The Countess; Petticoats, Patriots, and Partition

I write a lot about Constance Markievicz, just like anyone else who writes Irish history should. However, she was not the only woman involved in the planning or the execution of the Easter Rising in 1916…and many others never get the credit they are due. That’s not to say that she doesn’t deserve a bit of her own though. After all, one of her more famous quotes is highlighted proudly on my business cards, and she does have her own few pages in my book. Today in honor of her birthday, I give you some of her story from Petticoats, Patriots, and Partition – the book that has stolen most of my time for the last six months or so. Happy birthday Countess.

Constance Gore-Booth was an aristocratic socialite born in London, who grew to be one of Irish history’s most recognized and beloved women. She was born into an influential and wealthy family. Her father was an explorer and the landlord of an estate in County Sligo, Ireland. Unlike many of his peers, when the famine hit Ireland Sir Henry provided free food to the local Irish people, ensuring that his daughters would always be concerned with the welfare of others who were not as fortunate as they were. Constance remembered that lesson throughout her entire life.

She wanted to be an artist and painter growing up. At that time there was only one art school in Ireland that accepted female students and Constance was not impressed by it. She opted to go back to London to attend the Slade School of the Arts and from there she moved on to another prestigious school in France. In Paris, she met the man who would become her husband. Casimir Markievicz was also an artist and a Polish Count. Casimir was already married when they met, but after his wife died a few years later he and Constance were married. Constance became a countess and a mother to his son. She had a daughter about a year later, and the family settled in Dublin.

The Markievicz family was surrounded by artists, freethinkers, and political intellectuals. The Countess was a suffragist, but she was more concerned with art than anything else. She founded the United Artists Club, and many of the members who joined were also part of the Gaelic League. This brought Nationalist politics and the preservation of the Irish language and culture into Constance’s life, but she didn’t really catch the revolutionary fever until her friend Helena Molony mentioned a women’s political group called Inghinidhe na hEirrean. Helena invited her to one of their first meetings, and Constance boldly waltzed into it after attending a British function at Dublin Castle. Markievicz was still dressed in her ball gown and draped in jewels. She was not warmly received by the political women and most were downright rude to her and extremely dismissive. This was a refreshing change for the Countess and she was eager to return, whether she was welcome or not.

She was much older than many of the women. Constance was not a young girl who was easily persuaded, but a woman of forty who had already traveled extensively, married a Count, and had a child. She was already in a position of power and she used it to spread Nationalist ideals to many of her artistic and wealthy friends. Constance was a gifted speaker and a powerful mentor to many people. She founded the Dublin chapter of Na Fianna Éireann, an Irish Nationalist scouting program for young boys. Together with revolutionary leader Patrick Pearse, she penned the Fianna’s handbook, and it was not just used by the boys. It was also used by the militiamen and women of James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and it was considered to be the best guide to training and warfare that was available at that time.

The Countess worked with many of the leaders who were planning a revolt against the English government in 1916. She was one of the few women who knew the details of the Easter Rising and she helped plan it. She made choices about which strategic targets to hit when the conflict began, and had them mapped out. She was also appointed to the position of James Connolly’s ghost, which was an eerie title for deputy. This meant that her job was to shadow Connolly and to be ready to take over if he was arrested or otherwise detained. In this role, Markievicz had to avoid arrest as well, and there were times when she had to back out of speaking engagements or public appearances because of it. Once she was threatened by authorities that guaranteed her arrest if she spoke. Instead of canceling her engagement, Constance sent another woman in her place that managed to fool both the detectives and an honor guard of volunteers. Her speech was read, much to the dismay of the authorities, and the Countess remained safe, miles away from the event.

Markievicz was not the only woman who fought in the Easter Rising, but she was one of the only women who wore a handmade military uniform. She was immensely proud of hers, and took to showing it off to her friends in the days leading up to the fight. She almost always carried a weapon on her person, and her most famous advice to other women was to “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels and your golden rods in the bank and buy a revolver.” She was second in command to Michael Mallin and was a fierce fighter in her own right. When the uprising ended and the other leaders were sentenced to death, Constance was spared because she was a woman. Eleven of the sixteen men who were sentenced to die were younger than she was, many by ten years or more. When she heard the court’s decision, she is widely reported to have said, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” They settled for putting the Countess in prison. She was forced to endure the sounds of her friends’ executions from her cell.

The Countess remained active in politics for the rest of her life. She was devoted to Irish Republicanism and was imprisoned for her work in furthering the cause on many occasions. She was the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons while she was a prisoner in Holloway. Constance never took her seat, preferring instead to accept the position of the Minister of Labour in Eamon De Valera’s Irish government. She was one of the only women who ever served in his cabinet.

No matter how powerful she became, Markievicz never forgot her father’s lesson to remember those less fortunate than she was and she devoted herself to that cause. By the time she reached the end of her life she was wearing threadbare gowns, torn breeches, and shoes with holes in them. This was 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 moved into 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. When she died, they lined the streets in the thousands, standing shoulder to shoulder with the powerful and elite to say goodbye to their beloved Countess.

Constance’s funeral was one of the largest any woman had ever received. She was laid out in Dublin and over 100,000 people came to say their goodbyes. She was guarded by a troop of her beloved Fianna, and was finally laid to rest in the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery. Thousands of people mourned her loss. Eamon De Valera, her boss and the President of Ireland, (who was not known for respect or equality when it came to women) gave her funeral oration.

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