Constance Georgina Gore-Booth was born at Buckingham Gate, London. Her family were members of the Ascendancy and landed Protestant class in Ireland. Blessed with good looks and wealth, Constance lived a privileged live on their extensive family estate called Lissadell in Sligo. William Butler Yeats was a regular visitor to the estate and as a girl Constance fell in love with the vision of Gaelic Ireland that Yeat’s poetry evoked.
When Constance came of age, instead of becoming a pampered socialite and marrying a wealthy aristocrat she headed of to London and then Paris to study art. Constance preferred not to play up to the establishment. One photo shows her wearing knickerbockers (with her lower legs revealed for the world to see – shame!) while smoking a cigarette.
Still not married at the age of 30 Constance fell in love with a married man and father of two who was six years her junior. Count Casimir Markievicz was also Roman Catholic and estranged from his wife! A perfect match for Constance and the two were wed shortly after Casimir’s wife’s death. They had one daughter born in 1901 at Lissadell and named Maeve Alys.
Constance was passionate about equality and woman’s rights. She was also an Irish nationalist and became involved in the Sinn Féin party and active in Inghínidhe Na hÉireann. In 1909 she founded Na Fianna Éireann, and organisation similar to the boy scouts movement in the UK. It differed in Constance’s training of the boys in shooting, a skill many of them would later use with deadly accuracy.
Constance was dismayed at the division of the have and have-nots in Irish society. With great energy she went about setting up food kitchens for the poor, assisted in the education of the poor and rescued children from the slums in which so many lived. She ensured those children had clean clothes and food on their plates every day. Eventually she impoverished herself in the caring for others.
Constance was involved in a protest against the visit of the new English king, George V and was arrested for the attempted burning of a Union Jack flag.
Constance supported Jim Larkin in the Labour movement against management exploitation of workers. When James Connolly founded the Irish Citizens Army to defend workers against police brutality Constance was among the first of his supporters. Constance later became an officer of the Irish Citizens Army supported by Connolly’s belief in equality for woman.
During the Easter Rising of 1916, Constance was second in command under Michael Mallin in Dublin’s St. Steven’s Green. She proved fearless under fire and fought alongside the men. Eyewitnesses reported she was responsible for the killing of at least one British soldier during the battle.
After their defeat, Constance Markievicz marched at the head of her company. Tried for treason to the Crown, Constance was sentenced to death. However, her sentence was commuted due to her sex. A mercy she did not appreciate for she resented being discriminated against because she was a woman. Except for Eamon deValera, who was spared because he was an American citizen, all the other male leaders of the rising were executed.
Constance was jailed at Aylesbury prison in England until being released under the general amnesty of 1917. She was welcomed home as a hero, with a torchlight parade through Dublin’s streets. Constance was the much loved and respected Rebel Countess of Ireland.
All of this activity made the British government quite unsettled of course. In 1918 they feared another rising, this time with the popular support of the civilian population of Ireland (the common people’s resistance spurred by the brutal executions of the brave leaders and soldiers of the Easter Rising). Action had to be taken fast and under the pretence of the Irish Rebel leaders taking part in a ‘German plot’ the British arrested all the nationalist leaders. This time Constance was imprisoned in Holloway, London.
It was during her stay in Holloway that Constance Markievicz became a Sinn Féin candidate and the first woman ever to be elected to British parliament. She refused to take her seat of course, in accordance with Sinn Féin policy. After her release in 1919 she became a member of the first Dáil Éireann as minister for Labour.
During the civil war that followed Constance went on the run and later served two prison sentences, one in Cork Gaol the other in Mountjoy jail in Dublin. Constance was opposed to the 1921 Treaty that effectively split Ireland in two. She said of the Treaty, ‘While Ireland is not free I remain a rebel, unconverted and inconvertible.’
She was again arrested in 1923 and went on hunger strike. When Eamon de Valera founded the Fianna Fáil party in 1926 she joined and was re-elected to the Dáil the following year. Her health was now failing and on 15th July 1927 the Rebel Countess died. She was buried in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin; finally taking her place beside many of brave rebels of 1916 and others who fell in the fight for Irish freedom.