Constance, Countess Markiewicz (February 4, 1868 – July 15, 1927) was an Irish Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil politician, revolutionary nationalist and suffragette. During the Easter Rising of 1917, she was an officer in the Irish Citizens Army. In 1918, she was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons, though she did not take her seat and along with the other Sinn Féin MPs formed the first Dáil Éireann. The first woman to take her seat would be Nancy Astor, Viscountess Astor in 1919. Markiewicz, however, was the first woman in Europe to hold a cabinet position as Minister of Labour of the Irish Republic, 1919–1922, although she "was in jail during most of this time." Ireland did not appoint another women to a cabinet post until 1979.
She was imprisoned by the British authorities in 1911, in 1916, in 1918, and twice during Ireland independence struggle. She was not elected in 1922, but was returned as MP at the 1923 and 1927 elections. When she retired from the Irish Republican Army in 1923, she did so as a Colonel. On the one hand, she proved that a woman could fight alongside men with distinction. On the other hand, her feminine compassion earned her a reputation as the friend of the workers, of the poor, and the forgotten. Her life shows that as women take their rightful place as leaders alongside men, society is enriched and strengthened.
She was born Constance Georgine Gore-Booth at Buckingham Gate in London, the elder daughter of the Arctic explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, and Lady Georgina née Hill. Unlike many Anglo-Irish landowners in Ireland, he was an enlightened landlord who administered his 100 km² (40 mi²) estate with compassion. During the Irish Famine of 1879–80, Sir Henry provided free food for the tenants on his estate at Lissadell in the north of County Sligo in the West of Ireland. Their father's example inspired in Gore-Booth and her younger sister, Eva Gore-Booth, a deep concern for the poor. The sisters were childhood friends of the poet W.B. Yeats, who frequently visited the family home Lissadell House in County Sligo, and were influenced by his artistic and political ideas. Eva later became involved in the labor movement and women's suffrage in England, although initially the future countess did not share her sister's ideals. Sigillito describes Constance as "beautiful" and says that, commenting on her beauty, John Butler Yeats described her as a "gizelle."
Gore-Booth decided to train as a painter, but at the time only one art school in Dublin accepted female students. In 1892, she went to study at the Slade School of Art in London. It was at this time that Gore-Booth first became politically active and joined the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). Later, she moved to Paris and enrolled at the prestigious Académie Julian where she met her future husband, Kazimierz Dunin-Markiewicz, Count Markiewicz, a Ukrainian aristocrat of Polish ethnicity. He was married at the time, but his wife died in 1899, and he wed Gore-Booth in 1901, making her Countess Markiewicz. She gave birth to their daughter, Maeve, at Lissadell shortly after the marriage. The child was raised by her Gore-Booth grandparents and eventually became estranged from her mother. Countess Markiewicz also undertook the role of mother to Nicolas, Kazimierz's son from his first marriage, who then accompanied Markiewicz and Kazimierz to Ireland. It was claimed that Markiewicz was particularly fond of him and was devastated by his decision to return to Poland. Knowing that her arrest was imminent after the 1916 Rising, she had to stash a silver shotgun that Nicolas had given her.
The Markiewiczes settled in Dublin in 1903, and moved in artistic and literary circles, the Countess gaining a reputation for herself as a landscape painter. In 1905, along with artists Sarah Purser, Nathaniel Hone, Walter Osborne, and John Butler Yeats, she was instrumental in founding the United Artists Club, which was an attempt to bring together all those in Dublin with an artistic and literary bent. At this time, there was nothing tangible to link her to revolutionary politics, but socializing in this milieu she met the leading figures of the Gaelic League founded by the future first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde. Although formally apolitical and concerned with the preservation of the Irish language and culture, the league brought together many patriots and future political leaders. Sarah Purser, whom the young Gore-Booth sisters first met in 1882, when she was commissioned to paint their portrait, hosted a regular salon where artists, writers, and intellectuals on both sides of the nationalist divide gathered. At Purser's house, Markiewicz met with revolutionary patriots Michael Davitt, John O'Leary and Maud Gonne. In 1906, Markiewicz rented a small cottage in the countryside around Dublin. The previous tenant was the poet Padraic Colum who had left behind old copies of The Peasant and Sinn Féin. These revolutionary journals promoted independence from British rule. The Countess read these publications and was propelled into action.
In 1908, Markiewicz became actively involved in nationalist politics in Ireland. She joined Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann ("Daughters of Ireland"), a revolutionary women's movement founded by the actress and activist Maud Gonne, muse of W.B. Yeats. Markiewicz came directly to her first meeting from a function at Dublin Castle, the seat of British rule in Ireland, wearing a satin ball-gown and a diamond tiara. Naturally, the members looked upon her with some hostility. This refreshing change from being "Kowtowed"-to as a countess only made her more eager to join. She performed with Maud Gonne in several plays at the newly-established Abbey Theatre, an institution that played an important part in the rise of cultural nationalism. In the same year, Markiewicz stood for Parliament, contesting the Manchester constituency in opposition to Winston Churchill. Her sister, Eva Gore-Booth, had moved there to live with fellow suffragette Esther Roper and they both campaigned for her. The Countess lost the election, but in the space of two years, she had gone from a life oriented around art, to a life centered on politics and Irish independence in particular.
In 1909, Markiewicz founded Fianna Éireann, a para-military organization that instructed teenage boys in the use of firearms. Pádraig Pearse said that the creation of Fianna Éireann was as important as the creation of the Irish Volunteers]] in 1913. The Countess was jailed for the first time in 1911, for speaking at an Irish Republican Brotherhood demonstration attended by 30,000 people, organized to protest against George V's visit to Ireland. During this protest Markiewicz handed out leaflets, erected great masts: Dear land thou art not conquered yet. She engaged in stone throwing and attempted to burn the giant British flag at Leinster House, but to no avail. Her friend Helena Moloney was the first woman ever to be tried and arrested for the stone throwing she engaged in with Markiewicz. Markiewicz also joined James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army (ICA), a small volunteer force formed in response to the lockout of 1913, to defend the demonstrating workers from the police. Markiewicz, though an aristocrat, held sympathy with the ordinary workers. Markiewicz recruited volunteers to peel potatoes in a basement while she worked and others worked on distributing the food. All food was paid out of her own pocket, Markiewicz was forced to take out many loans at this time and sold all her jewelry. That same year, with Inghinidhe na hÉireann, she started a soup kitchen to feed poor school children.
In 1913, her husband moved to the Ukraine, and never returned to live in Ireland. However, they did corresponded and Kazimierz was present by her side when she died in 1927. As a member of the ICA, Markiewicz took part in the 1916 Easter Rising. She was deeply inspired by the founder of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), James Connolly and she both designed the uniforms of the ICA and composed their anthem, a polish song with changed lyrics. Markiewicz held the rank of an officer, making her a decision maker, and more importantly, giving her the right to carry arms. In preparation for the Rising, Markiewicz was involved in smuggling thousands of guns on behalf of the movement.
Lieutenant Markiewicz was second in command to Michael Mallin in St Stephen's Green. It was, says Sigillito, her "prowess on the battlefield" that earned her this honor. She supervised the setting-up of barricades as the rising began and was in the middle of the fighting all around Stephen's Green, wounding a British army sniper. Inspired by newsreel footage from the Western Front, they initially began to dig trenches in the Green. British fire from the rooftops of adjacent tall buildings, including the Shelbourne Hotel, however, soon convinced them of the folly of this tactic, and they withdrew to the adjacent Royal College of Surgeons. She was one of a handful of women who fought in the rising, although many assisted as nurses and in non-combatant roles.
Mallin and Markiewicz and their men held out for six days, finally giving up when the British brought them a copy of Pearse's surrender order. The English officer, Captain Wheeler, who accepted their surrender was a relative of Markiewicz.
They were taken to Dublin Castle and the Countess was then transported to Kilmainham Gaol. They were jeered by the crowds as they walked through the streets of Dublin. There, she was the only one of seventy women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. At her court-martial she told the court, "I did what was right and I stand by it." Her conviction was assured, only her sentence was in doubt. She was sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on; "account of the prisoner's sex." She told the court, "I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me."
The Countess was released from prison in 1917, along with others involved in the Rising, as the government in London granted a general amnesty for those who had participated in it. It was around this time that Markiewicz, born into the Church of Ireland (Anglican) converted to Catholicism.
In 1918, she was jailed again for her part in anti-conscription activities. In the December 1918 general election, Markiewicz was elected for the constituency of Dublin St Patrick's as one of 73 Sinn Féin MPs. This made her the first woman elected to the British House of Commons. However, in line with Sinn Féin policy, she refused to take her seat.
Countess Markiewicz joined her colleagues assembled in Dublin as the first incarnation of Dáil Éireann, the unilaterally-declared Parliament of the Irish Republic. She was re-elected to the Second Dáil in the House of Commons of Southern Ireland elections of 1921.
Markiewicz served as Minister for Labour from April 1919 to January 1922, in the Second Ministry and the Third Ministry of the Dáil. Holding cabinet rank from April to August 1919, she became both the first Irish female Cabinet Minister and at the same time, the first female Cabinet Minister in Europe. She was the only female cabinet minister in Irish history until 1979, when Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed to the then junior cabinet post of Minister for the Gaeltacht for Fianna Fáil.
Markiewicz left government in January 1922, along with Éamon de Valera and others in opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty which recognized the Irish Free State but as a dominion within the British Empire. She fought actively for the Republican cause in the Irish Civil War helping to defend Moran's Hotel in Dublin. After the War she toured the United States. She was not elected in the 1922 Irish general election but was returned in the 1923 general election for the Dublin South constituency. In common with other Republican candidates, she did not take her seat. However her staunch republican views led her to being sent to jail again. In prison, she and 92 other female prisoners went on hunger strike. Within a month, the Countess was released. She then toured the United States to raise money and to attract support for the Irish cause.
She joined Fianna Fáil on its foundation in 1926, chairing the inaugural meeting of the new party in La Scala Theatre. In the June 1927 general election, she was re-elected to the 5th Dáil as a candidate for the new Fianna Fáil party, but died only five weeks later, before she could take up her seat. "Prison, battle, and revolution had finally taken their toll on the Countess," says Sigillito.
She died at the age of 59, on July 15, 1927, possibly of tuberculosis (contracted when she worked in the poorhouses of Dublin) or complications related to appendicitis. Her estranged husband and daughter and beloved stepson were by her side. She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. Éamon de Valera, the Fianna Fáil leader, gave the funeral oration:
Madam Markiewicz is gone from us. Madam the friend of the toiler, the lover of the poor. Sacrifice, misunderstanding and toil scorn lay on the road she adopted, but she trod unflinchingly.
The "whole nation mourned for her loss" and upwards of "300,000" people turned out to "bid her goodbye."
The by-election for her Dáil seat in Dublin South was held on 24 August, 1927 and won by the Cumann na nGaedhael candidate Thomas Hennessy.
"One thing she had in abundance," wrote O'Casey, was "physical courage; with that she was clothed as with a garment."
Her Prison Letters, originally published in 1934, was reprinted in 1970. There is a sculpture in her honor at Rathcormac, Sligo. Her election as the first woman to the British parliament and her appointment as the first women in Europe to serve as a cabinet minister established her place in history but it was her contribution to the struggle for Irish independence that immortalized her legacy. She is one of fifty Irish women discussed in the book, Daughters of Maeve: 50 Irish Women Who Changed the World by Gina Sigillito, who describes her as "one of the most important Irish revolutionaries in history" who "helped to reshape Ireland in the twentieth century." It was her "prowess on the battlefield" that led her becoming second-in-command during the St Stephen's Green operation. Once asked what "fashion advice" she would give the women of her day, she replied, "Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver." Known as the "people's Countess," she fought alongside men in the armed struggle for freedom while on the other hand she was also a voice for the concerns of workers and of the poor. On the one hand, Markiewicz showed that some women can do what men habitually do as well as any man does. On the other hand, her life was marked by a compassion that, though not always lacking in men, often is, and in contrast is often a priority for women.
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