Friday 9 December 2016

Just who was Constance, the misunderstood countess?

A romantic nationalist and committed politician loved by the poor, Markievicz had a big role to play in the making of the Republic, writes Anne Haverty

Anne Haverty

Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30

Countess Marckievictz studio portrait in her Irish Citizen Army uniform, probably taken in Dublin circa 1915 - 1916
Countess Marckievictz studio portrait in her Irish Citizen Army uniform, probably taken in Dublin circa 1915 - 1916

Who was Constance - also known as the Countess or Madame - Markievicz? It's odd that the question has to be asked about someone who had such a significant part to play in the making of the Republic. Without the Fianna for instance, the corps of well-trained erstwhile boy scouts, Easter 1916 would probably have been another of those hopelessly amateurish attempts at rebellion the Irish went in for.

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It might not have even happened at all. It was Markievicz who founded the Fianna, together with the Belfast Quaker, Bulmer Hobson, as a nationalist alternative to Baden Powell's imperialist, and no less militaristic, boy scouts (and who ended up in Flanders fields). She was a romantic nationalist but more far-seeing and realistic than most of those romantics and on the long road to independence became a committed politician.

She was the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, or to any parliament, selected time and again by the people in her under-privileged Dublin constituency to be their representative. She was the first woman to serve in cabinet, as minister for labour in the Dail. All this was interrupted by periods of imprisonment in Britain and here which broke her health.

In an era of giving up your advantages for your convictions she gave up more than most. As a Gore-Booth from Lissadell in Sligo, an artist married to a Polish artist from the same landed class, she could have stayed within her privileged and charmed life. Instead she 'left her class' and chose isolation, discomfort and relative poverty for 'the cause of Ireland', as she saw it.

So why is she not recognised as a hero of the independence movement? Why is she absent from the roll-call of the famous? Why, when she is mentioned, is it as a peripheral figure, and then often sneeringly, as little more than an attention-seeker? Why is her contribution so often reduced to the - false - charge that she shot a constable during the Rising?

Apart from the falsity of this allegation, it's odd that of the many people killed on both sides in that week, no one else is named as a perpetrator except for her - and the infamous Captain Bowen-Colthurst who wantonly shot Francis Sheehy-Skeffington among others.

When I wrote a biography of Constance 20-odd years ago it was one in a series of the lives of Irish women. I chose her because among the subjects offered to me I knew least about her. The others included women such as Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory and the Parnell sisters and, like almost everybody else, I knew about them mainly because of their connection with more famous men.

Markievicz stood alone, self-driven and self-confident. She was more than a muse or an enabler or a facilitator, the preferred roles for women to play.

But its these qualities that seem to incite dislike and hostility. We like to think of ourselves as liberated but assertiveness in women is actually less acceptable now than it was in her time. Then too though, she had her detractors, notably Sean O'Casey, though in fact it's hard to find others.

It was Sean O'Faolain, her first biographer, who set the tone that would prevail.

Her friend Helena Molony described his book, published in the retrogressive 1930s, as "bad, inaccurate, catty and misleading" and as a result Markievicz was "in great danger of being misunderstood". Maud Gonne was angered by "his smears at her". To her Markievicz was "a great woman". Kathleen Lynn - who transported arms in her car and kept them in her house and was just as militant as Constance - said she was "a grand soul, not like other people".

Helena Molony had a lot to say about the failure to acknowledge that women too can "embrace an ideal and accept it intellectually". O'Faolain was trying to prove that "any serious thing a woman does outside of nursing babies and washing pots is the result of being in love with some man or disappointed in love of some man or looking for the limelight or indulging their vanity".

Simplicity and sincerity was the keynote of Markievicz's character, according to Molony. She didn't seek the limelight but "when it came she enjoyed it and laughed at it, where another woman might be embarrassed by it".

Attitudes and prejudices change along with the times. These days O'Faolain's grounds for criticism are elided. But they are replaced by others and often no less catty.

What we can find hard to understand is her capacity to cast aside what most of us nowadays value so highly - privilege, money, position. Maybe this causes discomfiture and resentment, just as her ardour and disregard for the conventions might offend the more prudent and cautious.

But it is the matter of the constable's death at St Stephen's Green on Easter Monday that most commonly now excuses her vilification. There are at least three versions in circulation. I think it's true to say that most of her detractors know next to nothing about the facts; and the few who do prefer to ignore them.

The constable was Constable Lahiff, shot, according to the official report by the DMP - the Dublin Metropolitan Police - at 12pm or thereabouts, as the rebels were taking possession of the Green via the Fusilier's Gate. At this time Markievicz was at City Hall, delivering Dr Kathleeen Lynn, who was chief medical officer of the revolution, to her post. By the time Markievicz arrived at the Green in Dr Lynn's car, driven by Mark Cummins, the rebels were established there.

The only source for the allegation is 'testimony' from a Miss Geraldene (sic) Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's account, said to be from her diary of that day, is kept in the British National Archives at Kew, marked Evidence Against Countess Markievicz and stamped July 14, 1917. That it's from her diary, 'kindly supplied' by her mother who lived in Birr, can't be verified however, as it consists only of two typewritten pages. In fact, it reads more like a deposition, taken down by someone tasked with gathering incriminating evidence.

Geraldene Fitzgerald, a trainee public health nurse, tells how she was on her way back to the Nurses Home on the Green after her morning rounds. At 12.30pm she was in High Street and took a longer route home to avoid Jacob's where the Sinn Feiners were in possession. Making her way to the south side of the Green she saw the Sinn Feiners inside, digging trenches while others "were ready with rifles to fire on anyone in military or police uniforms who passed that way".

She sat down to dinner in the dining room with some colleagues. It would now be approaching 1pm, if not later.

"We were just taking our soup when we heard the most awful firing outside. We rushed to the front room to see what was happening. What we saw was this... a lady in green uniform... holding a revolver in one hand and a cigarette in the other.... we recognised her as the Countess Markievicz...'

From the window the nurses saw a policeman coming from Harcourt Street. "He had only gone a short way when we heard a shot and then saw him fall forward on his face. The 'Countess' ran triumphantly into the Green, saying 'I got him' and some of the rebels shook her by the hand and seemed to congratulate her..."

Apart from the crucial matters of the timing and the location of the shooting, which are totally at odds with the DMP's report, there are other extremely questionable aspects to this account. Among them are that the likelihood of a remark, as Fitzgerald relates it, carrying from the west side of the Green and across a wide stretch of road noisy with the activities of the rebels, onlookers and the traffic still going up and down, is small.

The dining room would have been on the ground floor from where you could hardly see into the Green. Also, Constance was experienced with guns since her sportive youth at Lissadell and its difficult to imagine her exulting like an untried markswoman in the accuracy of a shot at such close range.

It's hard to know what to make of Fitzgerald's account or to say what she saw or did not see - only that it seems at the very least fanciful and based more on a year's worth of rumours than on reality. It could not stand up in a court of law, which may be why it did not appear on Markievicz's charge-sheet when she was tried on various grounds in 1920. Only the obstinately mischievous - to put it kindly - can continue to cite it.

There are of course Constance Markievicz's remarkable human qualities which tend to be lost in the myth and the mischief. You need only read her writings, especially the autobiographical pieces and letters, to see her ardent way of looking at life, her humanity and sensibility.

The thousands of Dublin's poor who turned out for her funeral when she died in 1927 saw it.

Anne Haverty's 'Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary' will be published in a new and revised edition next month

Sunday Independent

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