Constance Markievicz, a clarion figure in both anti-imperialism and women’s liberation, is remembered by Chris Bambery
It is always a good question in any socialist quiz – who was the first woman to be elected as an MP?
For years the UK Parliament liked to encourage the answer to be the odious Nancy Astor, but she was the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons. The answer is, of course, Constance Markievicz, elected on 14 December 1918 as a Sinn Féin MP for Dublin St. Patricks, taking sixty-six percent of the vote.
She refused to take her seat in the British imperial parliament.
She was one of seventy-three Sinn Féin MPs who took the lion’s share of Irish seats – despite being run as a colony with a Governor General and Lord Lieutenant, Ireland was formally part of the UK – destroying the moderate Home Rule Party which stood for devolution not independence.
On her election Markievicz was in Holloway prison in London having been jailed
It was her second spell in an English jail having been sent to Aylesbury prison for her leading role in the 1916 Easter Rising. She a commander of the rebel force in St Stephens Green, under Michael Mallin, second in command to James Connolly of the Irish Citizens Army (ICA).
It was created during the year long 1913 Dublin lockout as a trade union defence force against the batons of the Dublin Metropolitan Police, it would continue as a relatively small socialist grouping out to achieve Irish independence.
Markievicz supported the workers along with other members of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (daughters of Ireland), a militant pro-suffrage grouping led by Maud Gonne with strong connections with Irish republican politics.
In 1911 when George V visited Dublin she was out with her sisters throwing stones at windows displaying pictures of the British monarch, taking down the Union Jack from Leinster House (the future Irish parliament) and burning it. She was jailed having spoken to a rally of 30,000 people organised by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
Before that in 1909 she had helped form Fianna Éireann, a Republican organisation based on the British Boy Scouts, but which trained teenage boys how to fire a gun.
During the Dublin lock-out she helped run a soup kitchen for children, selling her jewellery to fund it. She also drew close to James Connolly, leader of the militant Irish Transport and General Workers Union and of the Socialist Party of Ireland. He was a supporter of votes for women and their wider liberation.
In the ICA Markievicz carried a gun and took part in its drilling fully. Her advice to other women was, "Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver."
Ireland was moving into a revolutionary situation with labour unrest, the campaign for suffrage and, increasingly, the fight for national rights. In 1912, the Liberal government in London, reliant on the votes of Home Rule Party MP’s, had produced a parliamentary Home Rule bill to create a devolved Irish parliament.
In Belfast, the industrialists helped fund and organise the Ulster Volunteer Force, based on the sectarian Orange Order, to fight Home Rule. Belfast’s shipyards and engineering plants relied on British markets and British coal, and they wanted no lessening of those links.
Eventually, on the very eve of World War One, with the active help of the British Conservative Party, they would import rifles from Germany.
In response in Dublin the Irish Volunteers were formed, initially with the IRB very much in a leading role. Eventually this was taken over by the Home Rule Party, but when it backed war in August 1914, encouraging Volunteers to join the British army, the IRB maintained a reduced force now committed to insurrection to win independence.
Women could not join the Volunteers and could only offer their services as nurses, secretaries and cooks.
Gun in hand, Markievicz would play a very active role in the eventual Easter Rising in 1916, where the Volunteers and ICA fought together. Eventually the garrison at St Stephen's Green, in possession of the Irish College of Surgeons, received the order to surrender.
She was taken to Kilmainham jail, where Connolly and the other leaders of the rising would be shot after being court martialled. Markievicz was told at hers she would be spared that because of her sex and responded by stating, "I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me."
By the time she was released from Aylesbury prison in July 1916 the situation in Ireland had changed as a result of those executions. She returned to a hero’s welcome in Dublin, throwing herself into the agitation of Sinn Féin , the republican party.
The following year the threat by the British government to extend conscription to Ireland gave Sinn Féin mass support, to the cost of the Home Rule party. Markievicz was jailed for her part in that campaign and was thus in Holloway when elected.
The consequence of the December 1919 election was that Sinn Féin MPs, refusing to go to Westminster, created an Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann, in January 1919, which declared independence.
At almost exactly the same time the Irish Republican Army, as the Volunteers were now called, began its guerrilla war. Markievicz was appointed Minister of Labour.
When the majority of Sinn Féin parliamentary representatives backed the eventual Treaty with Britain – which agreed to partition, recognised the British King and left British garrisons within the new state – Markievicz would join Eamon de Valera in opposing it, along with most IRA activists.
This would lead to a bloody Civil War in which the new Irish government executed, legally and illegally, its opponents.
Despite all this, Markievicz was elected to the new Irish parliament in 1923 but along with other Sinn Fein representatives refused to take their seats. The republicans were soon forced to dump arms accepting defeat. Once more she was jailed, going on hunger strike.
In 1925 when de Valera decided to break from Sinn Féin and to take his seat in the Irish Parliament, forming a new party, Fianna Fail, she went with him. Initially the new party stressed it remain republican and tacked left as it sought to build its support.
But when it entered government in 1932 it would dump its republicanism and any vestiges of radicalism, becoming the party of choice for the Irish ruling class over many decades and allowing the Catholic Church to dictate social policy.
But by then Markievicz, worn out by her terms in prison and by constant activity, was dead, dying in July 1927
The playwright, Seán O'Casey, said of her: "One thing she had in abundance—physical courage; with that she was clothed as with a garment."
Constance Markievicz was one of a remarkable generation of Irish men, and especially, women. Her dream of liberation was not to be in an Ireland divided into two mirror, sectarian states. She would be cheered by the fact that in Ireland today there is a vibrant left which carries that dream forward.
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Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.
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