Constance Markievicz (nee Gore-Booth) and the Easter Rising
On this 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising the feature below is dedicated to Sligowoman Constance Markievicz and her comrades. It is drawn from Constance Markievicz: The People's Countess (see Books). For a greater understanding of this article read Constance Georgina de Markievicz on this site first:
'The Blood of Martyrs'
Early in 1916 Irish recruits to the British army were dying in their thousands on the ‘Western Front’. There was talk of introducing conscription to Ireland, which was a British colony at the time. Something had to be done! Among the militants, pressure to stage a rebellion was building. ‘The country is sinking unto the sleep of death and nothing can awake it but the crack of the rifle,’ Canon Sheehan wrote in his novel, The Graves at Kilmorna: ‘As the blood of martyrs was the seed of saints so the patriot will be the sacred seed from which alone can spring new forces and fresh life to a nation that is drifting into the putrescence of decay.’
By the middle of April 1916, preparations had been made for a joint rising by the Volunteers and the Citizen Army. Secrecy was essential so only the militant I.R.B. men on the executive of the Volunteers knew of the proposed action. Eoin McNeill, the head of the movement, was not fully trusted and so was not informed until April 21st. The following day the Volunteers learned that Roger Casement had been captured after landing from a German submarine. More bad news came with the information that a German ship carrying arms essential for the rising had been intercepted by the British and scuttled by the crew.
Eoin Mc Neill, partly influenced by these developments, countermanded the order for ‘manoeuvres’ on Easter Sunday and had the order published in the ‘Sunday Independent’. The I.R.B. mens suspicions of McNeill was confirmed. Constance was appalled. Dressed in ‘uncompromisingly soldierly rig-out — dark green woollen blouse with brass buttons, green tweed knee breeches, black stockings and heavy boots,’ she was ready for the fight. A cartridge belt slung around her waist, and armed with an automatic pistol and a Mauser rifle she made a formidable soldier indeed.
Once, dressed in full uniform and getting ready to take her turn standing guard at Liberty Hall, a knock came to the door of Surrey House. The light in the hallway was poor so she chanced to open the door. Standing there were two detectives with orders prohibiting her from entering Kerry.
‘What will happen if I refuse to obey the order and go to Kerry?’ she enquired. ‘Will I be shot?’
‘Ah now Madame, who’d want to shoot you? You wouldn’t want to shoot one of us. Now would you Madame?’
‘But I would!’ replied Constance . ‘I’m quite prepared to shoot and be shot at.’
‘Ah, now Madame, you don’t mean that. None of us want to die yet. We all want to live a little longer.
‘If you want to live a little longer, you’d better not be coming here,’ she retorted. ‘None of us are fond of you and you make grand big targets…’
On the morning of Easter Sunday, Connolly and the I.R.B. leaders, regardless of Mc Neill’s order, decided to begin the rising the next day. Constance was euphoric: ‘Our heart’s desire was granted to us,’ she wrote later, ‘and we counted ourselves lucky.’
On Monday 25th of April, a hot spring morning, Dubliners out for a stroll watched in amazement as Volunteers and Citizen Army took up battle positions. War soon erupted in the streets of the capital! Pearse and Connolly charged forward and took possession of the G.P.O. Constance, second in command to Micheal Mallin at Stephen’s Green, took charge of trench digging. The blood sacrifice had begun! But it was no matter to them. They were only too well aware of the risks: ‘We are going out to be slaughtered,’ Connolly said matter of factly to a friend as he marched his men from Liberty Hall.’
‘It’s madness but a glorious madness and I am with you,’ the O’Rahilly had said to Constance , earlier in the day.
Heavy fire from snipers stationed in the Shelbourne Hotel was directed at the rebels in Stephen’s Green. Constance, Commandant Mallin and their men returned fire from trenches they had dug. On two occasions repeated fire from Constance’s weapons caused a cessation of fire from the enemy. Mallin, considering the position too vulnerable, ordered his force to withdraw to the College of Surgeons . Constance, unceremoniously shooting the lock off the door with her pistol, led her troops into the building.
By the following Friday, Dublin was devastated and Sackville street reduced to rubble. On Saturday morning Padraig Pearse, his HQ in the General Post Office bombed and burned out, handed his sword to the British General Lowe in an unconditional surrender. James Connolly countersigned on behalf of the Irish Citizen Army.
Although assaults on the College were heavy and continuous during the Rising Mallin’s band was still fully operational at the end of the week. When ordered to surrender they were unbelieving, being strongly positioned to continue the fight. Completely unaware of the havoc wrought by artillery in the centre of the city they knew nothing of the devastation wrought by artillery fire from the British gunboat ‘Helga’.
At one point a British soldier entered the College unaware that the garrison there had not yet surrendered. One of Con’s men lifted his revolver to shoot him but Constance, preventing him said, ‘Don’t Joe. It would be a great shame now.’
Captain de Courcy Wheeler, Kings Royal Rifle Corps, who accepted Staff Lieutenant Markievicz’s surrender, was a relation by marriage of the Gore-Booths. On surrendering her Mauser, Wheeler recalled later, Constance kissed it before handing it over and said: ‘I am ready’. She and Commandant Mallin then marched off into captivity at the head of their men. There was only one question now on everyone’s mind. Death was inevitable. But in what manner? Were they going to be hanged, or were they going to be shot?
The Prison Years
‘Separation women’ harangued and pilloried the prisoners as they were being marched away to Dublin Castle . These army wives had been openly hostile to the rebellion. One, who had physically attacked a Volunteer on the first day of the Rebellion, was shot dead.
Con was one of seventy women prisoners removed from the Castle to solitary confinement in Kilmainham jail. There she sat, alone in her prison cell, listening to the crack of rifle shots as each day bullets tore into the bodies of her comrades and dearest friends: Pearse, Mc Donagh, Clarke and Connolly. A single pistol shot rang out after every volley as the officer commanding the firing squad put a bullet in each head.
Esther Roper was to write later that, ‘The executions at Kilmainham and Pentonville were the worst days’ work ever done by England to Ireland . Irish people who had taken no part in the revolt became permanently embittered and utterly alienated; before long the whole country was against English rule. The loss to Ireland of these rare spirits was tragic in the extreme.’
Although a pacifist, Eva Gore-Booth too was moved by the slaughter. In Easter Week she wrote:
Grief for the noble dead
Of one who did not share their strife,
And mourned that any blood was shed,
Yet felt the broken glory of their state,
Their strange heroic questioning of Fate
Ribbon with gold the rags of this our life…
…Ah! Ye who slay the body, how man’s soul
Rises above your hatred and your scorns—
All flowers fade as the years onward roll,
Theirs is the deathless wreath — a crown of thorns .
The Easter Rising had very little popular support. In ‘Another Man’s Wound’, Ernie O’Malley was later to write of the transformation, the, ‘strange rebirth’, that took place throughout the countryside following the executions: ‘It was manifest in flags, badges, songs, speech, all seemingly superficial signs,’ he wrote, ‘it was as if the inarticulate attempted to express themselves in any way or by any method; later would come organisation and cool headed reasoning. Now was the lyrical stage, blood sang and pulsed, a strange love was born that was for some never to die till they lay stiff on the hillside or in quicklime near a barrack wall.’
The unselfishness displayed by the men and women of Easter Week was exceptional. It has rarely been seen since. Con Colbert was a member of Na Fianna Eireann and a close friend of Constance . When the surrender came he insisted on taking the place of his commander:
‘You’re a married man, I’m single’ he said. ‘You’ll be shot. Resign!’
‘Never!’ came the reply.
‘Then,’ said Colbert, ‘We’ll depose you!’
They did so; Colbert gave the surrender, was tried and executed.
Many in the British system secretly admired the bravery of the men whom they fought and put to death. General Blackadar, President of the Courtsmartial said afterwards that Pearse was one of the finest men he had ever come across: ‘There must be something very wrong in the state of things that makes a man like that a rebel. I don’t wonder his pupils adore him!’ The English surgeon that treated James Connolly’s wounds prior to his execution said he was one of the bravest men he had ever known.
On the day Willie Pearse and Joseph Plunkett were shot, Constance was tried and condemned to death by secret military tribunal. Undaunted, and contemptuous of the judge, she described him later as ‘a fuzzy little officer with his teeth hanging out to dry.’ Fuzzy or not, having the authority and the last word, he sentenced her to be shot.
When the realisation sunk in that the Rising was a failure Con was unflinching:
‘Well, Ireland was free for a week!’ she declared defiantly.
The British, fearing the outcry the execution of a woman would set off, later commuted the sentence, solely on account of her gender. But Con did not want to live, and would have rejoiced had she gone to death with her comrades. ‘I do wish you lot had the decency to shoot me’ she said to the officer who brought the news of the commutation.
Writing these lines in the comfortable year of 2006, delving deeply into existence, probing shattered bodies, hopes and dreams, drawing blood and flesh from the one dimensional canvas of the past, it is difficult not to be deeply and profoundly moved.
To the citizens of this brash, modern Ireland the sentiments of these men and women of 1916 must seem old-fashioned, outmoded, incomprehensible. Their lives seem irrelevant almost, forgotten now by a people who built a new Ireland on their bones. Those of us who stop to reflect must never forget a glorious time long ago, and a blood sacrifice so willingly given. What an immeasurable debt we owe them!
Con was shortly transferred to Mountjoy and visited there by her sister Eva and Esther Roper. Tears ran down her cheeks when they told her of James Connolly’s execution. ‘You needn’t tell me,’ she said. ‘I knew. Why don’t they let me die with my friends!’
Connolly’s death affected her more than any other. Following the women’s visit she wrote:
‘You died for your country my Hero-love
In the first grey dawn of Spring;
On your lips was a prayer to God above
That your death will have helped to bring
Freedom and peace to the land you love,
Love above everything.’
‘Dearest old Darling,’ she wrote to Eva after the visit,’ ‘It was such a Heaven sent joy seeing you, it was a new life, a resurrection, though I knew all the time you’d try and see me, even though I’d been fighting and you hate it all so and think killing so wrong…’
The bond between the two sisters never wavered, even when conscience led them in opposite directions. Both were fighters, one with words and non-violent protest, the other with revolutionary fervour, a gun, and a will to use it. It was Eva that penned the following lines entitled; The Land to a Landlord. It reflects on the aristocratic landlord system they had both rejected:
'You hug to your soul a handful of dust,
And you think the round world your sacred trust —
But the sun shines , and the wind blows,
And nobody cares and nobody knows.
O the bracken waves and the foxgloves flame,
And none of them ever has heard your name —
Near and dear is the curlew’s cry,
You are merely a stranger passing by…
…Down there in the bog where the plovers call
You are but an outcast after all,
Over your head the sky gleams blue —
Not a cloud or a star belongs to you.'
Constance Gore-Booth released from prison
Eva sought rights for the oppressed, reform of the system; Constance sought exposure of tyranny, overthrow of unjust government. Their tactics were different, their goals the same. Neither sister weighed the cost to herself in loss of privilege, esteem or health. Sacrificing ease and luxury, they championed the quest for human dignity.
Shortly after Eva and Esther Roper’s visit Con was transferred to Aylesbury Jail in England. Thieves and murderers now became her only company. A letter sent by a priest to the Home Sec. Sir Geoffrey Cave, and circulated to public bodies in Ireland, outlined her position. ‘Of the nearly 150 Irish prisoners now in England there is one whose case calls for special attention, the Countess de Markievicz now in Aylsebury convict jail.’ he wrote. The letter begged for special consideration for Constance :
‘She is being treated with exceptional severity,’ it read, ‘as there are no facilities for a woman there. She is not being given privileges that the men have, such as being able to work apart from ordinary criminals, speaking together and so on. All the Irish prisoners can have a visit from an outside friend once a month — except Madame Markievicz… She is punished because of her womanhood…’
‘Add to the isolation the fact of the terrible experiences she went through in days when she was shut up in Kilmainham waiting for her sentence. She lay awake all night, night after night till dawn when each morning some of her friends were shot under her window. It is perhaps hard for those who have not been through these things to understand but the fact that two volleys were often necessary to kill them seems to have added a crowning touch of agony to the situation. However strong a persons spirit may be it is surely impossible that such an experience should not tell terribly on their nerves, especially when followed by seven, now ten months loneliness and separation not only from friends and sympathisers but from ordinary human companionship.’
The letter was sent to Eva for approval, to which she responded: ‘I have read the statement about my sister written by a parish priest and friend of hers. I think it a very good and fair account of her position. Thanks so much for letting me see it.’
Constance found ways to make prison life bearable. Needing more physical work to discharge her pent up energy, she asked to be relocated from the sewing room to the kitchen where the work was harder. During her time there the wardresses often taunted her by throwing dirt all over floors she had just scrubbed clean. Finding solace in art, she pulled coloured threads from the rags she was given for cleaning. Using these, she embroidered larger white pieces she had found.
Regardless of the degrading conditions her sense of humour remained intact. ‘…I saw myself, for the first time for over three months, the other day,’ she wrote to Eva in August 1916, ‘and it is quite amusing to meet yourself as a stranger. We bowed and grinned and I thought my teeth very dirty and very much wanting a dentist and I’d got very thin and very sunburnt. In six months I shall not recognise myself at all, my memory for faces being so bad! I remember a fairy tale of a princess, who banished mirrors when she began to grow old. I think it showed a great lack of interest in life. The less I see my face, the more curious I grow about it, and I don’t resent it getting old…’ (Roper, Esther, Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz, p149. Con was 48 at the time)
Just after Christmas, on December 29 th, she reflected on the circumstances which had led her to a prison cell: ‘All my life, in a funny way’, she wrote, ‘seems to have led up to the past year, and it’s all been such a hurry-scurry of a life. Now I feel that I have done what I was born to do. The great wave has crashed up against the rock, and now all the bubbles and ripples and little me, slip back into a quiet pool of the sea.’
At home in Ireland she was not forgotten. Even though confined to jail she continued to inspire. During this term of imprisonment she was elected President of Cumann na mBan.
Con’s family were appalled and totally disapproving of the path she had taken, as indeed were most of her socialite friends. The stink of the slums, or the reek of the dung-pits of the peasant farmer, were not allowed to reach their lofty pinnacles. ‘We can hear the music as we put last touches to our hair and frocks in one of the bedrooms upstairs,’ wrote Lady Fingall, describing the view from a bedroom window of Dublin Castle . ‘The windows of that room look out on an appalling slum, a fact characteristic of the life of those days. But the windows are curtained, and one need not lift the curtains.’
Eva continued to comfort Constance during her confinement. She was her lifeline and consolation in prison. Though a pacifist, adamantly opposed to violence Eva respected her sister’s integrity and purity of motivation in choosing armed struggle. Between them there was a vibrant chemistry, a bond of affection and mutual respect. Eva honoured her sister’s choice made with the same conviction and passion as her own non-violent, but tireless labour, on behalf of the oppressed. On Con’s first birthday in prison she wrote:
To C. M. on her prison birthday, February, 1917:
What has time to do with thee,
Who hast found the victor's way
To be rich in poverty
Without sunshine to be gay,
To be free in a prison cell?
Nay, on that undreamed judgement day,
When, on the old-world's scrap-heap flung,
Powers and empires pass away,
Radiant and unconquerable
Thou shalt be young.
On the June 15th 1917 , Bonar Law, Leader of the House of Commons, made an announcement that an amnesty was to be given to all participants in the Rising. On the 17 th of June Constance was released from prison. Her return to Dublin was greeted with huge crowds and wild enthusiasm. It was a spontaneous display of the love and devotion she had inspired in the hearts of the people. No longer the ‘eccentric Countess’, she was now their idol.
During her incarceration there had been a major change in the political atmosphere in Ireland . Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party was on the decline. The various nationalist groupings had sunk their differences and, keeping the name Sinn Fein, had become the party of popular choice. Eamonn de Valera and William Cosgrove, in two by-elections, shortly won their respective areas for Sinn Fein.
Surrey House, where Con had lived before the Rising, had been looted and wrecked by the British. Having no home now, she stayed with Dr. Kathleen Lynn to recuperate. During this stay, a week after her return to Dublin , she was received into the Catholic Church
Later in July she travelled to Sligo to receive the Freedom of the City where she was given a rapturous welcome. The proceedings are reported in full in a reprint of a ‘Sligo Champion’ article in 'The People's Countess'. During her stay in Sligo Constance did not dare venture to Lissadell nor did the Gore-Booth family attend the conferring. She had moved on with a Nation newly awake. Dreams and plans for a New Ireland were hers; her family wanted to stay with the old, comfortable colonial Ireland of British domination and privileged position.
Copyright. Extracted from 'The People's Countess'. See 'Books'
'Separation women': Women with husbands in the British army in receipt of ‘separation allowances’.
Recommended reading: Anne Marreco The Rebel Countess; Joe Mc Gowan The People's Countess; Anne Haverty Irish Revolutionary; Virago Press Prison Letters of Countess Markievicz;
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