People seem to have this idea that you can only be a successful socialist if you’re born and bred working class. You can only understand class struggle if you’ve had to suffer it, you can only fight oppression if you’re oppressed. History tells us that’s bollocks, socialists come from all walks of life – and necessarily, or how could we begin to understand the complexities of our society with only one vantage point?
Constance Markievicz was not working class. In fact she was the daughter of the Arctic explorer Sir Henry Gore-Booth and Lady Georgina Gore-Booth. They held land of 39 square miles, they were well off, and yet the stereotypes we often apply to the upper classes did not fit so snugly there. During the famine Gore-Booth provided food for the tenants on his Sligo estate free of charge. At a time when thousands were starving and dying, desperately clamouring onto ships to escape the genocide, Gore-Booth was instilling in his daughters a deep concern for the working class which would shape the rest of their lives.
Constance wanted to study to be a painter, though there was only one school in Dublin accepting female students. Already Constance was pushing firmly against the agenda that had been laid out for her, and was determining to carve out her own way regardless of accepted social norms and standards. Attending an art school in London was where Constance first became involved with the National Union of Women’s Suffragette Societies.
By 1903 Constance had married and birthed a daughter, and was accepted as a renowned landscape artist. Now living in Dublin with her family, she was a cornerstone in the founding of the United Artists Club. This was a group for artists and writers to socialise and support each other, and whilst its main aims were the preservation of Irish language and culture, it attracted members from all walks of life, not least those with strong revolutionary ideals. In this club Constance was able to mingle with peers from both sides of the nationalist argument, which surely laid the foundation for her future in politics.
In 1906 Constance rented a cottage in the Dublin countryside, where she found that the previous tenant, a poet named Padraic Colum, had left behind manuscripts of a revolutionary journal entitled “The Peasant and Sinn Feinn.” It was the reading of these materials promoting independence from the British that spurred Constance into action. This was arguably the most pivotal period in Constance’s young life – a move from a mother, a suffragette and a painter to a daughter of Ireland, a sworn freedom fighter.
Constance joined both Sinn Fein and the Daughters of Ireland in 1907 and thus began to involve herself consciously in nationalist politics. Constance attended her first meeting dressed in a ballgown and tiara having come straight from a function at Dublin Castle. The hostility which met her as a result was a breath of fresh air, and no longer treated regally as “Countess” Constance found herself able to relax and focus on the important issues.
Having campaigned against Churchill with her sister and the suffragettes in Manchester, Constance returned to Ireland and founded the Fianna Éireann, a nationalist scouts organisation that instructed teenage boys and girls in the use of firearms. Patrick Pearse later said that the creation of Fianna Éireann was as important as the creation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913.
Constance was first jailed in 1911 after speaking to a crowd of 30,000 at a meeting of the Irish Republican Brotherhood protesting the visit of the King, having also taken part in stone-throwing at the Kings image and the burning of the British flag. Despite her upbringing and her personal financial situation, Constance was more than prepared to lay down her freedom, and even her life for freedom and equality in Ireland. She was later quoted as saying, “I would welcome the King of England over here on a visit. But while Ireland is not free I remain a rebel unconverted and unconvertible. There is no word strong enough for it. I am pledged as a rebel, an unconvertible rebel, because I am pledged to the one thing—a free and independent Republic.”
Constance later compounded this when she joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army. This was formed to protect demonstrating workers from the police. Constance sold all of her jewellery and borrowed money wherever she could in order to feed this small volunteer force, as well as running and financing a soup kitchen to feed poor school children. Constance had discovered already that the success of the lowest and most unfortunate was the success of the whole, she poured every cent, even drop of blood sweat and tears into the cause, and she fought with every ounce of strength she could muster.
Constance is often quoted as saying “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.” She knew, this was a country on the brink of war. This was not the time for displays of affluence and partying. This was a time to arm, to prepare, to be ready for the long night ahead.
In 1916 Constance took part in the Easter Uprising where she shot and injured a British sniper. Following with great admiration the direction of James Connolly, Constance fought bravely and along with her comrades held her position six days before being captured and transported to Kilmainham Gaol. Once there, she was the only one of 70 women who was placed in solitary confinement. You can imagine the fear from the guards, who will she influence? What will she spread? Early in her political career Constance was already a force to be reckoned with, and quite rightly put the shits up the Brits.
When tried for her part in this, Constance refuted the charge of “taking part in an armed rebellion for the purpose of assisting the enemy” but proudly declared that she had indeed attempted to “cause disaffection among the civil population of His Majesty” citing that she had done what she thought was right and stood by her actions. Her courage and conviction was beyond reproach. She was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life on account of her sex. Her now famous response, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.”
In 1917 Constance was released as part of a general amnesty dictated by London. Two years later she was banged up again, in Cork, for making a “seditious speech.” It seemed that everywhere Constance went and everything she said earned her jail time. It was of no consequence to her, she continued her work and aided the struggle regardless of the price, because it was right.
In 1918 she became the first woman elected to the House of Commons, but as expected as a member of Sinn Fein she declined to recognise the British Parliament and refused to take her seat. Being in Holloway Prison when the convention of the First Dail was called, Constance was referred to as being “imprisoned by the foreign enemy” as many were. She was reelected to the second Dail in 1921.
During an argument in the Dail Constance was asked why she had not gone to England with Collins et al to negotiate an agreement with the English. She replied thusly:
“I know what I mean—a state run by the Irish people for the people. That means a Government that looks after the rights of the people before the rights of property. And I don’t wish under the Saorstát to anticipate that the directors of this and the capitalists’ interests are to be at the head of it. My idea is the Workers’ Republic for which Connolly died.” Her dedication to socialism as a republican is one of the reasons her name is not as famous as you would expect.
She was the minister for labour, fighting loud and long for the rights and equal treatment of the working class. She was the only female Irish Cabinet Minister in history until 1979. In 1922 she left government along with De Valera and others who opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty.
After the Irish civil war which Constance took an active role in, she was again imprisoned along with 92 other women and commenced hunger strike. She was released within the month. Constance was reelected to Irish government over the coming years, before her death in 1927 just five weeks before she claimed her seat on the fifth Dail.
Constance died of complications connected to appendicitis, and having given her wealth to the cause died among the poor where she wanted to be. She had not risen with the class, rather she had reached across the divide in the name of equality and justice and fought for what was right, regardless of how it affected her personal situation. She was a heroine of the Irish Republican Movement, she was wedded to the cause and she lived and died that the working class, the Irish as a nation even, might be free of the chains of oppression and exploitation and imperialism.
Constance Markievicz might not have been a working class woman. But she was a feminist, a suffragette, a military freedom fighter, a political prisoner, a hunger striker, a politician and above all a woman who would have laid down her life to see those less fortunate though no less deserving prosper in a new Ireland built on equality and freedom for all its citizens.