The Rebel Countess
By Rosemary Rogers, Contributor
February / March 2016
Constance Gore-Booth may have married a Polish Count, but in her heart she was an Irish revolutionary who had an active part in the Easter Rising and in the formation of the new state.
Countess Markievicz, the fierce Irish revolutionary of the 1916 Rising, cultivated her romantic image by fusing a flair for theatrics with her great heart, earning forever a place in Ireland’s history and imagination. Constance Georgine Gore-Booth was born into County Sligo aristocracy, married into Polish royalty (hence the “Countess”), and was immortalized in poetry by W.B. Yeats who likened her to a gazelle. More a comet than a gazelle, Constance – once presented before Queen Victoria as “the new Irish beauty” – was, in 1916, sitting in Kilmainham Gaol, condemned to death by firing squad for “waging war against His Majesty the King.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, Constance Gore-Booth, a feminist and landscape painter married fellow artist Count Casimir Markievicz, and the titled, elegant, and (very) tall couple settled in a Georgian mansion. Soon they were the center of Dublin’s artistic set. As he painted, she painted; he wrote plays, she starred in them; and both were the darlings of Dublin Castle. Some time later when asked why she no longer attended balls at the Castle, the Countess didn’t hesitate – “Because I want to blow it up.”
Her transformation from society doyenne to rebel was swift, beginning innocently enough on a painting retreat in the country. It was there she found the writings of Irish revolutionary poet Padraic Colum and, as she put it, “the lightning struck at last.” Back in Dublin, she joined, in quick order, Sinn Féin, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), Cumann Na mBan (Irishwoman’s Council), and founded Fianna Eireann. In what would be a pattern for the rest of her life, she funded soup kitchens where she worked tirelessly, then personally delivered food to the poor and starving of Dublin.
She joined with “Big Jim” Larkin and James Connolly in the Lockout of 1913, the workers’ strike that led to the formation of the Irish Citizen Army, a band of trade union workers. The Countess, a lieutenant in the Army, was its most enthusiastic member – she designed the Citizen Army uniforms and wrote its theme song. Its leader, James Connolly, the scrappy and brilliant socialist from the slums became, forever, her hero. Together, they were a formidable pair: when World War I broke out, he enlisted her in the Irish Neutrality League – not only were Irishmen volunteering to fight for the Empire that had enslaved them but there was danger that the British government would, at any time, impose conscription. During a rally in Dublin, Connelly took one side of a tremendous banner, “We Serve Neither King Nor Kaiser But Ireland,” and the Countess took the other – they unfurled it, and the photograph made international headlines. Now the world knew that Britain’s first and nearest colony wanted out of her Empire.
The Countess’s house, always open to artists, poets and playwrights, became, in the time leading up to the Rising, a meeting place for Republicans and rebels to hold strategy sessions and plan maneuvers as she took careful notes. Madame, as she now preferred to be known, was appointed one of James Connolly’s “ghosts” – should anything happened to him, she would take his position in the fighting. On Holy Thursday, she took a green bedspread off a bed, stretched it on the floor and painted, in gold, the words, “The Irish Republic.” (It is said that her ubiquitous and by all accounts, annoying dog Poppet, chewed a piece of the flag, making it somewhat raggedy.)
On the morning of Easter Monday, she marched through gas-lit Dublin streets leading a column of the Citizen Army, on her way to St. Stephen’s Green, where she was second in command. Madame was ready for war: she wore her dark green uniform, a slouch hat, and carried a pistol and a rifle. A cartridge belt hung around her neck. She fired the first round at the Green and word soon spread of her fearlessness. If she wasn’t shooting, she was nursing and even recruiting: when women from Cumann na mBan showed up, looking to fight, Madame quickly armed them. Sniper fire made the position at the Green impossible, forcing the troops to retreat to the Royal College of Surgeons. Once there, she shot the lock off the front door and resumed the fight.
Earlier, at the G.P.O., Pearse had read, to some jeers, the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. After he finished, the Irish tricolor was raised and the crowd went silent. Some time later came the Countess’s flag, the “Irish Republic” flag which, despite its humble origins, also flew proudly. But, by April 30, it was all over, Pearse had declared a general surrender. Reluctantly, Madame kissed her gun and turned it over to the arresting officer who, in a typical twist of inbred Irish politics, just happened to be one of her cousins. Taken to Kilmainham Gaol, she was in her cell when she heard the firing squad execute Connolly, inspiring her to wrote a beautiful poem in his honor. From this profound experience, she decided to convert to Catholicism.
At her court-martial, Madame was defiant, taunting the court, “At least Ireland was free for a week!” Overjoyed at being condemned to death, she was soon outraged when her sentence was reduced to penal servitude – “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” The British government, fearing a cult would grow around her, sent Madame to London’s Aylsebury Prison where she was denied the status of political prisoner. Jailed with thieves, prostitutes and infanticides, she was assigned to scrub the kitchen floors, a task made more odious by wardens throwing dirt over floors she had just cleaned. Refusing to be defeated, she took the threads from the cleaning rags and proceeded to create beautiful embroidery.
She was released in the general amnesty of 1917 but two years later sentenced again, this time for sedition. While in Britain’s Holloway Prison, she ran for a seat in Parliament. The Irishwoman with the Polish name won and became the first woman elected to the British Parliament. In accordance with Sinn Féin, Madame refused to take an oath of allegiance to the King and when the other Irish M.P.s voted to form the Dáil Éireann she cast her vote as fé ghlas ag Gallaibh (“imprisoned abroad”).
Released in 1919, she became the Minister of Labor in the first Dáil Éireann, one of only two woman in the world who sat in a government cabinet. (The other was in the Soviet Union.)
She gave away all her possessions to the poor of Dublin and in 1927, penniless, she lay dying in a charity ward. Her husband, who had long been living abroad, came to say goodbye. Before she died she told him she was the happiest she had ever been in her life. Countess Constance Georgine Gore-Booth Markievicz was 59 years old. ♦
Listen to the Documentary On One, Rebel Countess. A documentary on one of Ireland’s most significant political and historical figures – Countess Markievicz.
Rosemary Rogers co-authored, with Sean Kelly, the best- selling humor/reference book, Saints Preserve Us! (Random House) currently in its 18th international printing. The duo collaborated on four other books for Random House and calendars for Barnes & Noble. Rogers co-wrote two info/entertainment books for St. Martin’s Press. She’s currently co-writing a book on empires for City Light Publishing.