Tuesday 26 March 2019

Rebel countess elected as first female MP

From aristocratic débutante to republican rebel,­ Constance Markievicz led a life of stunning contrasts

Wild Anglo-Irish girl: Markievicz was sentenced to death but pardoned due to her sex
Wild Anglo-Irish girl: Markievicz was sentenced to death but pardoned due to her sex
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

When Constance Markievicz made history in December 1918 as the first woman ever to be elected in a Westminster election, she was locked up as a prisoner in Holloway jail in London.

Soon after her election victory, the rebel countess reportedly received a message from Number 10 Downing Street at her Holloway address inviting her to attend the king's opening of parliament.

It began: "Dear Sir….. I hope you may find it convenient to be in your place…."

Sinn Féin was fond of picking prisoners as candidates in 1918, and it proved to be a highly successful strategy. Of the 69 candidates elected in the 1918 poll, no fewer than 34 were in jail

Constance's stint in Holloway, one of a many stays in jail during a tumultuous political career, was more comfortable than previous terms she had served.

As an interned prisoner, she was allowed to wear her own clothes, had the company of fellow Sinn Féin activists Maud Gonne and Kathleen Clarke, and she could receive food supplies, including pickles, anchovies and strawberry jam.

As a trained artist, she spent much of her time doing watercolours. She had been imprisoned earlier that year in a round-up of Sinn Féin leaders, on the trumped-up pretext that the party was collaborating with the Germans in a planned insurrection.

Constance was well used to prison life. When she was imprisoned two years earlier for her involvement the Easter Rising, the conditions were a lot harsher, and she was placed among ordinary criminals in Aylesbury Prison.

According to her biographer, Anne Haverty, she was subjected to a regime of near-starvation in squalid conditions - and she faced a gruelling routine of hard labour.

Few politicians led a life of such stunning contrasts as the countess, and her upbringing in Co Sligo as the daughter of an Anglo-Irish aristocrat made her an unlikely candidate to become a committed revolutionary.

Three decades before her incarceration for revolutionary activities and her participation in the 1918 general election, Constance Gore-Booth seemed set on a different course.

According to Haverty's biography, she seemed set fair to be a shining example of the classic type of wild Anglo-Irish girl - "hard-riding, jolly and tomboyish".

She rode in the hunt with the Sligo Harriers, and came out as a débutante at the court of Queen Victoria wearing a white satin dress with a train three yards long.

Lady Fingall wrote of her: "She was a wild, beautiful girl and all the young men wanted to dance with her. She was lovely and gay [in the old-fashioned sense] and she was the life and soul of any party."

Constance, who married a Polish count Casimir Markievicz, maintained this high-spiritedness for much of her political career, but as time went on, she dispensed with the conventions of her class and became a socialist republican, as fearless and ardent as any of her comrades.

Having set up the Fianna as a nationalist version of the boy scouts, she fought in the Easter Rising in Stephen's Green and the College of Surgeons. Imprisoned by the British in Kilmainham after the Rising, she received word from an officer of her verdict and sentence after a court-martial: "Guilty. Death by being shot. The court recommend the prisoner to mercy, solely and only on account of her sex."

Her experience in 1916 made her an ideal candidate to run in the 1918 election, as one of only two female candidates. The other was Winifred Carney in Belfast.

Constance stood in the St Patrick's Division of Dublin, and her popularity was enhanced by her work for the poor earlier in the decade, most notably during the 1913 Lockout. She urged her party: "Where Irish resources are being developed, or where industries exist, Sinn Féiners should make it their business to secure that workers are paid a living wage."

In an election message, she wrote: "I stand for the Irish Republic, to establish which our heroes died… There are many roads to freedom, today we may hope that our road to freedom will be a peaceful and bloodless one; I need hardly assure you that it will be an honourable one."

She won a thumping majority in her constituency, with 66pc of the vote, unseating William Field from the Irish Parliamentary Party.

As an abstentionist MP, she never sat in Westminster, but on her release from prison she returned to Dublin to take her seat in the new Dáil, as the first female TD, and she was the first woman to become an Irish cabinet minister as Minister for Labour.

She described her welcome home to Dublin after her prison term: "We motored into Dublin to Liberty Hall... The crowd had no beginning or end.

"I made a speech and we then formed up in a torchlight procession and went to St Patrick's. Every window had a flag or a candle or both. You never saw such excitement."

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