1 – Countess Constance Markievicz
“Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.” Countess Constance Markievicz’s advice on what young women should do to help the Easter Rising in 1916.
An attempt to list the achievements of Constance Georgine Markievicz, later known as the Countess Markievicz, is inevitably doomed to failure. Her position as one of the greatest women that Ireland has ever produced is unquestionable and goes far beyond a simple listing of what she managed to do in her six decades on Earth. We’ll try to list them anyway: she was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons and the first woman anywhere in the world to hold a Cabinet level post in a government, a woman whose reaction to political violence was not to stay at home while the men went to war but to get her gun and join in, a fierce defender of her beliefs and an inspiring proselytising force for her causes.
Born as Constance Georgine Gore-Booth in London in 1868, to a family from the Irish gentry, she grew up in County Sligo, in Ireland’s north west. She was from a wealthy background and family friends included the poet and Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats, who would write a poem about Constance and her sister, Eva. Markiewicz left Ireland to study art in London and became active in the suffragette movement, campaigning for the rights of women to vote. She married Casimir Markiewicz, a Polish noble, in Paris and eventually settled in Dublin in the early 1900s.
Constance became enamoured by Irish nationalism, meeting with leaders of the burgeoning movement, and joined Sinn Fein and its women’s section, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (“Daughters of Ireland”). Despite her high-born status – she often attended meetings in a ballgown and diamonds – she was taken as an equal by the staunchly egalitarian women of InE. She founded an Irish nationalist version of the scouts, which taught boys how to use weapons, and was arrested for the first time, for burning the British flag and protesting against a visit by King George V to Dublin. She later worked with the Irish Citizen Army, a socialist organisation that combatted the British, and helped to assist during the Dublin Lockout of 1913, when the striking workers of Dublin were locked out by their bosses.
Finally, at Easter 1916, her moment would come. When the radical Irish nationalists in Dublin staged an uprising against the British, Countess Markiewicz was at the forefront. She fought in the streets and killed a policeman herself, presiding over barricades and digging trenches in the centre of the city. The Easter Rising failed, and Markiewicz was captured. Later, as the only one of 70 captured women to be kept in solitary confinement, she was sentenced to death. She told the court: “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 and I stand by it.” Her death sentence was commuted because she was a woman – “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”, said Markiewicz – and was released in 1917 as part of a general amnesty.
She later remarked: “I have always hated war and am by nature and philosophy a pacifist, but it is the English who are forcing war on us, and the first principle of war is to kill the enemy.” The Rising was over, but the war was just starting. In 1918, Sinn Fein won a majority of seats in Ireland, with Markiewicz becoming the first woman elected to the British parliament, though in line with Sinn Fein policy, she refused to take her seat. She was also elected to Ireland’s declared parliament, Dail Eireann, and later named Minister for Labour in 1919, the first woman anywhere in the world to hold such a high level of political office. She died in 1927 from appendicitis and is revered as one of the greatest Irish politicians and revolutionaries in history.