Saturday 17 November 2018

Society darling to romantic revolutionary

  • History: Markievicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel, Lindie Naughton, Merrion Press, €14.99
  • Markievicz: Prison Letters and Rebel Writings, Lindie Naughton, Merrion Press, €19.99
Countess Constance Markievicz attired in a ball gown in this photo, taken around 1900
Countess Constance Markievicz attired in a ball gown in this photo, taken around 1900
Markievicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel
Markievicz: Prison Letters and Rebel Writings

JP O' Malley

In 1899, a 30-year-old Constance Gore-Booth left behind a life of aristocratic comfort at Lissadell House, Co Sligo, to study art in Paris. Almost immediately she fell in love with a Polish artist, Count Casimir Dunin Markievicz. They married the following year in London, with Constance taking on the title of Countess Markievicz.

Pursuing art in Paris, it appeared, was to be the couple's destiny. But in 1902, the writer, poet and mystic George Russell persuaded both to return to Dublin.

They quickly charmed their way into Dublin's burgeoning art scene and were regularly featured on lists sent out to privileged Dublin socialites to attend dinner parties and evening balls at Dublin Castle.

This laid-back bohemian lifestyle didn't last long though. In just a few years the Countess would regularly feature on a different list at Ireland's administrative centre of British imperialism: it warned of suspected Irish revolutionaries persuing the dangerous cause of Irish freedom.

This transition, from darling of the establishment, to romantic revolutionary, was sudden and explosive: but how and when did it occur?

These two books which complement each other when read back to back, give us competent and thoughtful answers to both of those questions.

In Markievicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel, Dublin writer Lindie Naughton points out that politics began to supplant an interest in art for the Countess in 1908: when she first attended a Sinn Fein meeting.

Markievicz's most outstanding contribution to militant Republicanism, Naughton contends, came in 1909, when she established The Fianna: a boy's brigade formed to take up arms against the English.

Patrick Pearse later said without it there would have been no Easter Rising.

From this point on, Markievicz gradually began to drift further away from the elite Dublin art world, and from her marriage too.

She gave herself almost entirely to three ideas: Irish nationalism, feminism and the cause of labour; sharing James Connolly's view that all three were inextricably linked in a holy trinity of repression: controlled by the power of British imperialism and global capitalism.

Connolly became a close friend and mentor. Markievicz signed up for the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), a group of trained trade union volunteers from the Irish Transport and General Workers Union. It was established to retaliate against police charges for workers demonstrations in Dublin.

During the 1913 Dublin Lockout, along with other ICA members - such as Sean O'Casey and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington - Markievicz was running soup kitchens in Liberty Hall, helping to feed hungry and oppressed workers.

Markievicz was made a lieutenant in the ICA in the Easter Rising. But fighting in the garrison at the Royal College of Surgeons, where she was stationed in Stephen's Green, didn't last long. Following surrender and court martial Markievicz was sentenced to death, which was then commuted to life imprisonment on grounds of gender.

Naughton begins Markievicz, Prison Letters and Rebel Writings from this period.

Markievicz would spend much of her time between 1916 and 1923 in and out of jail. While clearly a political prisoner, unlike her male counterparts, Markievicz would be classed as a common criminal: living with prostitutes, child murderers and the mentally ill; as she served stints behind bars in Mountjoy, Aylesbury, Holloway, Cork and North Dublin Union respectively.

The revolutionary made history twice during this period. From her jail cell in Holloway in 1918 she became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons (which she abstained from); and, after being released from prison in 1919, she was made Minister for Labour in the first Dail: making her only the second woman in Europe to take up a ministerial position.

Remarkably, the tone of these letters is, for the most part, calm and measured. And they give us a great insight into Markievicz's fundamental beliefs about revolution itself: she believed armed violent struggle was necessary to first implement regime change, and then subsequently social conditions could be altered. To her sister Eva in 1920 Markievicz wrote: "All reforms at the beginning of the 19th century have their roots in terror."

Elsewhere in these letters Markievicz documented her artistic dreams; her thoughts on the subconscious and self discipline; and she commented regularly about what she was reading, which included poetry by Blake and the biographies of Tolstoy and Danton. Gardening also kept her busy.

Her allegiance after the Civil War was to the Anti-Treaty side. And in 1926 Markievicz chaired the first inaugural meeting of Fianna Fail. Less than a year later she died, aged 59, from appendicitis. De Valera gave an emotional speech at her funeral in Dublin, attended by more than 300,000 people.

One can only speculate if disagreements within Fianna Fail, and with its socially conservative leader, would have followed had Markievicz lived to see the 1937 Constitution.

It seems so. After all, the rights of Irish women, which she spent so many years relentlessly fighting for, were almost single-handedly eroded with one stroke of a pen.

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