Saturday 14 December 2019

Mary Kenny: Remembering MP Markievicz

The Countess' 1918 election was about nationalism, not feminism

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Constance Markievicz would certainly be astonished to have been told that 100 years after she was the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons, a British Tory prime minister - also a woman - would be declaring her intention of honouring the occasion.

Yes, Theresa May has even Tweeted her pride, as a woman and a feminist, in marking the Sinn Féin victory of 1918. Truly, if you wait long enough, you see everything turn full circle. There are even suggestions that Constance's portrait should appear at Westminster.

It certainly was a moment in history when Constance was elected for the St Patrick's constituency in Dublin, in December 1918. She was in Holloway jail at the time for her part in the alleged 'German plot' (she spent three years of her life in prison) and according to her letters to her sister Eva, she viewed her election as no big deal. "My election was a foregone conclusion," she wrote, laconically. She didn't attribute the vote to any personal victory. Sinn Féin and the Transport Union were strong in the area, she observed, and they had been adept enough to concentrate on the doubtful voters.

Constance would never take her seat, but she was amused by "such funny letters" she received "from the ends of the world". Remarking, "Isn't Dev great?", she then moved on to deploring the bad weather, and to her fond memories of climbing Ben Bulben "in the snow and mist, and how grand and mysterious it was".

Constance Markievicz was a brave and spirited woman, passionately patriotic in Ireland's cause and utterly dedicated to the poor. In his sometimes critical biography written in the 1930s, Seán O'Faoláin writes that she probably saved many Dublin children and their families from actual starvation with her soup-kitchens. But she will be celebrated this year primarily as a feminist, although most of her biographers conclude that she was not.

Yes, Constance gave a speech in favour of women's suffrage, as Anne Haverty's biography notes, as early as 1896, when she was 28. And she always favoured "bringing women out into the open" and encouraging their political participation. But once she had experienced a nationalist awakening, towards the age of 40, the cause of Ireland became the priority: Ireland's freedom came first, and women should participate fully in that freedom. "She was drawn to feminism, but never a feminist," notes another biographer, Anne Marreco.

Constance was doubtful whether nationalist women should make common cause with Unionist women, for fear their politics might be contaminated - a line of thinking still with us. The organisation Inini na hÉireann, founded by Maud Gonne, was also nationalist rather than feminist. It was about encouraging and emboldening women to be politically active - in Ireland's cause. And, of course, in bitter hostility to England.

In her personal life, it is agreed that Constance was always a boyish kind of woman. She adored her father, but disliked her mother. It's repeatedly claimed that she preferred her stepson Stanislas to her own daughter, Maeve (raised mostly by her grandmother, Lady Gore-Booth), because she thought boys more fun than girls. She disdained starting a girl scout movement - but threw herself with relish into the boys' scouting movement she invented, the Fianna. She loved teaching lads military manoeuvres, and how to handle, clean, and care for guns (as an Anglo-Irish toff, she realised that guns were permitted without licence on private property).

In 1916, she "walked among men like a man". She was a crack shot, and, incidentally, an outstanding horsewoman. She hunted side-saddle, which requires a terrifically good seat on a horse.

As a young girl, Constance had been beautiful, indeed, and she had the confidence and brio to deal with a sex pest that young women today could well emulate: finding some creepy old chap's hand on her knee at a dinner party, she took the paw and held it aloft for all to see, announcing loudly, "Just look what I have found in my lap!"

She seems to have been initially in love with her amicable husband, Casimir, and they were always good friends, but it's agreed that after the birth of her daughter she lost interest in sexual relations. Perhaps her most intimate connection was with her sister Eva, a true feminist and pacifist, who lived all her adult life in a relationship with a woman, Esther Roper.

Like Maud Gonne, Constance was a Catholic convert - unorthodox but apparently sincere. Towards the end of her life she wrote a pamphlet called 'James Connolly's Policy and Catholic Doctrine' in which she sought to reconcile Connolly's socialism with Pope Leo XIII's social justice encyclical, Rerum Novarum. Would she favour 'Repeal the Eighth'? Hard to say. Her parliamentary friend, the republican Mary MacSwiney, was vehemently opposed to all birth control, and Constance did not seem to disavow that.

Considering her own Anglophobia - she compared the English to "slugs" in her garden - Constance would indeed be taken aback by an endorsement from 10 Downing Street. But she did love the sheer theatre of politics, and the limelight it brought, so she mightn't be entirely displeased.


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