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The aristocrat who fought for Ireland

(Tony Bailie, Irish News)

A Co Sligo-born countess was one of the most remarkable women in Irish history and this week a statue was unveiled to commemorate her. Tony Bailie looks at the life and times of Countess Markievicz.

On Monday the Republic's minister for transport Seamus Brennan unveiled a statue of Countess Constance Markievicz in Rathcormac, Co Sligo.

It is one of the strange quirks of Irish history that the minister should describe a woman born into an Anglo-Irish family who married a Polish count as one of the "outstanding social and historical figures in our history''.

Despite her privileged upbringing she became a campaigner for social justice, women's rights and a leading figure in the fight for Irish independence.

She was born Constance Gore-Booth in 1868, the daughter of a wealthy landlord who had huge estates in Co Sligo. Her upbringing was that of an aristocrat and when she was 21 she was 'presented' to Queen Victoria.

However when she was at London's Slade Art School in 1896 she began to develop a social conscience and became an active member of the suffragette movement campaigning for woman's rights.

She continued her art studies in Paris and while there began reading Irish history and became sympathetic to the nationalist cause.

In 1900 she married fellow student Count Casimir Markievicz in Paris and they returned to live in Dublin where she became active in the Gaelic, literary and arts revival then under way.

Another leading figure in that movement was the poet WB Yeats, who she knew from her upbringing in Co Sligo, and they along with George Russell founded the Arts Club in 1905.

It was the time of the Home Rule movement and she became increasingly involved in the, then, political struggle for Irish independence.

In1908 she established and trained Fianna Eireann, a patriotic boy scout organisation, and joined Inghnithe na hEireann, the Irish suffragettes.

In 1911 the British parliament passed a bill granting home rule for Ireland, but politics in Ireland were becoming increasingly militaristic.

Markievicz aligned herself with the left wing Irish Citizens Army, formed by James Connolly, during the Dublin lock-out strike in 1913.

Unionist opposition to home rule had led to the formation of the UVF and the importation of arms into Larne, and members of the British army had mutinied at the Curragh.

The Irish Volunteers responded by importing arms into Howth and became involved in a gun battle with British soldiers.

Home rule was put on hold with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, but Markievicz was active in organising the resistance to the recruitment of Irish men into the ranks of the British army.

She also became involved in the plans to organise an uprising during Easter 1916 and was the only woman leader during the rising, serving as second-in-command to Michael Mallin at St Stephen's Green.

Although the rising proved to be unpopular and ultimately unsuccessful, the decision by the British to execute 15 leaders, including James Connolly, sparked a wave of public sympathy.

Markievicz had also been found guilty of treason and condemned to be executed, but her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and she was transferred to Aylesbury prison.

Following an amnesty the following year she returned to Ireland, but continued to agitate for Irish independence and was interned in Holloway the following year.

The end of the First World War brought about the 1918 general election and although still in prison, Markievicz was elected as Sinn Féin candidate in South Dublin, becoming the first ever woman to be elected to the British parliament.

Nationalists regarded the Irish election results – which saw Sinn Féin taking 70 seats, the Home Rule party six and Unionists 26 – as a mandate for independence and refused to take their seats at Westminster. Instead they had the first meeting of Dail Eireann at the Mansion House in Dublin, although Markievicz and 35 others were still interned.

However, she was released in time for the second meeting of the Dail in April 1919 where she was appointed minister for labour, becoming the first woman in the world to hold a government position.

She was imprisoned again by the British in October that year because of a "seditious speech" she made in Cork and then after the Dail was outlawed by the British she was sentenced to two years hard labour in Mountjoy. Markievicz was re-elected in 1921, once again from prison, and released following a truce with the British to take up her position again as minister of labour.

She was opposed to the treaty proposed by the British which partitioned Ireland and following an acrimonious debate in the Dail, which sparked the bitter Irish civil war, she joined with Eamon de Valera's anti-treaty faction.

She was on a two-month speaking tour of the United States when hostilities broke out and by the time the civil war had ended around 4,000 lives had been lost.

In November 1923, Constance was imprisoned for the fifth time for supporting the release of prisoners on hunger strike in the North Dublin Union jail.

A prisoner now with them, she joined their hunger strike.

Together with other prisoners, she was released in December1923 and despite the ongoing bitterness she began to focus her attention on reorganising Fianna emphasising education, Gaelic culture, archaeology, history and the arts.

She was elected as a Fianna Fail candidate to the Dail in 1927, but because of deteriorating health she never took her seat.

In 1927 she was rushed to hospital where she had an appendicitis operation but died on July 15 1927 from a peritonitis complication at the age of 59.

Over 100,000 people filed past in her honour as her body lay in state in the Rotunda Hospital and she was laid to rest wearing her Citizen Army uniform in Glasnevin cemetery.

The statue unveiled on Monday, which was sculpted by John Coll, depicts a bronze figure on a stone plinth is located just a few miles from her family home at Lissadell.

May 5, 2003

This article appeared first in the April 23, 2003 edition of the Irish News.

This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News