Constance Markievicz became the first female MP 100 years ago. David Swanson takes a look at the background and politics of this remarkable person.
Constance Markievicz’s legacy will be forever etched as a beacon of example for those interested in radical history. An uncompromising revolutionist for much of her life, she rose to defy the wretched conditions that had been imprinted on Ireland over a long period of colonial dominance. For a woman born into the wealth and privilege of an exploitative landlord class in Ireland, she visibly demonstrated that anyone can reject the comforts of a bourgeois lifestyle in the pursuit of a better society. Striving for the prosperity of the many, she became affiliated with the cause of socialism and the workers’ republic for most of her life.
A spirit awakened
Having made the decision to study art in London, where she subsequently met and married a wealthy Polish Count, Markievicz may never have developed a revolutionary consciousness had she not travelled back to Ireland. She became aware of the national revolutionary movement and the brewing conditions for insurrection in 1906 by reading newspapers and literature left behind by the previous tenant of her rented Dublin cottage. This persuaded her to attend rallies and meetings hosted by iconic figures of the resurgent republican campaign, awakening a spirit which eventually led to her joining both the Irish Volunteers (IV) and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). She had become a shadow of her former self, becoming a particularly active member of the campaign to condemn King George V’s visit to the country in 1911. She became a firmly fixed target of the British colonial presence in Ireland, receiving jail time for her part in rousing over 300,000 people to visibly oppose the monarch’s visit in a commanding display of people power. This however did not deter her; upon her release she formed a new revolutionary woman’s organisation named Cumann na mBan with fellow radical feminist Maud Gonne after the disbandment of Inghinidhe na hÉireann.
The Rebel Countess
Her passion for revolution eventually determined that her marriage with Count Markievicz would end, but she kept his name to fully banish the affiliation with her past and began to affectionately be known as the ‘Rebel Countess.’
Constance is widely known for her role in the Easter Rising of 1916, but her contribution to the rebellion was greatly shaped by the events and social circumstances which led to the Great Dublin Lockout of 1913. In a rousing campaign led by the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), working class self-organisation became a weapon against employers in the battle for better living and working conditions. Employers staged a notorious anti-union campaign and physically locked ITGWU members out of work rather than accept their reasonable demands, exerting their influences in Dublin’s print media to destabilise strikes and pickets. The state police and the clergy responded by respectively battering workers off the street and condemning the campaign from the pulpit. These scenes strongly influenced Constance, and she played a prominent role in aiding the locked-out workers. With iconic activists James Larkin and James Connolly by her side she offered regular support through organising a food kitchen and accommodation program in her own home. This provided the ITGWU’s campaign with a welcome boost of morale; Markievicz’s exploits ensured that many working-class families were actually better off during the lockout than when working for capitalist employers.
Class struggle and the national question
Constance’s politics continued to develop due to the influences of the ITGWU, pushing her further from the constraints of the petty-bourgeois nationalism advocated by Pearse and the IV. Frustrated by their primarily national focus at a time when most traditional republican leaders had overlooked the events of 1913, she began to advocate that class struggle was intertwined with the national question. Ireland could not be free until a mass revolutionary party inspired by the working class was formed that aimed at the establishment of a workers’ government. Destroying the colonial power’s dominant presence had to be connected to abolishing the current economic system or much of the corruption would remain; the Irish could only liberate themselves by realising that capitalism was the most foreign presence in their homeland. The Irish propertied classes had been as corrupt as the English in the Great Dublin Lockout and had used their privileged position and their trusty advocates of the state to mercilessly crush the struggle. Colonial rule had created a master class in Ireland which enabled fierce competition for housing and employment to bend both Protestant and Catholic to its will, igniting sectarian tensions to divide workers against each other to keep their corrupt rule alive.
A woman in combat
Collaborating further with Connolly, she played an intrinsic role in the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) as workers maintained their radical spirit following 1913’s events. The first armed working class revolutionary group in Western Europe, this proletariat militia believed in social as well as national liberation, and accepted women in their ranks whilst the IV maintained the sexist and Catholic traditions of the early 20th century regarding a woman’s place in combat. She tirelessly drilled and trained recruits whilst educating them about international socialist history, eventually being assigned as second-in-command to Michael Mallin in his detachment of the organisation. In 1916, an initially small band of workers which had become organised to defend strikes during the lockout had gained enough confidence to take on one of the most powerful imperial armies in the world during the Easter Rising. Markievicz’s strong-minded spirit and exceptional leadership was a significant factor in their development.
The ICA temporarily set aside their differences with the IV to form a strong and courageous alliance against the British Army, who were well drilled for war because of their forays in Europe during the imperialist WW1. Markievicz was insistent that the Easter Rising would become the first step towards a socialist revolution in the country. Alongside Connolly, she famously warned that if they were successful, the ICA should hold on to their weapons as those who were their comrades today in the battle to remove colonialism from Dublin Castle would become their enemies in the future class divide to make socialism a reality in Ireland. Markievicz’s prediction would come to pass, but in rather different circumstances than the ICA had anticipated.
A woman reprieved
The Easter Rising was ultimately lost with the might and firepower of the well-oiled imperial machine proving too much for the IV and ICA alliance. Despite the defeat, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic remained popular and the British government felt compelled to act. Inflicting the harshest punishment of sweeping executions on all those who played a leading role in rousing the masses towards insurrection, they attempted to crush the spirit of those who remained politically active. Markievicz was listed for execution; she had been a thorn in the side of the colonial establishment and Irish aristocracy since 1911 and had a long list of charges for her defiance of the state. Whilst 15 prominent revolutionaries were executed and nearly 2,000 were sent to English jails to prevent further campaigns, she survived as state officials felt she should be granted a reprieve of the death penalty because she was a woman. True as always to her revolutionary principles, she is famously quoted as saying in the tribunal: ‘I wish you had the courtesy and civility to shoot me.’
After a period of imprisonment in an English jail, she returned to Ireland as determined a revolutionary as ever. Having watched her comrades be savagely butchered by the colonial occupation, she was delighted to see the radical campaign very much alive as Irish communities rallied together in solidarity against the state’s treatment of the Easter Rising’s leadership. This signalled an extraordinary time for radical politics and in particular for the emancipation of women. Constance Markievicz rode a revolutionary wave to be elected to Westminster in the 1918 General Election, becoming the first woman ever to do so. This was a watershed moment for the feminist movement at a time when a woman’s role in society was dictated by sexist prejudices and religious ramblings. Markievicz’s choice to not only run on an openly feminist and socialist program, but also win, showed how radical Irish communities had become. Standing by her revolutionary credentials, upon victory she refused to take her seat in a colonial government of the bourgeoisie but would eventually be appointed to a cabinet position in 1919 as Minister for Labour in the First Dáil. Constance had become only the second woman in international history to hold a cabinet position in government, and it would not be until 1979 before any woman would hold a similar position in Ireland.
The right side of history
The ICA’s famous prediction that the fight would not end with the switch of a colonial flag with that of an Irish tricolour would prove ominously correct with the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921. Constance Markievicz remained on the right side of history by resigning from her post in government; backed by her fierce anti-imperialist and socialist principles, she rejected the corrupt nature of Ireland’s partition. She fought for the anti-Treatyite faction of the Irish Civil War against an Irish aristocracy aiming to implement policy in a new ‘Free State.’ Heavily supported by British imperialism, the Irish propertied class had struck a deal to maintain its stranglehold on power whilst allowing the ex-colonial oppressors to continue their presence in the North.
This corrupt alliance ultimately proved too much for the Anti-Treatyites and signalled in a frightening era of despotism. Far from the ideal of the workers’ republic promised by the ICA, the first Free State government cut pensions, salaries and welfare measures whilst a Unionist hegemony clamped down on anyone who didn’t fit the mould in a new sectarian, apartheid neo-state in the North. Any attempt to implement working class solidarity in this new structure was viciously crushed by anti-union legislation and emergency special powers acts. Markievicz fought this bureaucracy until she died in 1927 at the age of 59. A shining example of revolutionary principles, her legacy remains as relevant today as it was for those who were fortunate enough to learn from her during her life.
The emancipation of the Irish working class remains unfinished business. Markievicz’s vision of a worker’s republic is as necessary now as it was when the ICA drilled and campaigned for it. Mass mobilisations and direct action from below can not only protect us, they can point to a different society based on the need of the many. Ireland has achieved so much in recent years to shake off the reactionary forces which have held the balance of power since Ireland’s partition. It’s now time to drive home our advantages and rally behind Markievicz’s vision: organising people-power movements and fighting for the society we want to see.
Great article David. There is a typo however, the British executed 16 men after the Rising not 15.
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