Monday, March 14, 2016

COUNTESS CONSTANCE MARKIEVICZ: Fought for Irish Freedom By Polly Guerin

Constance Georgina de Marievicz
Who was this high born woman whose name and deeds blazed across the Irish skies? From what noble Gaelic stock did she emerge to become the legendary heroine in  Ireland's fight for freedom from British rule?
     It's hard to believe that on April 24, we will celebrate the 100th birthday of the Irish Republic. Ireland's Easter Rising, also known as the Easter Rebellion, an armed insurrection to end British rule in Ireland and establish an Independent Irish Republic, took place Easter Week, 1916.
      Although the rebellion was crushed, the British handed the rebels a further propaganda coup by executing all nine of the rebellion's leaders including the severely wounded James Connelly. Although the fearless fighter Countess Markievicz fought with  the leaders of the rebellion her life was spared. Popular support then swung behind the rebels, allowing the successful War of Independence three years later.
     Georgina de Markievicz, nee Gore-Booth was the eldest daughter of the Arctic explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, 5th Baronet, an Anglo-Irish landlord who administered a huge estate. and his wife Lady Georgina Booth nee Hill.
     Born to power and privilege her pedigree ranked among the finest of the old Gaelic aristocracy, yet her amazing ascendancy as a national heroine blazed across the Irish skies in the momentous years of the early 20th Century. 
         Markievicz's destiny as a revolutionary nationalist, suffragette and soldier belongs to the pages of a romantic noveI. I discovered Constance several years ago when I attended the Yeats International Summer School's poetry workshop in Sligo, Ireland. Her metamorphosis from society beauty to philanthropic benefactor, soldiering on to glory are documented at Lissadell House, the Gore-Booth's family’s mansion, I visited one day in the north of County Sligo in the north-west of Ireland.
      Legend has it that she was a beautiful, headstrong girl who rode fast horses over the thousands of acres on the estate owned by her father Sir Henry-Gore Booth. She was presented at the court of Queen Victoria and dubbed the darling of the Dublin Castle set. It all seemed like an idyllic fairytale.
Lissadell House, Sligo, Ireland fairy tale. 
Born to power and privilege she could have remained isolated from the trials and tribulations of the common man, the dreadful conditions of tenant farmers, but led by her father's example of providing free food for the tenants on his estate, she developed  deep concern for working people and the poor. John Butler Yeats was was a friend of the family and frequently visited her family home Lissadell House, and Constance and her sister Eva were influenced by his artistic and political ideas.
      The Gore-Booths were known as model landlords in Sligo but as a young girl Constance was overcome by the destitute conditions of her father’s tenants and high rents they paid and she asked her father, Sir Henry, for an explanation. With nothing of consequence coming forward from her father she vowed that one day she would make amends for her family’s deeds. She said much later in life that her activities were, ‘only a small atonement for her ancestors’ sins in plundering the Irish people.
       Constance’s upbringing in such an atmosphere of despair and neglect of the common people forged a compassion for the lives of the poor dispossessed Irish families and it impressed upon her mind the inequities of society. Constance reminisced in later life, “We lived on a beautiful, enchanted West Coast, where we grew up intimate with the soft mists and the colored mountains, and where each morning you woke to the sound of wild birds, no one was interested in politics in our house. Irish history was also taboo…”  The frequent guest to their estate, a young William Butler Yeats, later in a poem spoke of Constance and her sister Eva as, “Two girls in silk Kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.”
       Despite all the trappings of social privilege Constance was not aspiring to the ornamental life of a “society beauty,” and she became weary of aristocratic privileges. Hoping to carve out a life of her own she had ambition to become an artist and went to London to study at the Slade School and later in Paris she attended the Julian school. It was there in Paris that she met and married, Count Casmir Dunin Markievicz, an artist from a wealthy Polish family. This union was short lived and they separated amicably. The course of her life was now heading in a totally different direction.
      In 1907, Constance first became known to British intelligence for her role in helping to found Na Fianna Eireann, a nationalist scout’s organization whose purpose was to teach young boys in military drill and the use of firearms. These youths would later become the volunteers during the Easter uprising.
       In 1908, Markievicz became actively involved in nationalist politics in Ireland. A head strong and inspired activist Constance joined Sinn Fein and the women’s group, Inghinidhe na hEireann  (Daughters of Ireland), a revolutionary women's movement founded by the actress Maud Gonne, muse of William Butler Yeats. 
      By 1911, she was now an executive member of  both organizations and went to jail for the first time for her part in a demonstration against the visit of George V. Her compassion was evident in the 1913 lockout when she ran a soup kitchen to provide food for the worker's families.
    The Citizens Army drilled regularly and one soldier remarked, “She was lovely in uniform. I can remember seeing her marching at the head of the Citizen army with James Connolly and Michael Mallin at a parade one Sunday afternoon. My God, she was it!” 
      As WWI began, Constance was in the center of social and political upheaval that was building in Dublin. On April, 24h, 1916, tensions exploded in the streets of Dublin and war soon erupted in the streets of the capital. While most women in the movement participated in the Rising as nurses and messengers Constance Markievicz, who had joined Connolly's Citizen Army, was second in command to Michael Mallin in St Stepen's Green and was active in a fighting capacity throughout the week. She had supervised the setting up of barricades as the Rising began and was in the middle of the fighting all around Stephen;s Green.
       Mallin and Markievicz and their men held on to Stephen’s Green for six days, finally giving up when the British brought them a copy of Patrick Pearse’s surrender order. They were taken to Dublin Castle and Constance was the only woman put in solitary confinement in Kilmainham Goal. She fully expected to be executed. As she prepared to die, alone in her cell, she heard the firing squad put one bullet in the heads of Patrick Pearse, Thomas Clarke and Thomas MacDonagh and others. At her court martial she declared, “I did what was right, and I stand by it.” The verdict in her case was: “Guilty, Death by being shot,” but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison, “Solely on account of her sex.” Always the fiery revolutionary she told the officer who brought her the news, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” Constance was released from prison during the General Amnesty of 1917.
      Her heroic endurance during several prison terms stand her as an Irish heroine of unprecedented record. In the general election, December 1918, Countess Markievicz became not just the first woman ever elected to the British Parliament, but was appointed Minister of Labour, the first Cabinet Minister in Europe.  She died in 1927 from complications related to appendicitis, long years of hunger strikes, police brutality, and guerrilla warfare that had weakened her body significantly. She was 59.  Throughout her life the Countess had intentionally risked her life for the common people.  In tribute to her courage, daring and sacrifice as many as 300,000 turned out and lined the streets of Dublin for the funeral of the Countess of Irish freedom.
      Ta Ta Darlings, for more information about the Easter Rising contact the WB Yeats Society of New York at They are having "A Taste of Yeats Summer School in New York on Saturday April 2, at NYU Glucksman Ireland House and several lectures cover topics including "Easter Rising---The Poets' Rebellion.:.  Fan mail always welcome at  Visit Polly's Blogs at and click in the left had column on the Blog that resonates with your interest on fashion, visionary men, poetry and womendeterminedtosucceed.

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