Constance Markievicz was the first woman MP at Westminster - Jacqueline Mulhallen marks the centenary of her election
2018 has seen a number of celebrations of suffragettes, commemorating the centenary of the first election in which women able to take part in Britain. But the first woman elected to parliament was not a suffragette, and she was elected with a huge majority not from an English constituency, but from the overwhelmingly working class district of St Patrick’s, Dublin. At the time she was in an English prison. Her name was Constance Markievicz and her (private) comment on her election was that ‘it was a foregone conclusion. I must have known most of those who voted for me’.
This is probably true since Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the Irish Transport and General Workers' Union, stood on the borders of St Patrick's. In 1913 when ITGWU members were locked out by Dublin businessman W.T. Murphy, Constance was very active in running a soup kitchen to keep families fed. She and her husband, Casimir Markievicz, also helped Jim Larkin, the leader of the ITGWU, keep his promise to speak at a demonstration in O'Connell Street while liable to arrest by the police. Constance and Casimir, both artists who also ran a theatre company, disguised Larkin and smuggled him into a hotel where he had just time to step out on the balcony and show himself to the crowd before he was arrested. Unfortunately, this sparked a violent attack on the crowd by the police, resulting in 1913's Bloody Sunday.
Constance was an active member of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), a women's organisation that demanded Independence for Ireland – they weren’t allowed to join the national movement, the Irish Volunteers, but worked alongside them. When Constance heard that the British Viceroy was encouraging Boy Scout troops in Ireland, she decided to counter it by founding an Irish organisation for boys, the Fianna. Constance and another Inghinidhe member, Helena Molony, took the boys camping in the Wicklow Mountains and taught them shooting and other practical skills. Although the Fianna was later taken over by the Volunteers, Constance remained involved with it all her life. Many of those who joined the Fianna as boys fought in Easter Week and against the British in the War of Independence.
As a result of Bloody Sunday, James Connolly set up the Citizen’s Army to protect workers. Constance joined. In 1916, the Citizen’s Army joined with the Irish Volunteers for the Easter Rising. Unfortunately, an important member of the Volunteers was not informed and the orders were countermanded. The expected arms did not arrive either. The ship carrying them was scuttled rather than allow them to fall into British hands. So numbers were small and weapons insufficient. Nevertheless, Dublin held out for a week before surrendering to the overwhelming superior British forces. Constance was second-in-command of one of the units.
The leaders of the Rising were shot but Eamonn de Valera, because he was born in America, and Constance, perhaps because of her sex, were reprieved. The Rising did not have the support of the general public initially, but the harsh reaction of the British changed opinion. Volunteers combined with Sinn Féin, which had not been a militant party, and support grew until at the 1918 elections Sinn Féin was overwhelmingly victorious, its candidates often unopposed. They did not take their seats at Westminster but set up the First Dáil, in which Constance became Minister of Labour.
This was an extraordinary career since Constance was the eldest daughter of Sir Henry Gore-Booth of Lissadell, Co. Sligo, Ireland, whose forebears had been granted land in Ireland during the reign of James I. At the time of Constance's birth in 1868, the family were exceedingly rich and connected to British aristocracy.
Constance was famous for her excellence at riding and shooting, and for her beauty. But she was also intelligent and independent. The life of a debutante, less still marriage to some suitable aristocrat, was not for her and eventually she persuaded her parents to allow her to study at the Slade School of Art and later in Paris, where she met fellow-artist, Casimir Markievicz. The couple decided to live in Dublin.
Colonial rule meant that Ireland had suffered severe economic neglect. Despite the Land Acts, there was famine in the 1870s. Gore-Booths’ tenants were affected and Lady Gore-Booth set up soup kitchens. Constance and her sister Eva helped with these, and since both sisters went on to dedicate their lives to the working class, the experience may have made a lasting impression.
After the elections in 1918, Constance was able to effect some changes in employment conditions, but she was living a life on the run. The British sent soldiers to occupy Ireland and fight the Irish in the War of Independence (1920-21), and she was often in prison.
Constance spoke against the 1922 Treaty with Britain which allowed King George V to remain king of Ireland and Ireland to be partitioned with six counties forming a Unionist statelet. The Republicans fought those who supported the treaty but they were on the losing side. Republicans could not take their seat in the Dáil because they would not take the oath and they were banned from many jobs. Constance was on her district council; she sat on housing, public health, old age pensions and child welfare committees and campaigned for swimming baths. She was Chief Scout of the Fianna and continued with Cumann na mBan (League of Women) which had combined with the Inghinidhe. She left with regret when she joined de Valera’s Fianna Fáil in 1926, as she could not be a member of both. But within a few months she was dead. She was only 57, but she was worn out and brokenhearted at the deaths of so many comrades and of her dream of an Irish Republic.
Her marriage to Casimir had not survived her deep involvement with Irish politics - he had been sympathetic, but after all, he was Polish and felt nationalistic about Poland. However, he and his son travelled from Poland to be at her deathbed. She remarked ‘it is so beautiful to have this love and kindness before I go’.
Although she was denied a state funeral, it was still a huge event, with eight lorry loads of flowers and thousands lining the streets. De Valera gave the funeral oration, and she was buried in the Republican Plot at Glasnevin cemetery – a far cry from the grand house, Lissadell, Co. Sligo.
Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.
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