Tuesday, October 5, 2010
MARKIEVICZ, CONSTANCE, COUNTESS OF IRISH FREEDOM (C) By Polly Guerin
Dear Countess Constance Georgina de Markievicz: Suffragette, Socialist, Soldier--your pedigree ranked among the finest of the old Gaelic aristocracy, yet your heroic deeds and amazing ascendency as a national heroine blazed across the Irish skies in the momentous years of the early 20th Century. I met you in Sligo, Ireland several years ago when I attended the Yeat’s Society poetry conference and learned all about your exploits when I visited Lissadell, your family’s country mansion, county Sligo. Legend has it that you were a beautiful, headstrong girl who rode fast horses over the thousands of acres on the estate owned by your father Sir Henry-Gore Booth. You were presented at the court of Queen Victoria and dubbed the darling of the Dublin Castle set. It all seemed like an idyllic fairytale. Born to power and privilege you could have remained isolated from the trials and tribulations of the common man, the dreadful conditions of tenant farmers, but your destiny led you to become ‘The Countess of Irish Freedom.’
Gore-Booths were known as model landlords in Sligo but as a young girl Constance was overcome by the destitute conditions of her father’s tenants and high rents they paid and she asked her father, Sir Henry, for an explanation. With nothing of consequence coming forward from her father she vowed that one day she would make amends for her family’s deeds. She said much later in life that her activities were, ‘only a small atonement for her ancestors’ sins in plundering the Irish people.
A FAIRYTALE SETTING
Constance’s upbringing in such an atmosphere of despair and neglect of the common people forged a compassion for the lives of the poor dispossessed Irish families and it impressed upon her mind the inequities of society. Constance reminisced in later life, “We lived on a beautiful, enchanted West Coast, where we grew up intimate with the soft mists and the colored mountains, and where each morning you woke to the sound of wild birds, no one was interested in politics in our house. Irish history was also taboo…” A frequent guest to their estate was a young W. B. Yeats who later in a poem spoke of Constance and her sister Eva as, “Two girls in silk Kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.”
AMBITION AND DESTINY
Despite all the trappings of social privilege Constance was not aspiring to the ornamental life of a “society beauty,” and she became weary of aristocratic privileges. Hoping to carve out a life of her own she had ambition to become an artist and went to London to study at the Slade School and later in Paris she attended the Julian school. It was there in Paris that she met and married, Count Casmir Dunin Markievicz, an artist from a wealthy Polish family. This union was short lived and they separated amicably. The course of her life was now heading in a totally different direction. In 1907, Constance first became known to British intelligence for her role in helping to found Na Fianna Eireann, a nationalist scout’s organization whose purpose was to teach young boys in military drill and the use of firearms. These youths would later become the volunteers during the Easter uprising.
A POLITICAL ACTIVIST
A head strong and inspired activist Constance became active in the Irish suffragette movement and joined Maud Gonne’s women’s group, Inghinidhe na hEireann. By 1911, she was now an executive member of both organizations and went to jail for the first time for her part in a demonstrations against the visit of George V. Her compassion for the poor was evident in the 1913 lockout when she ran a soup kitchen to provide food for the worker’s families. The Citizen Army drilled regularly and one soldier remarked, “She was lovely in uniform. I can remember seeing her marching at the head of the Citizen army with James Connolly and Michael Mallin at a parade one Sunday afternoon. My God, she was it!” THE EASTER RISING
As WWI began, Constance was in the center of social and political upheaval that was building in Dublin. On the 25th of April, 1916, the pressure cooker exploded in the streets of Dublin and war soon erupted in the streets of the capital. While most women in the movement participated in the Rising as nurses and messengers, Countess Markievicz, who had joined Connolly’s Citizen Army, was second in command to Michael Mallin in St. Stephen’s Green, and was active in a fighting capacity throughout the week.
DEFEAT AND DEATH
Mallin and Markievicz and their men held on to Stephen’s Green for six days, finally giving up when the British brought them a copy of Patrick Pearse’s surrender order. They were taken to Dublin Castle and Constance fully expected to be executed. As she prepared to die, alone in her cell, she heard the firing squad put one bullet in the heads of Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh. At her court martial she declared, “I did what was right, and I stand by it.” The verdict in her case was: “Guilty, Death by being shot,” but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison, “Solely on account of her sex.” Always the fiery revolutionary she told the officer who brought her the news, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” Constance was released from prison during the General Amnesty of 1917.
HONORS AND SERVICE
Her heroic endurance during several prison terms stand her as an Irish heroine of unprecedented recognition. In the general election, December 1918, Countess Markievicz became not just the first woman ever elected to the British Parliament, but as Minister for Labour, the first Cabinet Minister in Europe. A month later she became sick and died in a public ward at Sir Patrick Dunn’s hospital. Throughout her life the Countess had intentionally risked her life for the common people. In tribute to her courage, daring and sacrifice as many as 300,000 turned out and lined the streets of Dublin for the funeral of the Countess of Irish freedom.