Wednesday 17 July 2019

Sligo Rising: A story of a painting from 1916: 'The Arrest'

Lara Byrne

One of the treasures on exhibit at Sligo County Museum depicts the arrest of Countess Markievicz in 1916 and is painted by the Irish artist, Kathleen Fox. This work went 'missing' for some thirty years before being rediscovered. It was in November 1962 that the then County Librarian, Nora Niland and the committee of the Sligo County Museum and Library purchased a large history painting, entitled 'The Arrest' by Kathleen Fox.

It is now part of the Niland Collection and is on display in Sligo County Museum. This large oil painting is nearly a metre and a half in height and is just under two metres in length. The canvas was missing for over thirty years before it was discovered, rolled up in an attic in New York, as originally this work was sent there for its safety in 1917. The work was eventually returned to the artist, Kathleen Fox.

The painting depicts the surrender and arrest of Countess Constance Markievicz on Easter Week in 1916 to Major Henry de Courcy Wheeler. The surrender of the Countess took place outside the College of Surgeons, St. Stephen's Green, Dublin. She is dressed in the full military uniform of the Irish Citizen Army and is standing beside the commandant of the garrison at St. Stephen's Green, Michael Mallin. Countesss Markievicz was second-in-command of the garrison. A bullet pierced Mallin's hat during the retreat. Sligo-born, William Partridge, was also part of this garrison and was a close friend of Michael Mallin.

An account of the surrender was published in the Sinn Fein rebellion handbook, issued in 1917: the College of Surgeons was 'one of the last forts to capitulate. After a week's occupation the surrender took place at two o'clock in the afternoon of Sunday 30 [April]. Major Wheeler, son of the late, Surgeon Wheeler, accompanied by a force of military, attended at the hour, and was received by the rebel leader, the Countess Markievicz. She was still wearing top boots, breeches, service tunic and a hat with feathers.' At the surrender to Major Wheeler, she shook hands with her officers and kissed her Mauser pistol before handing it over to the Major and said 'I am ready'.

The scene had an added poignancy as the countess was a first cousin of the Major's wife and Wheeler held onto this gun for the rest of his life; it was donated by his descendants to the National Museum of Ireland in the 1960s.

The caretaker's rooms in the College of Surgeon was reserved as a bedroom by the female rebels. It was here that Countess Markievicz slept, and 'she and the others appeared to have a partiality for chocolates and other similar articles, many broken packages of sweetstuffs being left behind.' But more ominously the chemical lecture theatre of the college with its gallery was used as a makeshift morgue, with the benches used as mortuary slabs, as recounted in the account of the surrender from the, Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook. Easter 1916: 'The prisoners taken here, numbered about 110 men and young women' and 'a large number of blood-stained sheets and towels were collected.' The painting shows men with bandaged heads.

Paintings and photographs of the 1916 Rising are a rarity, because of the secrecy surrounding the events leading up to the Rising.

A thirty-six year old, Kathleen Fox, accidentally witnessed this famous arrest, as she approached the scene, she would have realised that she recognised the woman under arrest. Fox had shortly returned from Paris and London but had attended the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, and Constance and her Polish husband, Casimir Dunin Markievicz had also attended classes at this school.

Kathleen Fox was born in Dublin and studied drawing and painting in the Metropolitan School of Art. She studied under William Orpen and was also his assistant for a time. In 1911, she went to London and Paris to study art.

The artist would have sketched the scene on the spot and then would have later transferred the sketches onto the large canvas in her studio. She includes herself in the work, as an onlooker. She is wearing a straw boater and looks directly out at the viewer and in doing so, invites the viewer to be a witness to this event. Soon after the surrender, the horror of the executions of the 1916 leaders unfolded. Kathleen completed the work in secret and dated the painting 1916. Soon after, she sent the canvas to New York, in case the British authorities confiscated the work.

Countess Markievicz was sentenced to death for her part in the Rising, but her sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life, because of her gender. Michael Mallin was executed in Kilmainham on the 8th May 1916, leaving behind a pregnant wife and four children. He was a silk weaver by trade, a musician, and an active member of the Workingman's Temperance Committee. Three months after her husband's execution, Michael Mallin's wife, Agnes, gave birth to a daughter, and named her Maura Constance. The godparents were Constance Markievicz and William Partridge. William escaped execution but was imprisoned, where he was released soon after for reasons of ill-health and he died in 1917. Countess Markievicz gave a graveside oration and fired the military volley at his graveside at Ballaghadereen, Co.Roscommon.

The year after the purchase by Nora Niland of the painting, 'The Arrest,' the artist of this grand-scale and ambitious work, Kathleen Fox died in Dublin at the age of 83. This treasure from 1916 is currently on display in Sligo County Museum.

Countess Markievicz was also a practising artist, as was her husband, Casimir Dunin Markievicz. Four of her artworks are part of the Niland Collection in Sligo. One notable work is an untitled watercolour, which she painted during her incarceration in Holloway Jail in 1919, with art supplies smuggled in by her sister, Eva Gore-Booth.

This work, a small watercolour in the Celtic Revival style, depicts four figures on horseback from the Fianna - an ancient and noble band of Celtic warrior-poets.

In 1909, Constance founded the Red Branch Knights and later that summer, in a meeting between Frank Molony, Helena Molony, Bulmer Hobson and the Countess, herself; they discussed the establishment of the Fianna in Dublin. On 16th August 1909, Bulmer Hobson presided over a meeting in 34 Lower Camden Street, Dublin at which the Irish National Boy Scouts changed their name to Na Fianna Éireann.

Na Fianna were inspired by the legendary warriors of the Fianna from Irish mythology, such as Cuchulainn, Ferdia, Fionn mac Cumhaill and Oisin and especially the stories of the many physical and mental tests they had to surpass to gain entry into this select band of warriors. The trainee had to leap over an obstacle as high as his brow, dive under a branch as low as his knee, and pull a thorn from his foot, whilst running without faltering in his speed. and an integral part of their training was to be able to recite and compose poetry.

Many of the young boys who joined Na Fianna in 1909 and onwards - would go on to become members of the Irish Volunteers and in turn took part in the military insurrection of Easter 1916.

Sligo Champion