Saturday 24 February 2018

Vivid books brings to life story of two sisters

History: Sisters Against the Empire, Pat Quigley, Liffey Press, pbk, 280 pages, €19.95

Rebel woman: Constance Markievicz was condemned to death for her role in the Rising, but the sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
Rebel woman: Constance Markievicz was condemned to death for her role in the Rising, but the sentence was later commuted to life in prison.
Sisters Against The Empire

Tanya Sweeney

Exhaustive account of the relationship between Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth verges on the cinematic.

One hundred years ago, the  Daily Mirror newspaper wasn't backward in coming forward about its thoughts on Constance Markievicz. "Countess who wrecked two young lives: How she lured the rebels to their folly". The headline runs with a picture of Constance and her sister Eva at their home in Lissadell, Sligo.

It's not surprising that the Mirror, with its strong links to the British Establishment, took such a hard line on the countess. Quoting Grace Gifford and referring to the executions of Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh, the article claims: "It was she who dragged the two men into it".

Over in London, the Countess's sister, Eva Gore-Booth, reads in a similar newspaper that Constance lies dead on the street in Dublin. It turns out to be an inaccurate report, but Constance has nonetheless been condemned to death by firing squad. In time, her death sentence will be commuted to life imprisonment. It almost reads like the plot of an outlandish Hollywood script, but it all played out on the streets of Dublin 100 years ago.

Constance Markievicz has been a notable figure in this year's Centenary celebrations of the 19196 Rising. Certainly, the quote attributed to her - "Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver" - has been oft cited in recent months. What is less known, however, is the bond between Constance and her sister: how the pair remained fiercely close during the Countess's year in prison. Behind it, all there was a family in turmoil: while Constance's brother, Sir Josslyn, disapproved of her political actions, he intervened immediately when she was sentenced to death for her part in the 1916 Rising, and then lobbied the authorities until the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Yet it's the sisters' relationship - relayed mainly via letters and sketches Constance did while in Aylesbury Women's Prison - that gives Quigley's account its true heft.

Eva, herself a suffragette and artist, was wholly devoted to her sister (though history would sometimes consign her to the role of WB Yeats's confidante and acolyte).

"Eva looked on her sister's militant nationalism with equanimity, but was happy to live as an English non-violent agitator for change," observes Quigley.

Eva's own life, with its connection to Yeats and the Pankhursts, is almost worthy of a book of its own: beset by illness and, fearing consumption, the Gore-Booths sent her to Italy to recuperate in 1896, where she would meet her close companion, Esther Roper.

"There are conflicting views as to whether the relationship was platonic or physical, but there can be no doubt that they loved each other deeply," writes Quigley.

While he remains ambiguous on this one point, there's no doubting that Quigley's account of the sisters is exhaustively, meticulously researched. Equally gratifying for the reader is the book's bountiful illustrations: sketches, Christmas cards, posters and press photos all create an immersive and absorbing reading experience.

It's this authoritarian tone, coupled with Quigley's fondness for colour and vividness, that turns the book from mere historical account to something more cinematic and vivid. Deploying dramatic dialogue and descriptions, the story of the two sisters - already bursting at the seams with suspense and commotion - truly comes to life.

Of Constance's return to Dublin in 19197 after imprisonment, Quigley writes: "It was a highly charged reunion resembling a scene from a Greek chorus. Liberty Hall, with its charred beams and broken floors, formed the background for the widows dressed in back as they waited for the one has gone to the land of the dead and came back again."

Job done on becoming the 'People's Countess', Constance became a celebrity in the new rebel Ireland (and walked headlong into problems with brother Josslyn, to whom she owed hundreds of pounds). Yet for all her celebrity, things beyond the veneer of Constance's public persona were tense, with some believing she broke off relations with her family after she returned to Ireland after prison. Relations with her daughter Maeve were particularly strained. Maeve's grandmother, Lady Georgina Gore-Booth, took charge of her and although Constance visited frequently, in time the relationship between the grandmother and granddaughter developed into one more like mother and daughter.

In the years after 1916, Eva would continue to write pamphlets and campaign for her own ideals. She would end up working in a race against time to complete her masterpiece, A Philosophical and Poetical Approach To The Study of Christ In The Fourth Gospel: in the end, it was published in 1924, two years before her death. Constance's death came a year later, and her final 12 months were fraught with grief over Eva's death.

"She was something wonderful and beautiful and so simple and thought so little of herself," Constance wrote to Esther after Eva's death. "I am so vague and stupid and can't express myself. But her gentleness prevented me getting very brutal and one does get very callous in a War."

And in her final months, Constance made sure that Eva's place in history, not least in the story of rebel Irishwomen, was finally assured. Between the more reflective moments for both women during Constance's year in Aylesbury to the spectacle of her hero's welcome back to Dublin in 1917, the experiences of the two sisters has always been a rich literary seam to mine. Quigley more than does them both justice.

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