Wednesday 17 October 2018

The passion of Countess Markievicz

Ronan Abayawickrema

The colourful Polish Count who swept Constance Gore-Booth off her feet at a ball in Paris was the man who inspired her passion for politics. Ronan Abayawickrema reports

They met at a student ball in Paris in 1899. She was 29 and from a prominent Anglo-Irish family. He was 25, a Polish noble and was dressed as a Zulu.

Not surprisingly, the 6ft 4in Pole dressed in a leopard skin caught her attention and, reportedly, it was love at first sight.

It's a suitably colourful account of the first meeting between Constance Gore-Booth, nationalist, revolutionary and Ireland's first female parliamentarian, and Count Casimir Markievicz, artist, writer, soldier, actor and the reason why one of Ireland's most celebrated patriots had a Polish surname.

Except the tale, told by Count Markievicz many years later, is not true.

"He loved stories, he loved telling stories and dramatising himself through stories," says Patrick Quigley, author of 'The Polish Irishman', a new book on Count Markievicz's eventful life.

Like most of the Count's stories -- and he had a lot of them -- there was a kernel of truth. "There probably was a ball where he caused a sensation as a Zulu," writes Patrick Quigley in his book, "and he merged it with their first encounter."

But the Count and Constance did meet at the ball in Paris, where they were both studying art and moving in bohemian circles.

Her family had some qualms about what they saw as "Con's latest infatuation", Quigley writes, and her brother, Josslyn, contacted the Russian Embassy -- the Markievicz family, Polish landowners in the Ukraine, were subjects of the Tsar -- in London to enquire about the Count's background.

The results of an investigation by the Okhrana, the Tsar's feared secret police, were inconclusive: Markievicz's family were landowners, certainly, and 'used' the title Count, but whether they were entitled to was unclear.

The report seems to have mollified the Gore-Booths enough for them to accept Constance's desire to marry Markievicz.

The couple were married in London in 1900, and initially lived between Paris -- where Count Markievicz was starting to make a name as a portrait painter -- and Gore-Booth's family home, Lissadell House in Co Sligo.

In 1902, Constance and her husband set out for his ancestral home in the Ukraine. When she first met the Polish Count, she had shown little interest in politics. "Thank goodness he hates politics and has never meddled in any plots or belonged to any political societies," she wrote in a letter home.

But her two trips to the Ukraine were the start of her move into radical politics, Mr

Quigley told the 'Irish Independent'.

"I think those two summers in the Ukraine were really the turning point for [Gore-Booth]. She heard a lot of stories from him about the Polish rebellion against Russia [in 1863]," he says.

When the couple visited Kiev, Constance "leaned out of the railway carriage when the train was going off and called out 'Muscovite pig!' to a Russian policeman on the platform," the author adds, noting that she drew a lot of parallels between Poland's struggle against Russia and Ireland's bid for independence from Britain in her first political statement in 1909.

In 1903, the Markieviczs moved to Dublin -- their decision to end their nomadic existence no doubt helped by the gift of a house in Ranelagh from Constance's mother.

They were soon heavily involved in the artistic circles of a city on the cusp of a cultural renaissance -- and political revolution.

They mixed with politicians, artists and writers including Arthur Griffith, Thomas McDonagh, George Russell ('AE'), John Millington Synge and James Joyce.

The Count established himself as a portrait artist with a series of paintings of some of Ireland's leading figures.

However, what Patrick Quigley calls "the high point of Casi's career as a public painter in Ireland" came in 1905, when he was commissioned to paint the Investiture of the Right Hon The Earl of Mayo as Knight of St Patrick, a huge work that captured 68 members of the Irish nobility at the ceremony.

Yet just a few years after Markievicz received this ultimate nod from the establishment, his wife had become immersed in nationalist politics.

In their early years in Dublin, both she and Markievicz had enjoyed attending Ascendency balls at Dublin Castle; by 1909, the Count was going alone.

A friend asked Constance why she no longer attended functions at the Castle. "I want to blow it up," she replied.

Markievicz seems to have accepted his wife's political awakening with wry amusement, dubbing her the "floating landmine".

However, while he was part of the cultural nationalist movement, he was not involved in the direct political agitation increasingly favoured by his wife.

Nevertheless, her activism provided him with another rich source of stories to share with his drinking cronies.

One of the Count's yarns told how he'd had trouble sleeping one night, as the bed was uncomfortable. Peering under it, he found boxes full of bombs and dynamite.

"So I left Poland to get married to an English aristocrat," he griped comically. "Did I think I would find myself a few years later sleeping alone on dynamite?"

But such quips belied the seriousness of the situation.

The political atmosphere in Ireland was becoming increasingly febrile, and the Markieviczs were caught up in the street violence surrounding the arrest of union leader Jim Larkin on 'Bloody Sunday' in 1913. Constance Gore-Booth was manhandled by the police.

A common explanation for Markievicz's departure from Dublin that same year is that he was disaffected with his wife's politics, but Patrick Quigley thinks this reason has been overstated.

After all, it was Markievicz who had fired the imagination of the then apolitical Constance with tales of Polish rebellion, and he continued to write sympathetically about Irish nationalism once back in Poland.

But he was reluctant to get directly involved, and his wife's activism was making it increasingly difficult to get commissions.

What's more, the couple had grown apart -- the sexual phase of their relationship had ended some time ago, and the Count had dalliances with "lovely ladies".

Nevertheless, neither wanted a divorce, and sought instead to give each other what we might call today "some space".

Not long after returning to the Ukraine, Markievicz was one of the many Poles living in Russian territory who joined the Tsar's army in the First World War in the hope that Poland would be granted independence after the conflict.

Meanwhile, Constance Gore-Booth, famously, was one of the officers in the 1916 revolt against British rule, cementing her place in history as the rebel leader 'Countess Markievicz', though she seldom used the title.

The couple communicated sporadically, and Markievicz tried to get the Russian government to intercede with the British when she was imprisoned after the rebellion.

She was later on the losing side in the Irish civil war, and was elected to the Dail for Fianna Fail in 1926, having served as a cabinet minister in the first Dail of 1918.

Markievicz , meanwhile, moved to Warsaw after the war, continuing to write and paint while also acting in some of Poland's earliest films.

He remained fond of his wife to the end, visiting her in Ireland in 1924, and telling friends in Poland she was the "love of his life", Patrick Quigley says.

When she took ill in 1927, he rushed from Warsaw to be by her side, painting a picture of his erstwhile muse on her deathbed.

The Count survived his wife by five years, but was often in ill health and financial difficulty during this time.

He died in 1932, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Nowem, Poland.

Markievicz's main legacy is as a painter -- his work hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland, Hugh Lane Gallery and in Krakow -- yet his influence on the one of the key figures in Ireland's independence struggle has been mostly overlooked, until now.

"He fills me with the desire to do things," Constance Gore-Booth wrote of Markievicz in a letter home shortly after they met. And she certainly did that.

'The Polish Irishman: The Life and Times of Count Casimir Markievicz' by Patrick Quigley is published by The Liffey Press, €19.95

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