Constance Gore Booth, later known as Countess Markievicz or simply Madame, was certainly cut from different cloth. Born a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy in 1868, the Countess would die penniless in a charity house after giving her wealth away to the poor and the Irish independence struggle. Her journey from one end of the social spectrum to the other is set against one of the most turbulent periods in Ireland’s history, when women were not expected to be seen or heard.
Constance’s upper-class heritage entitled her to a life of ease and privilege. Once, she was even presented before the English court as a debutante. She trained as an artist and even married a member of the Polish nobility. But, throughout her life, the Countess Markievicz would defy the expectations of her class and her sex to become an icon of freedom and resistance. Here are ten times her defiance would land her on history’s pages:
1. She started the Fianna Éireann
Her first exposure to grime and poverty came during the famine of 1879. Her sympathy towards the poor and working-class were heavily influenced by her father, who provided food for his starving tenants, but she wouldn’t become radicalised to act until reading some leftover tracts on a holiday in 1907. After becoming a pivotal figure in the women’s suffrage movement, she formed Fianna Éireann in 1909. This was considered an Irish nationalist equivalent of the Boys Scouts, and its members were taught to use firearms. The organisation was critical to the struggle for Irish independence. Countess Markievicz was almost expelled from the organisation she helped found by men who thought women should not take a physically active role in the struggle.
2. She caused Winston Churchill to lose an election
History often remembers Churchill as the Prime Minister that launched Britain into World War II. Few remember a time earlier in his career where, for a brief time, he found himself without a parliamentary seat because of Countess Markievicz. In 1908, Churchill was appointed President of the Board of Trade and found himself in the middle of a controversy not of his making.
In the months prior, legislators sought to pass laws that would see thousands of women put out of work as barmaids. As part of his appointment to this new Cabinet post, Churchill had to resign from his seat of Manchester North West and face a by-election. The result was considered a foregone conclusion as Churchill had won the seat comfortably in the last election. Countess Markievicz organised the barmaids to fight the new laws, urging constituents to vote for one of Churchill’s opponents. He lost the seat by 529 votes.
3. She was an important member of the Irish Citizen Army
The Countess’ involvement with the Labour movement led her to join the Irish Citizen Army, a trade union organisation that would later play a crucial part in the Easter Rising of 1916. During the Worker Lockout of 1913, she designed the organisation’s uniforms, as well as composed its theme song. As the strike deepened, she started a soup kitchen out of the Citizen Army headquarters, paying for the food with her own money and, often, delivering it to surrounding working-class districts. For all of this, Countess Markievicz often faced hostility from those she tried to help at this time because they did not trust her.
4. “We serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland”
Countess Markiewicz and John Connolly, the Citizens Army leader, further coalesced anti-British Empire sentiment by organising a “neutrality resistance”. Both were dismayed that Irishmen were signing up to fight in World War I and actively attempted to dissuade their countrymen from doing so. They gained world attention when they unfurled a banner featuring the slogan, “ We serve neither King nor Kaiser but Ireland”. The banner was hung from the Army’s headquarters at Liberty Hall, serving notice that the Irish were unwilling to die in support of British dominion elsewhere in the world.
5. She was sentenced to death for her role in the Easter Rising of 1916
The countess marched in the lead column as the fighting began in the Easter Rising of 1916. Her and the Irish Citizens Army’s bravery could not carry the revolution against the better trained and more equipped British, and she found herself in prison only after a week. For her role in the rebellion, she was sentenced to death, but had her sentence commuted to life because she was female. She is reported to have said the following about the turn of events: “I wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.”
6. She was the first woman elected to the Westminster Parliament
Countess Markievicz was released from prison in 1917, but found herself back there again in 1918. Unlike most prisoners, she decided to run for a seat in Parliament…and won. This made her the first woman ever to do so in Britain. As a member of the Sinn Féin, she did not take up the seat as she was forbidden to swear allegiance to the King.
7. She became one of the first women in the world to hold a Cabinet post
The countess became a Minister of Labour in the first Dáil Éireann in 1919. In doing so, she was only one of two female Cabinet ministers in Europe and the first in Ireland. There would be no other women in Cabinet until the 1970s.
8. She was a founding member of Fianna Fáil
After a disagreement over policy, Countess Markievicz left Sinn Féin and joined the Fianna Fáil, whose inaugural meeting she chaired in 1926.
9. She was a female force in an overwhelming male freedom movement
Even though several women of all classes took part in various social movements at the beginning of the 20th century, most were to be found in the suffrage or the labour movements. Countess Markievicz’s own sister, Eva, was a prominent labour leader and women’s suffragette. The countess was exceptional in that she was one of the first women to inhabit the space of the Irish freedom fighter so prominently, becoming a role model to many.
10. She was immortalised by W.B. Yeats
W.B. Yeats, who had known the countess since her youth wrote the poem, “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz”. Yeats referred to the countess as “beautiful” and a “gazelle”.
Constance’s role as a trailblazer cost her much throughout her life. She was estranged from her husband, Count Markievicz, who returned to his home when she devoted increasing amounts of her time to the Irish freedom movement. She never got to know her daughter, Maeve. Repeated imprisonment and the stress of her politics took their toll on her health, and she died at only 59. Her funeral was attended by over three hundred thousand. Prominent Irish statesman, Eamon de Velera, spoke at her funeral and described her as a “friend of the toiler, the lover of the poor”.