Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Constance Georgina de Markievicz : Suffragette, Socialist, Soldier

by Joe McGowan


"How can I voice my grief
For the patriot dead?
Sorrow and tears are often brief,
Though many will be shed —
Not alone in Lissadell
But around the peopled earth,
Wherever Irish exiles dwell
Or freedom struggles to have birth."

Dr. James P. Gallagher

Who was this woman with the unpronounceable surname, whose name and deeds blazed across the Irish skies in the momentous years of the early 20th century? From what noble Gaelic stock was she sprung? Surely her family pedigree must rank among the finest of the old Gaelic aristocracy, be as eminent as the O'Neill or the O'Donnell, as proud as the O'Connor or the O'Dowd!

Most rebels are made so by poverty and oppression. Constance Georgina Gore-Booth, for that was her maiden name, came not from such a background, but from a Protestant 'planter' family. This eldest daughter of Anglo-Irish landlord Sir Henry Gore-Booth, and his wife, Lady Georgina, was born on February 4 th 1868 at Buckingham Gate, close by the Royal Palace in London.

The story of this beautiful, headstrong girl belongs to the pages of romantic fiction. Born to power and privilege she rode fast horses over her father's thousands of acres. Presented at the court of Queen Victoria she was adopted as the darling of the Dublin Castle social set. Tiring of the social round she turned to conspiracy and war. Adopting the mantle of the revolutionary she was condemned to death; reprieved she became a national heroine.


Her social conscience developed early. Contrasting the lifestyle of the privileged circles of the Ascendancy, in which her family moved, with those of their impoverished tenants Constance wrote: '…Hidden away among rocks on the bleak mountain sides, or soaking in the slime and ooze of the boglands, or beside the Atlantic shore where the grass is blasted yellow by the salt west wind, you find the dispossessed people of the old Gaelic race in their miserable cabins.'

All her life she was passionately devoted to women's suffrage.


Moving to Paris to study art she met and married Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz. Following the completion of their studies they moved to Dublin where she met Padraig Pearse and Thomas Mc Donagh. It was they who fired her with enthusiasm for the goal of Irish independence. She joined James Connolly's Citizen Army. Gaining a reputation as 'The Rebel Countess' she founded na Fianna Eireann, the national boy scout movement who were eventually to play a major part in the Irish rebellion.

On the morning of Easter Monday 1916, clad in green uniform and carrying a Mauser automatic pistol, Countess Markievicz marched at the head of a small column of Citizen Army men to St. Stephens Green. During the battle that followed she served so bravely and fearlessly alongside her male comrades that her courage became a watchword and her name a legend.

Following the surrender she was sentenced to death along with the other leaders of the rebellion. The British fearing a worldwide reaction if they executed a woman commuted her sentence to penal servitude for life. Released from Aylesbury jail in England following the general amnesty of 1917 she returned to Sligo to a rapturous welcome. During this visit she was awarded the Freedom of the City.

Campaigning vigorously against the imposition of conscription on the Irish nation she fell foul of the British authorities once more and was imprisoned in Holloway Jail. During her incarceration she created history by becoming the first woman ever elected to the British Parliament. On March 10 1919 , she was released from Holloway and on the following June imprisoned once again in Cork Jail for making seditious speeches. On April 1 of that year following her appointment to the First Irish Dail as Secretary for Labour she achieved the distinction of becoming the first woman Cabinet Minister in the world.

In September 1920 she was back in jail again, this time in Mountjoy, Dublin , when she was sentenced to two years hard labour for organising na Fianna. In July 1921, a Truce was agreed between the Irish and British forces and Constance was released.

A split and Civil War ensued in which Constance opposed the Treaty and supported the Republicans. Arrested once more in November 1923 she was detained in North Dublin Union, went on hunger strike, and was released in December 1923.

Having dispensed her possessions to the poor of Dublin she died penniless in an open ward in a public hospital on July 15 th 1927 . She was 59 years old. Although her contribution to the cherished dream of a free Ireland was immeasurable, a hostile Freestate Government refused her the recognition of a State funeral.

Ireland on that day mourned one of our greatest heroines. Today, enjoying the fruits of her struggle, we remember and rejoice in the achievements of the 'Rebel Countess' and her comrades. Their greatness and their deeds inspire us!

To C. M. on her prison birthday, February, 1917:

"What has time to do with thee,
Who hast found the victors' way
To be rich in poverty,
Without sunshine to be gay,
To be free in a prison cell?
Nay, on that undreamed judgement day,
When, on the old-world's scrap-heap flung,
Powers and empires pass away,
Radiant and unconquerable
Thou shalt be young."
Eva Gore-Booth


Author's Bio
Joe Mc Gowan is a local historian and native of Mullaghmore, Co. Sligo. Born on the family farm, he worked there in his early years until emigrating to the U.S.A. in the early '60s. Six months after he arrived, he was drafted into the U. S. army. Following discharge from the Army, he lived and worked in the U.S. in commercial and residential construction for many years. Marrying, he returned to Ireland with his wife and young family in the late '70s. The 'Celtic Tiger' was not yet born, scarcity of work dictated a career change, so Joe took up salmon and lobster fishing off the Sligo coast aboard his half-decker fishing boat the 'Connaught Ranger' and conducting tour-boat trips to Inishmurray aboard the 'Excalibur' with his partner Keith Clarke.

Shortly after his return to Ireland, Joe Mc Gowan, becoming keenly aware of the accelerating pace of change in the Irish countryside, decided to record the old lore before it vanished completely. Since that time he has been dedicated to preserving, visually and orally, Ireland 's disappearing traditions and customs. Now a full-time writer his books, backed by meticulous archival research, are inspired by countless nights spent visiting the older generation and listening to their tales. His short stories, usually cameos of Irish life both past and present, feature frequently in national magazines and on radio. He is also a Heritage Specialist with the Irish National Teachers Organisation 'Heritage in Schools Scheme'.

His publications include the classic: In the Shadow of Benbulben; Echoes of a Savage Land; Constance Markievicz; the People's Countess; Co. Sligo Famine Book; Inishmurray Gale, Stone and Fire; Island Voices and most recently, co-authored with artist Anne Osborne: Sligo, Land of Destiny.

The days of the fireside story-tellers are gone, but their stories and lore happily live on in Joe's books and now on his website:

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