By Isabel Ringrose
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Constance Markievicz fought against British rule with a gun

Constance Markievicz was a fierce fighter against British colonial rule, for women's liberation and for socialism
Issue 2797
Constance Markievicz with heo Fitzgerald (Assistant Director of Training and Organisation) and Thomas McDonald (Waterford O/C) in 1917.

Constance Markievicz in 1917

“Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.” This was the sound advice Countess Constance Markievicz gave to Irish women battling British ­colonial rule. Markievicz was a defiant leader in the fight for Irish nationalism, the first woman elected to the British parliament, and committed to votes for women and socialism. She was born into the ­landowning Goore-Booth family in 1868 and brought up on their estate.

After studying art in London she moved to Paris and married her husband Count Casimir Markievicz—a wealthy Ukrainian artist from a Polish family—in 1901. They settled in Dublin in 1903 and socialised with ­artists who wanted to ­preserve Irish culture. But newspapers ­advocating for Irish independence, inspired her to join the republican cause. She joined the nationalist Sinn Fein party in 1908 and the ­revolutionary organisation Inghinidhe na hEireann—Daughters of Ireland.

The following year she formed and ran Na Fianna Eireann—Soldiers of Ireland—a paramilitary youth training camp that taught teenage boys how to use guns. “Nothing could be sadder than to see the boys saluting the flag that flew in triumph for every defeat their nation has known,” she explained. Markievicz was central to combating, and ­defeating, Winston Churchill’s election campaign in the 1908 Manchester North West ­by-election.She notably drove a ­carriage and four white horses symbolising the suffrage campaign.

A man heckled her asking if she could cook a dinner. Markievicz responded, “Yes. Can you drive a coach and four?” In 1911 she was jailed for the first time after ­speaking at an Irish Republican Brotherhood demonstration of 30,000 people against George V’s visit. Here she burnt a giant British flag taken from the Irish parliament. Markievicz was also a founder of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) alongside ­socialist James Connolly in 1913. It defended thousands of ­workers who were locked out of ­workplaces for joining unions.

As well as ­campaigning to keep Ireland out of the First World War, Markievicz took part in the 1916 Easter Rising when republicans resisted British rule. She fought on the frontline and supervised barricades. After six days the rising was defeated. At her hearing Markievicz said, “I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom, and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right.” She was sentenced to death, but unlike ­fighters such as Connolly, her ­sentence was commuted to life imprisonment because she was a woman.

Upon learning this she exclaimed, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”. Markievicz was released in 1917 as part of an amnesty only to be jailed again in 1918 for anti-conscription activities. At the 1918 general election while in prison Markievicz was elected to the Westminster parliament as one of 73 Sinn Fein MPs. Rather than taking their seats, the republicans set up the Irish Dail Eireann ­provisional government. Markievicz served as ­minister for labour from 1919 to 1922. She was the second ever female government minister in Europe. But after the Irish Free State was established through the Anglo-Irish Treaty at the end of 1921, Markievicz left the government.

She continued to work for the republican cause in the Irish Civil War and toured the United States. Markievicz was again elected to the Dail in 1923 but in protest did not take her seat. She joined the new Fianna Fail party in 1926 and was elected to the fifth Dail in 1927, but died a month later. At her funeral her former ICA comrade Sean O’Casey remarked, “One thing she had in abundance—physical ­courage. With that she was clothed as with a garment.”

This is the fifth in a series of columns on radical women to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March. Go to bit.ly/RWL2022 for more.

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