She was called the Countess of Irish Freedom by playwright Sean O’Casey and though she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she spat it out and risked her life for the common people of Ireland that she loved so much.
Constance Gore-Booth was born into a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family on Feb. 4, 1868 in London. Her father had a large estate in Co. Sligo where she moved in the circles of the Protestant Ascendancy growing up as a noted horsewoman and a crack shot as well as a beautiful young woman. Yet, she couldn’t help comparing her life to the lives of the poor dispossessed Irish families who surrounded her father’s estate. Even when she later married into wealth and privilege, she never forgot the plight of the common Irish. She studied art and in 1898, attended the Julian School in Paris. It was there she met Count Casimir Markievicz from a wealthy Polish family. Even though he was Catholic, they were married on Sept. 29, 1901. Constance Gore-Booth was now the Countess Markievicz.
In 1903 they moved to Dublin where she began to make an impression as a landscape artist. She and Casimir founded the United Arts Club in 1905 but she soon tired of this life. Nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for, she said. Then in 1906 she found that ‘something. She rented a cottage in the Dublin hills formerly rented by poet, Pádraic Colum. He had left old copies of revolutionary publications like The Peasant and Sinn Féin there. Reading these, Constance found the cause to inspire her life. In 1908 she became active in nationalist politics, joining Sinn Féin and Maud Gonne’s women’s group, Inghinidhe na hÉireann founded to support Irish and boycott British goods. She went to England in 1908 and stood for election against a young man named Winston Churchill. She lost and returned to Ireland where she founded Fianna Éireann in 1909, an organization similar to the boy scouts, but focusing on military drill and the use of firearms. Pádraic Pearse would later say that without Fianna Éireann, the Volunteers of 1913 would not have arisen. By 1911 she was an executive member of both Inghinidhe and Sinn Féin. She was jailed for the first time for demonstrating against the visit of King George V to Ireland. She also involved herself in the labor unrest of the time, running a soup kitchen during the Great Dublin Lockout of union workers in 1913 and supporting labor leaders James Larkin and James Connolly. Her activity took a toll on her marriage and Casimir left for the Balkans and joined the Imperial Russian cavalry during WWI.
As the war began, Constance was in the center of the nationalist activity in Dublin which exploded in the Easter Rising. Most women in the movement participated as nurses or by running messages through the streets; not the Countess! As part of Connolly’s Citizen Army, she was second in command to Michael Mallin at St. Stephen’s Green, supervised the erection of barricades and was in the middle of the fighting. Driven from the Green, they occupied the College of Surgeons and held it until ordered to surrender by James Connolly after the rising. The Countess kissed her automatic pistol before handing it over. The English officer who took their surrender was a distant relative of hers and he offered to drive her to jail. No offence, old feller, she said, but I much prefer to tag along with my own. At her court martial she told the court, I did what was right and I stand by it. She was taken to Kilmainham jail where she sat in her cell listening to the volleys of the firing squads as her comrades were murdered. She too had been sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on ‘account of the prisoner’s sex.’ She told the officer who brought her the news, I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me. Moved by the faith of her comrades, she vowed to become a Catholic and when released in the General Amnesty of 1917, she kept her promise and became a Catholic.
The fire within her had not been extinguished by the tragic events of 1916, and she continued the struggle. In 1918 she was jailed by the Brits during a phony ‘German Plot,’ aimed at breaking anti-conscription forces in Ireland. While in prison, she became the first woman elected to the British Parliament, running as a Sinn Féin candidate. She refused to take the oath of allegiance to the King and was denied her seat, but when the first Dáil Éireann was formed two months later, she was appointed the first Minister of Labor and went on the run. She was jailed twice during the War of Independence and was released to attend the Treaty debates. When the Irish Civil War broke out she was once more involved in the fighting, helping to defend Moran’s Hotel in Dublin. Later she toured the US raising funds for the Republican cause. After the Civil War she regained her seat in the Dáil, but her politics ran her afoul of the Free State government and she was jailed again. Along with 92 other women prisoners, she went on hunger strike and was released after a month. She joined Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party in 1926 and was elected as one of it’s candidates in 1927.
However, a month later she became sick. She had given away the last of her wealth and died in a public ward among the poor where she wanted to be. It may have been appendicitis, but many said it was simply overwork. She could have lived a life of leisure, insulated from the trials and tribulations of the common man, but she gave it all up and intentionally risked her life for the people she came to love and respect. When her body was taken to the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, for burial, as many as 300,000 people turned out on the streets to bid her farewell. At her graveside, Eamon de Valera gave the eulogy. As the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising approaches and people are searching for history’s heroes, they should be told the story of Constance Gore-Booth, she was truly the Countess of Irish freedom.