By Edward T. O’Donnell
Eighty-two years ago this week, on Dec. 14, 1918, Countess Constance Markievicz made history. Held in a British jail on the charge of sedition, she ran for a seat in Parliament. She was hardly the first woman to stand for election to Westminster, but in mid-December 1918 she became the first to win. It represented an important milestone in the struggle for women’s liberation, but for Markievicz it held additional significance. For she won as a Sinn Fein candidate, motivated by the cause of Irish liberation.
The story of Countess Markievicz is surely one of the most intriguing in the long history of Irish nationalism. Born into a prominent family in London in 1868, Constance Gore-Booth enjoyed an upbringing of wealth and privilege. She spent much of her time at the family’s large estate in Sligo named Lissadell, where she grew to love the Irish countryside, horseback riding, shooting, and painting.
At 25, she enrolled in art school to develop her considerable talents as a painter. After several years in London, she moved to Paris in 1898 to study at the Julian School. There she met Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz, a Polish nobleman and aspiring artist. They married in 1901 and had a daughter named M’ve.
In 1903, the Countess and her husband moved to Dublin and became deeply involved in the thriving cultural scene there. She became reacquainted with William B. Yeats and met Maud Gonne and the other leading lights of the Gaelic revival. Increasingly she found herself drawn to the poetry, literature, music, language, and history of Ireland.
The turning point in her life occurred in 1906 when she rented a house in the country outside Dublin. There she found old copies of Sinn Fein and other nationalist newspapers left by the poet Padraic Colum when he stayed there the year before. Reading these revolutionary tracts, she learned the long and dreadful story of British oppression and came to understand the case for Irish nationhood. Countess Markievicz, daughter of the Ascendancy, was never the same again.
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She returned to Dublin and immediately became active among radical nationalists. She joined Sinn Fein and in 1909 founded Fianna na hEireann, an organization much like the Boy Scouts except far more oriented toward military training. Many of those trained later formed the foundation of the nationalist army, the Irish Volunteers (1913). Soon the Countess was an officer in Bean na hEireann ("Women of Ireland") and the close associate of Ireland’s most radical labor leaders, James Connolly and James Larkin. During the mass strike of 1913 known as the Dublin Lockout, she helped feed thousands of workers and their families at a soup kitchen.
Sadly, the Countess’ discovery of her life’s cause led to the loss of her family. Their marriage in tatters, her husband returned to Poland to enlist in the Russian army during World War I. M’ve, raised by her grandmother at Lissadell, grew more and more distant the less she saw of her activist mother.
Markievicz had little time to ponder such things once the war broke out. With Home Rule snatched from their grasp on the eve of the war, Dublin’s most radical nationalists began to plot a rebellion. Perhaps, they thought, with England engaged in the fight of its life against Germany the rebellion might succeed.
The Easter Rising took place in April 1916. Markievicz, a member of the Irish Citizen Army, served as second in command at St. Stephen’s Green. She earned high praise from her fellow rebels for her physical courage during the six days of fighting. Like most of the uprising’s leaders, she was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. But on "account of the prisoner’s sex," the judge commuted her sentence to life in prison. Released in 1917 under a general amnesty, Markievicz converted to Catholicism and turned to politics.
Jailed again for sedition, she stood for election to Parliament in the general election of 1918. Her landmark victory was purely symbolic. She and her fellow victorious Sinn Fein candidates, unwilling to swear an oath of allegiance to the King, refused to take their seats in Parliament. Instead they convened on Jan. 21, 1919 the first Dail Eireann, or Irish Parliament, and declared Ireland an independent republic. Markeivicz was named minister of labor but was soon on the run when the British declared the Dail illegal and the War for Independence began.
After the war, Markievicz sided with Eamon De Valera in opposing the 1921 Treaty signed by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins. When Civil War broke out she was dispatched to America to raise funds for the anti-treaty forces. She remained active in the republican movement after the war, which landed her in jail once again in 1923. She joined De Valera’s Fianna Fail party in 1926. But by then her health had begun to decline and she died in July 1927, shortly after winning re-election to the Dail.
A charismatic figure in life, Countess Constance Markievicz continued to inspire generations of Irish nationalists long after her death. They admired her physical courage, personal sacrifice, and absolute dedication to the cause. The fact that she was English and a woman made it all the more incredible.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
Dec. 13, 1862: The Irish Brigade suffers horrendous casualties in its heroic assaults against Confederate lines in the Battle of Fredricksburg.
Dec. 14, 1774: Major John Sullivan leads a raid to seize arms and gun powder at Fort William and Mary in New Hampshire, an action many consider the first military act of the American Revolution.
Dec. 14, 1955: Ireland becomes member of the UN.
Dec. 18, 1980: The hunger strikes that claimed the lives of 10 IRA prisoners are called off after prisoners receive promises that they will be treated as political prisoners.
Dec. 13, 1890: Playwright Marc Connelly born in McKeesport, Pa.
Dec. 15, 1932: Novelist Edna O’Brien born in Tuamgraney, Co. Clare.
Dec. 16, 1951: Baseball pitcher and 1979 Cy Young winner Mike Flanagan bprn in Manchester, N.H.
Dec. 19, 1813: Chemist Thomas Andrews born in Belfast.