Constance Markievicz was a leader in the fight for Ireland’s independence and a political pioneer. She was the first woman elected to Westminster parliament, and among the first female cabinet ministers in Europe.
Born in 1868, Constance Markievicz grew up on a large estate in Sligo in the west of Ireland. She was the daughter of baronet, Arctic explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Gore-Booth. Constance and her sister Eva were childhood friends of the poet WB Yeats. Her childhood was cultured, wealthy and privileged. Her father, however, inspired her concern for working-class and poor people.
With few opportunities in Dublin for women to study, in the 1890s Constance went to train as a painter in London. There, she first became politically active and joined organisations campaigning for women’s’ rights to vote. She later moved to Paris to study at L’Académie Julian.
There, she met her husband, Casimir Markievicz – known in Paris as Count Markievicz – an artist whose wealthy Polish family were from Ukraine. They married in London in 1900, with Constance afterwards being known as ‘Countess Markievicz’.
They moved to Dublin in 1903, becoming part of artistic and literary worlds.
They mixed with authors, poets, playwrights, artists, painters and more – painting, performing in plays, attending salons and founding organisations. At that time in Ireland, there were growing movements for Ireland to be independent and self-ruling. Cultural movements such as the Gaelic League promoted and preserved Irish language and culture, increased and amplified by political and revolutionary activities.
From 1908, Markievicz became actively involved in nationalist politics in Ireland. She joined political party Sinn Féin as well as revolutionary women’s movements. In 1909, she, along with others, founded Fianna Éireann, a paramilitary youth training camp that taught teenage boys how to use guns.
In 1911 she was arrested for demonstrating against King George V’s visit to Ireland. Inspired by its founder James Connolly, she joined the Irish Citizen Army, designing its uniform and composing its anthem.
In April 1916, Markievicz took part in the Easter Rising, a republican rebellion against the British government in Ireland – along with other female fighters such as Mary Sheldreck and Nora Ashe. According to one account, she shot a member of the (unarmed) Dublin Metropolitan Police who subsequently died of his injuries.
After a surrender, she was arrested and imprisoned. While many of the 1916 rebels were executed, Markievicz was spared the death penalty (because she was a woman) and was given a life sentence. In 1917, she was released from prison under an amnesty for the 1916 rebellion.
In February 1918, with (some) women winning the right to vote, she put herself forward as a candidate at the forthcoming general election. On 28 December 1918, she was the first woman elected to the UK House of Commons.
In line with her party’s policy, she did not take her seat there, but, along with the other Sinn Fein TDs (MPs), instead formed a provisional government, Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament). She was appointed Minister for Labour from 1919 to 1922.
The following years brought the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War.
Through the political turmoil that followed in the 1920s, Countess Markievicz continued her political campaigning and rebellious actions. She took part in a siege, was imprisoned and went on hunger strike – all in the name of fighting for Irish independence and the rights of working-class and poor in Ireland.
In 1927, however, weakened after years of protest and imprisonment, Countess Constance Markievicz died aged 59. By this time, she had given away all her wealth and spent her final days in a public ward in a Dublin Hospital.
By Adrian Murphy, Europeana Foundation
This article is part of Women’s History Month on Europeana, as well as a contribution to Munich City Library’s #ErikaMan networking campaign highlighting decency, freedom, tolerance and democracy.
Feature image: Countess Constance Markievicz in uniform, kneeling against a studio prop holding a gun, studio full-length portrait, Keogh Photographic Collection, National Library of Ireland via Flickr Commons, No known copyright restrictions