I went out to fight for Ireland’s freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it.
There’s a glint in the eye of the portrait of Constance Markievicz currently hanging in Westminster. It seems apt given that the piece, originally painted in 1901 to celebrate her wedding, has now been reproduced to mark her unique contribution to British politics: a hundred years ago, following the Representation of the People Act and the Parliament (Representation of Women) Act, Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons.
She had conducted her campaign from a cell at Holloway Jail, where she was serving a sentence for her vehement opposition to conscription of Irishmen into the British army. Having won the seat, however, as one of 73 Sinn Féin MPs, she refused to take it.
Irish nationalists like Markievicz felt that Westminster’s jurisdiction in Ireland was oppressive and unjust, and were not content with the limited self-government that their election would bring. They therefore opted to rebel, declaring Ireland an independent republic and setting up their own parliament (Dáil Éireann), in which Markievicz served as Minister for Labour. Her position in the Dáil made her the first female cabinet minister in Ireland and only the second in all of Europe.
Markievicz had been born into an Anglo-Irish landowning family in 1868. Her father, Sir Henry Gore-Booth, was High Sheriff of Sligo and a Deputy Lieutenant, enforcing British rule at a local level. His work as an explorer took him frequently to the Arctic, but back in Ireland he concerned himself with the welfare of his tenants at Lissadell House, providing food for them throughout the famine of 1879-80.
During one of Sir Henry’s long voyages, Constance’s mother established a school of needlework for women living on their estate, allowing them to sell their work for a wage of 18 shillings per week and earn an independent income. This was praised by the Pall Mall Gazette as an endeavour which would contribute to the ‘regeneration of Ireland’.
The young Constance was a keen and skilled painter. Although her mother tried to encourage her talents, she felt increasingly stifled by life on the family estate, and in 1892 convinced her parents to send her to study at the Slade School of Art in London. Here, after initially enjoying a life of luxury, she joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and in 1896 she and her sister went on to found the North Sligo Women’s Suffrage Association near the family home.
She married Polish playwright and director Casimir Markievicz in 1900, and the following year gave birth to a daughter, Maeve. However, it was Constance’s mother who took responsibility for looking after the child, and when in 1903 the Markieviczes settled in Dublin, their daughter did not come with them.
Instead, Constance established herself as a painter and mixed with the great and the good of Dublin’s cultural scene. It was through these like-minded people that she was first drawn into revolutionary politics. She attended gatherings hosted by the artist Sarah Purser, where she met prominent republicans such as Michael Davitt and John O’Leary. Later she acted at the newly-founded Abbey Theatre with Maud Gonne, who had founded the women’s nationalist organisation Daughters of Ireland.
Constance joined eagerly and began to embrace organised nationalist activity in all its forms. In 1908 she joined Sinn Féin and the following year she teamed up with Bulmer Hobson to found Fianna Éireann, a nationalist youth organisation inspired by Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts. In 1913 she joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), a socialist volunteer force set up to defend protesting workers from police violence. Having designed the ICA’s uniform and composed its anthem, Constance took part with her fellow volunteers in the 1916 Easter Rising, an armed insurrection against British rule and a key turning point in the fight for independence. She risked life and limb amongst the forces in St Stephen’s Green, and was said to have killed a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police in the conflict.
After six days, the rebels surrendered, and Markievicz and her surviving compatriots were dragged through the streets of Dublin to Kilmainham Jail. In an ironic twist, the English officer who accepted their surrender, and who kept Constance’s gun as a trophy until his death, was the husband of her first cousin.
By this point, Constance had already proved her willingness to reject the Anglo-Irish ruling class into which she had been born. At her first meeting of the Daughters of Ireland, she had been greeted with some hostility after arriving from an event at Dublin Castle in a ballgown and tiara. To the surprise of the other members, however, she was pleased not to receive the ceremony usually afforded her, and their suspicion only confirmed her in her desire to join.
Markievicz was the only woman to be court-martialled for her part in the Easter Rising. After initially handing her a death sentence, the jury reconsidered on grounds of her sex: her sentence was commuted to life in prison. A general amnesty in 1917 saw her released, but a year later she was jailed again for her anti-conscription activities, which amounted to disloyalty during the First World War. It was during this, her third stint in prison, that she won the seat of Dublin St Patricks. On her release, she visited the House of Commons to see her name on a coat peg in the members’ cloakroom. She would never return; indeed, she once complained, “Oh to have to sit there and listen to all that blither!”
Constance was bitterly disappointed by the Anglo-Irish treaty which ended the War of Independence in 1922. She left government in protest, before fighting on the Republican side in the ensuing civil war. Even after the war ended in failure for the Republican cause, she went on pursuing the ideal of an independent Ireland through constitutional means, and in 1926 chaired the inaugural meeting of the new Fianna Fáil Party.
When Markiewicz died in 1927, she had been in jail five times for her revolutionary activities, never accepting defeat or abandoning her beliefs. She had defied societal expectations and rejected the pleasures of the life into which she had been born, as Éamon de Valera noted at her funeral:
“Ease and station she put aside, and took the hard way of service with the weak and the downtrodden. Sacrifice, misunderstanding, and scorn lay on the road she adopted, but she trod it unflinchingly.”