“The history of her family – typical of a hundred and one Anglo-Irish families – pointed the way to only three kinds of life: either she became an ornament , at best graceful, of the little social round that divided itself between the drawing-rooms of Sligo, and the drawing-rooms of Dublin and London; or she became a philanthropist, in Ireland or out of it and with more hope of requital out of it than in it; or she might snatch, from whatever Victorian society still retained of the traditions of the Anglo-Irish bucks, as gay and unconventional a life as she dared and her allowance could afford.”
Constance Markievicz lived all three kinds of life, but was a woman different from most of her group. She operated outside expected roles, breaking with many traditions, and is commemorated for doing that. “She is the only woman of the Big Houses to whose memory a public monument has been erected by the pennies of the simple folk of Ireland.”
Constance was born a Gore-Booth, a descendant of the Gore family that had been granted land in the seventeenth-century for ancestor Paul Gore’s service in a cavalry troop led by the Earl of Essex. Land acquisitions and marriages ensued over the years, but, by February 4, 1868 when Constance was born, the family was well settled in Lissadell House, one of the ‘Big Houses’ in County Sligo.
Typical of the leading landowners in Ireland the Gore-Booths entertained many visitors, and enjoyed riding, hunting, and driving. Constance and her sister, Eva enjoyed an upbringing that reflected their class and social standing. Home-schooled, they were taught to appreciate music, poetry, and art. Constance was presented to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace in 1887, making her formal debut into society.
Despite her family’s objections, Constance attended the Slade School of Art in London and also gained a great interest in the suffrage movement. In 1898, to further her studies, she took art classes in Paris and met Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz, a Pole whose family held land in Ukraine. They married in 1900, and had a daughter, Maeve, the next year.
The Count and Countess lived in Dublin where they socialized, collaborated artistically, and performed with artists like William Butler Yeats, Æ (George Russell), Maud Gonne, and many others who represented varying political and social views. It was also in Dublin that Markievicz witnessed the desperately poor, unskilled, and unemployed people who were living in Dublin’s crowded tenements.
By 1908, Markievicz was heavily involved with Irish social and political issues, and she helped organize soup kitchens for striking workers and their families after the 1913 Dublin Lockout. Markievicz grew into a celebrated feminist, cultural patron, nationalist, and socialist, advocating for workers’ rights, and like many other radicals at the time, believed in an independent Ireland.
In 1915, Markievicz co-founded the Fianna Eireann (The Fianna of Ireland, named for Finn, the heroic leader of his band of soldiers in one of Ireland’s mythological tale cycles), a nationalist youth organization akin to the Boy Scouts, and become editor for Bean na hEireann (The Irish Woman), the monthly publication of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). Bean na hEireann regularly published pieces supporting a variety of causes, including suffragism, labor, the Irish cultural revival, and nationalism.
During the Rising, Constance was second-in-command of the troops garrisoned at St. Stephen’s Green and was jailed for her part in the rebellion. After the Rising, she was elected to the British House of Commons in 1918 as a member of Sinn Féin (We Ourselves), becoming the first female member of Parliament. Yet, like other Sinn Féin partisans, she refused to take her seat. As Minister for Labour in the Irish Dáil (Assembly) in 1919, she became both the first Irish female cabinet minister and second female government minister in Europe. During the Civil War she was arrested for support of the Anti-Treaty forces. She was a leading figure, along with Éamon de Valera, in forming the Fianna Fáil (Soldiers of Destiny) political party in 1926. She was elected to the Fifth Dáil the following year, but died before she could take her seat
Her life was one of political, social, and labor activism and as an integral player in the many causes she supported, she broke with traditions and stereotypes, particularly those of the Victorian era. Constance Markievicz, not surprisingly, is one of the more famous revolutionary women of this period.
- Kathleen Williams, Senior Reference Librarian, Bibliographer for Irish Studies, John J. Burns Library
- Michael Bailey, Student Assistant to Kathleen Williams and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History
O’Faolain, Sean. Constance Markievicz. London: Sphere, 1968.
Senia Paseta. “Markievicz, Constance Georgine Countess Markievicz Gore-Booth”. Dictionary of Irish Biography. (ed.) James McGuire, James Quinn. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2009. (http://dib.cambridge.org.proxy.bc.edu/quicksearch.do#).