Sunday 20 January 2019

The rebel heart who gave just as good as she got in a man's world

Andrew Lynch on a new book that shows how Constance Markiewicz remained true to her socialist principles until her final days

Rebel Countess Markiewicz
Rebel Countess Markiewicz

One day in 1903, Countess Constance Markiewicz was travelling by horse-drawn carriage to a function in Dublin Castle. A small beggar girl put her hand through the window but was so stunned by the sight of Constance's glittering diamonds that she could not speak a word.

Markiewicz looked back as the carriage moved on, just in time to see the poor child being smacked across the face by her disgusted mother.

As Lindie Naughton writes in her revealing and insightful new biography, this was a moment that Countess Markiewicz never forgot.

She began life as a member of the Anglo-Irish landed gentry who rode ponies, shot pheasants and was formally presented to Queen Victoria in London. Thanks to her compassion for the poor, she ended it as a penniless republican icon whose funeral procession took more than two hours to move through O'Connell Street.

heroine Markiewicz's public deeds have secured her a special place in Irish history. She was by far the 1916 Rising's most prominent female leader and only escaped execution on account of her gender.

Later she became the first woman to serve in an Irish cabinet (there would not be another until 1979) and the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons (she never took her seat).

Naughton's book, however, focuses on Markiewicz the person as much as Markiewicz the rebel or Markiewicz the politician.

It is based on many new and little-known sources, including the Countess's prison letters, papers from her ancestral home of Lissadell House in Co Sligo and eyewitness statements from the Bureau of Military History.

The author has shaped all these details into a colourful and accessible narrative, aimed at general readers who want to know more about the woman behind the myth.

Markiewicz once claimed that she knew the enemy better than other Irish nationalists because her own family contained "black English blood". Even as a girl she was intent on breaking down class barriers and often visited her father's tenants to see what kind of lives they led.

High-spirited and quick-witted, she once picked up a hand that a lecherous old man had placed on her knee during dinner and exclaimed, "Just look what I have found!"

Naughton depicts Markiewicz as a woman in a man's world, unapologetically feminist and way ahead of her time. Constance Gore-Booth agreed to take her husband's surname when she married the Polish Count Casimir Markiewicz (his title may have been fake) in 1900.

During the service in London, however, she promised to love and honour him but left out the traditional pledge "to obey". She developed the extremely unladylike habit of chewing gum, and poured tea over a party guest who sang 'God Save the King'.

Markiewicz's transition from society hostess to gun-toting radical was a gradual one. A major turning point came when she moved into a cottage previously occupied by the nationalist poet Padraic Colum and read some magazines he had left behind. Active in Dublin literary circles, she played Joan of Arc on stage and came to see herself as an Irish version of the French liberator.

Convincing other rebels that she was one of them turned out to be a hard task. Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, was convinced that she must be a British spy.

At the Countess's first republican meeting, people were transfixed by her diamond tiara - which she offered to sell in order to raise money for the cause.

Markiewicz became a serious player within the movement by founding Fianna Eireann, a scouting organisation that taught young boys how to fire guns.

She was a strict disciplinarian and any child who stepped out of line would receive a clip around the ear. She was also extremely kind, spending hours teaching patriotic songs to a blind boy so that he would be able to earn money from singing.

This basic decency shines right throughout Naughton's account. Markiewicz worked in soup kitchens during the 1913 Dublin Lock-Out and impressed everyone with her energy and commitment.

According to her friend Hanna Sheehy Skeffington: "Madame had a personal contact and real sympathy for the poor that removed all taint of Lady Bountiful and made her a comrade among comrades."

Naughton also tackles some old controversies surrounding Markiewicz's role in the Easter Rising.

The claim that she shot an unarmed policeman in St Stephen's Green, for example, is shown to be based on some extremely dubious eyewitness evidence.

Another story of the Countess breaking down at her trial and wailing, "You must not shoot a woman!" was probably invented by a misogynistic British official.

In reality she told her captors: "I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me."

Although Markiewicz remained a prominent figure throughout the War of Independence and the Civil War, life in and out of jail took a terrible toll on her health.

Many of her colleagues still found it hard to take a woman seriously and Michael Collins declared that her role as Minister for Labour was "a bloody joke".

equality She stayed true to her socialist principles right until the end in 1927, dying at the age of 59 of appendicitis in a public hospital ward and rejecting Eamon de Valera's offer to move her to a private room.

The underlying theme of Lindie Naughton's book is that Markiewicz's idealism was sold out by the people who ended up running independent Ireland. Exhibit A is de Valera's 1937 Constitution, which made it clear that women were expected to be primarily "housewives and mothers".

Even so, Naughten writes, the Countess's "vision of a kinder, better society, where all men and women were equal, where resources and wealth were shared, where no one starved or died of the cold, and where all children were cherished remains a worthy aspiration".

Markiewicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel, by Lindie Naughton, is available now, published by Merrion Press

Promoted articles

Entertainment News