This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)
Constance Markievicz (1868 – 1927) seems an unusual figure for a revolutionary. Markievicz was born into a privileged, landholding family that owned estates in both Ireland and England. When she first met what would become the influential republican group, the Daughters of Ireland, she came to the meeting in a ball gown and tiara. Existing members were unimpressed, writing that she was a privileged part-timer who could not understand the struggle of the common woman. Yet Markievicz proved herself to be an ardent radical with a clarity of vision and conviction unsurpassed in the Republican movement of the early 20th century. Her talent for self-promotion and propaganda meant she was a highly visible leader of republican thought, and her writing and work shaped Republican politics long after her death. She is still remembered in Ireland as a folk hero and as an instrumental figure in the creation of the nascent Irish Republic.
Markievicz’s role in the fight for Irish independence began during a period of increased interest in Irish culture and history among Dublin’s creative elite. Her first encounter with radical politics occurred in 1908 when she attended meetings of both the Daughters of Ireland and Sinn Féin. The Daughters of Ireland played an important part in the development of Irish cultural nationalism. Along with a literary revival, they put on plays that celebrated Irish history, particularly historical Irish women. Such productions being put on by and heavily focussed on women in Irish folklore demonstrates the role that women played in the struggle for a free Ireland, both culturally and politically.
Markievicz was a dedicated suffragist. She fought for total equality between men and women in a new Irish state, and argued that the causes of Irish nationalism and universal suffrage should be brought together, often clashing with those that sought to minimise one or the other. The uncompromising nature of Markievicz’s political aims led to fractures within the movement, with the rise of the more moderate Irish Women’s Franchise League which sought to gain the political franchise within the UK. Markiewicz argued that this was a betrayal of the Republican cause. Her hardline stance caused a split in the Daughters of Ireland, highlighting her disruptive impact on the movement for Irish cultural nationalism.
While Markievicz clashed with much of the nationalist movement on the relationship between Republicanism and Suffrage, she also fought against the Republican movement’s gender inequalities that existed, in part, due to its close relationship with the Catholic church. After the split in the Daughters of Ireland in 1909, she founded the influential Fianna Eireann, a youth organisation that aimed to educate and organise the younger male generation so as to create the basis for an Irish military. But Markievicz’s involvement was opposed by many of the more conservative elements of the Republican movement, mostly rooted in the Catholic church. Despite this opposition, Markievicz’s teachings dramatically shaped the young nationalist movement. Her progressive ideals would later go on to form a core part of the IRA’s philosophy and many of its early members passed through the Fianna Eireann.
Markiewicz’s role was not just of a teacher and ideologue. She was actively involved in the 1916 Easter Rising as part of the Irish Citizens Army, in active combat as well as in an organisational role. She was one of very few women to hold a senior position in the paramilitary group. When the rising was defeated, she was arrested and only spared execution because of her gender. One of the few figureheads of the movement to survive, she came to be seen as embodying the nationalist struggle.
But perhaps more important than her involvement in nationalist organisations was Markievicz’s role as a source of inspiration for Irish women. Her position as a figurehead for women in politics, although harder to assess, is perhaps the most enduring aspect of her legacy throughout the 20th century. She was the first female MP to be elected to the House of Parliament in 1918, and one of the first women to be a cabinet minister in 1919. Markievicz’s enduring influence on Irish Republicanism is clear when one looks at the diversity of political parties that lay claim to her legacy. Sinn Fein, Irish Labour and Fianna Fail all led a joint demonstration on the anniversary of her death. The co-opting of her image is particularly noticeable by the more conservative party Fianna Fail, where her radical politics and connection to the militancy of Sinn Fein and the IRA are ignored and undermined, as seen in the erection of commemorative statues that downplay her militant role.
Markievicz was a hugely influential figure in the fight for independence, not just due to her actions and accomplishments but because of her role as a trailblazing female politician and revolutionary. A true revolutionary in every sense of the word, her role in Irish independence was just as material as it was symbolic. Her successes with the Daughters of Ireland and Fianna Eireann are just as important as her ability to inspire Irish men and women through her unyielding commitment to her beliefs, and her prominent role in the struggle for an independent Ireland.