Although the fight for Irish independence in the early 20th Century was dominated by the men, there was a surprisingly large group of women who took up arms, carried messages and risked their lives for what they thought was right. Perhaps the most famous of all was Constance, Countess Markievicz.
Who Was ‘The Countess’?
I first became drawn to ‘The Countess’ whilst I was researching my family’s own involvement in the Irish republican movement of the early 20th Century. After reading many a books on the subject, her name kept cropping up and her fierce spirit was evident; how had I never heard of this remarkable woman? A woman who became the first female MP (although, as was Sinn Fein policy, she refused to take her seat in Westminster) and who was one of the driving forces behind Ireland becoming what it is today.
On first glance, Constance Markievicz does not seem like your usual revolutionary; born to a wealthy Anglo-Irish family who owned land in County Sligo, she initially decided to be a painter. She studied in Paris, where she met her husband, the Polish count Casimir Markievicz. They had a daughter and settled in Dublin. They became part of the artistic scene, a group of people with strong republican sympathies. She was well known for her flamboyant personality and liberal politics regarding the poor.
Although her nationalist politics were developing from this period, she is perhaps best known for participating in the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin, a rebellion that laid the foundations of a free Ireland. What was unusual about the declaration of the Easter Rising is that it viewed men and women as equal in the new republic: something Countess Markievicz would have heartily approved of. As a lieutenant, she was second in command of the rebels at St Stephen’s Green and had the right to bear arms. She fought alongside the men and wounded a British soldier. Eamon De Valera, a rebel who would become the first leader of an independent Ireland had branded female rebels-no doubt with a certain countess in mind- as ‘at once the boldest and unmanageable revolutionaries.’
Bravery At All Times
After six days, Markievicz and Mallin (her commander) accepted the surrender that had been declared by the Rising’s leaders and the countess found herself in solitary confinement in Kilmainham Gaol. During the subsequent trial, all the ringleaders of the rebellion were sentenced to death, although Markievicz’s sentence was commuted to life on ‘account of her sex’. At this, she was reported to reply, ‘I do wish your lot would have the decency to shoot me.’ Even when facing death, she wished to be treated as an equal to her male counterparts.
Kilmainham Gaol, where Countess Markievicz was held in solitary confinement.
A Resolute Trouble-Maker?
After London announced a general amnesty in 1917 for those imprisoned for their involvement in the Easter Rising, it wasn’t long before the countess got into trouble again; she was imprisoned a year later for being involved in an anti-conscription drive (Irish republicans did not believe in fighting in World War I for a king that they saw as an oppressor.) Despite being in prison, she was elected as the Sinn Fein MP for Dublin St Patrick’s, with a huge 66% of the vote. This made her the first woman ever elected to the British parliament. However, in protest at the British rule of Ireland, Sinn Fein MPs never took their seats in Westminster.
Even though Markievicz was in and out of prison, her political career continued apace; she was voted into the rebel parliament, the Dail, three times. In 1919, she became the Minister for Labour, only the second woman in Europe to hold a cabinet position and would be the only woman to do so in Ireland until 1979!
Until her death in 1927, the countess remained actively involved in Irish nationalist politics, being voted to the Dail three times and becoming involved militarily in the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) and the Irish Civil War (1922-1923). She was also in and out of prison or on the run for a lot of this period. Despite her action-packed, rebellious life, Constance Markievicz died quietly of possible tuberculosis, aged 59. A fiery life was ended peacefully.
Constance was a really brave woman. Which other brave ladies deserve a mention on Historical Honey? Let us know your thoughts in the comments box!