Today, February 4th, 147 years ago, one of Irish history’s most famous women was born…in London. Constance Gore-Booth was an aristocratic socialite who fell in love with Irish politics and went on to be one of the most beloved and recognized names in Nationalist history. She fought for women’s rights in Ireland and was a devoted Republican fighter who would have been executed for her role in the Easter Rising, had she not been a woman. Her most famous advice to women was to “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.” In honor of her birthday today, here are my top ten favorite facts you may or may not already know about her life.
1. Constance caught the Nationalist fever from her persuasive friend Helena Molony. It was Helena who invited her to one of the first meetings of Inghinidhe na hEirrean, which she waltzed into after attending a British function at Dublin Castle. She was still dressed in a ball gown and jewels from the party and was not warmly received in any way – in fact, almost all of the women were downright rude and dismissive. This was a refreshing change for the Countess and she was eager to return, whether she was welcome or not.
2. She was 40 by the time she got into the Irish fight. Constance was not a young girl who was easily persuaded but a woman who had already lived many lives, traveled extensively, married a Count and had a child. She was older than all but 5 of the leaders of the 1916 rebellion. Eleven of the sixteen men who were executed were younger than her, many by 10 years or more. She was not killed with them, much to her dismay – and that was only because of her gender. When she was spared by the judge, she is widely reported to have said “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me“.
3. The Countess was not the only woman who fought in the Rising – not by a long shot. Though only 79 women were arrested for their roles in the rebellion, it is estimated that there were roughly 200 women in the fight. She may be the one of the most popular women involved, but she was certainly not alone. She was, however, only one of two women who were dressed in their own makeshift military uniforms. She was immensely proud of hers, and took to showing it off to her friends in the days leading up to the fight.
4. The Fianna Handbook, a training manual that she wrote with Patrick Pearse, was not only used by Fianna Éireann, the Irish scouting program that she founded. It was also used by the Irish Citizen Army and was considered to be the best guide to training and warfare that was available at that time.
5. Constance once had the job title of ghost. She was appointed to this position by the Military Council and it was essentially an eerie title for the role of deputy. It meant that her job was to follow James Connolly around and know his every plan, so that she could be ready to take over should he be arrested or otherwise detained. In this role, she also couldn’t be arrested, and there were times when she had to back out of speaking engagements or public appearances because of it. Once, instead of just canceling her appearance, she sent another woman who tricked both the detectives and an honor guard escort of volunteers. Her speech was read and her words were heard, even though she was miles away.
6. One of her other jobs was to decide which strategic targets would be taken over during the Easter Rising and to draw up all the maps and the plans for the fight. It was an extraordinary job for a woman, particularly when one of the men it could have gone to was the brilliant strategist, Michael Collins.
7. The Countess was the first woman in history to be elected to the British House of Commons. She accomplished this feat from her jail cell in Holloway where she was imprisoned for fighting against that very institution. She didn’t ever take her seat, preferring instead to accept the position of the Minister of Labour in Eamon De Valera’s rebel Irish government. She was one of the only women who ever served in his cabinet.
8. She had a long lasting friendship with W.B. Yeats. He called her a gazelle in one poem and a rock-bred, sea-born bird in another. Even thirty years after her death, Yeats was remembering and immortalizing her in his work. Constance also knew Oscar Wilde and many other famous authors of that age. She went to the Slade School of Fine Arts as a younger woman, and was instrumental in the formation of the United Artists Club. She spent her life surrounding herself with not only warriors, but also literary giants, artists, and free thinkers of all kinds.
9. Constance was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and she didn’t really know what it was like to be poor – but she devoted herself to those less fortunate than her. She sold that silver spoon along with her jewels and the other remembrances of her wealth in order to help the destitute people around her. By the time she reached the end of her life, she was wearing threadbare gowns, torn breeches and shoes with holes in them, not because she had lost everything, but because she had given much of it away to help others. She was not the kind of woman who gave a little money to some nameless charity. Instead, she dove right in and lived in the neighborhoods that she was trying to improve. When she fell ill at the end of her life, hundreds of Dublin’s poorest citizens prayed for her to recover and when she died, they lined the streets in the thousands, standing shoulder to shoulder with the powerful and the wealthy to say goodbye to their beloved Countess.
10. The Countess de Markievicz did not like little girls, even though she had a daughter. Ironically, she did have many friendships with many strong women, even when they should have been in direct competition. Maud Gonne was one of those women. They should have been mortal enemies but somehow they remained public allies and friends. They were both involved in the same organizations and political and social circles. They each wrote for the same publications. They were both speakers in high demand, though it has been said that Maud was the better orator. Both were immortalized in poetry by W.B. Yeats – and while he liked Constance, he loved Maud. Both hogged the stage and each loved the spotlight immensely. Both women had children who they frequently (or totally) abandoned in their pursuit of Irish Freedom. They were in the same prisons, sometimes at the same time and for the same crime. Finally, each of them claimed to be “Ireland’s Joan of Arc”. Over the years, they have been remembered in the history books almost equally because they each developed their own legends while they were still alive. Whether they really did half of what has been attributed to them or not is up for debate but one thing is certainly (and unfortunately) true. Without them, there would be very little female representation in Ireland’s Rebel history, so for that and for the many wonderful things that they did accomplish, they remain inspirations, even over 100 years later.
In 2011, a group of students in Dublin founded the Countess Markievicz School. It is a forum that discusses many of the same things that Constance and the women of her time were fighting for like gender roles, women in politics, and equal rights and protections. While it’s disheartening that we are still having the same issues and discussions in the world today, something tells me that Madame de Markievicz would approve of her name being used as a mantle for it.
Briethla Sona Madame