment figure Nancy Astor is celebrated as the first woman to sit as an MP after winning an election in 1919.
It is important to remember that the Constance Markievicz was not only the first woman elected to the House of Commons, she was also elected on an openly feminist and socialist platform. Her election was, therefore, even more extraordinary than is usually acknowledged.
When Markievicz was released from Holloway, she joined the revolutionary Irish Republic’s parliament – also becoming the first elected woman cabinet minister in the world. Constance was against the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921.A staunch republican, she was again jailed during Ireland’s 1922–23 civil war, but in 1927,weakened by spells behind bars and penniless she died aged 59 in Sir Patrick Dunn’s Hospital in Dublin.
Her position as an activist, a militant woman, a rebel, the first woman MP, the first woman minister, and her radical ideas about equality (of gender and class) has a place in revolutionary history,and deservedly, she is now being accepted as one of the central figures, male or female, of revolutionary Ireland.