Constance Markievicz – feminist, rebel and revolutionary

By Thomas Leary

International Women’s Day in the centenary year of the 1916 Irish Rebellion is an opportune time to recall the life and struggles of Constance Markievicz, one of the leaders of the rebellion and lifelong advocate of women’s liberation, Irish national independence and revolutionary politics.

Her life was a series of firsts. She was the sole woman commander among the rebel forces in 1916, as an officer of the proletarian Irish Citizens Army. The ICA had itself been formed out of armed workers’ resistance to the Dublin lock-out of 1913 and she was among the foremost women in both the efforts to support the locked-out workers and in the formation of the ICA. The ICA was not only the first proletarian army in the world, but on account of that may also have been the first where women were equal combatants. The second was the Red Army. Later, she was to become the first woman ever elected to a seat in the British Parliament, and like all revolutionary nationalists then and now, refused to take her seat in the colonial parliament. She was also one of the first women anywhere in the world to be a Cabinet member when she became Minister for Labour.

She had also been among the founders of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (‘Daughters of Ireland’), a revolutionary women’s movement founded by the actress and activist Maud Gonne, which agitated both for women’s emancipation and for Irish national liberation. The two were active in literary and artistic circles, but of course both of these avenues were largely blocked under British rule of Ireland and those that were not almost always excluded women.

Like so many of the Irish revolutionaries she was horrified by the scale of the slaughter between in the imperialist powers in the First World War. Like her comrades she was determined that there be no conscription in Ireland so that hundreds of thousands would be forced to fight for Britain. As the armed Unionist opposition to Irish Home Rule grew and the militant forces of Irish republicanism armed themselves in response, she is said to have as a mantra, “the most important possession for a woman is a revolver”.

She was one of the many leaders of the Rebellion who were captured, summarily court-martialled and sentenced to execution. She was excused this punishment ‘on account of her sex’ and later released. She was a consistent and resolute opponent of the Treaty with Britain in 1921 and the counter-revolution that followed.

The political forces involved brought together in 1916 represented what was then the highest point in the international class struggle, turning the imperialist war into a war of national liberation. To do so they advanced the most progressive and advanced slogans and demands on all fronts. The counter revolution which followed did the exact opposite, with partition driving back the positions of women and led directly to the ‘carnival of reaction both sides of the border’ as Constance Markievicz’s comrade James Connolly famously and accurately predicted. Those very clear lines of divide in that struggle continue today.

There is no single lesson to draw form a life as rich and heroic as Constance Markievicz’s. But it is notable that in the course of the Irish revolution all the key struggles were brought together against British imperialism. She embodies the struggle for cultural and language rights, the struggle for women’s liberation, and the struggle for national independence. Many classes were brought together under those banners but they were only successfully unified when led by the working class.

No single vignette could possible do justice to her life. There is now a string of biographies. In addition there are several analyses of women’s role in their own emancipation in the inter-war years in which she features as well as of course examinations of the role of women in the Irish revolution. Many bear careful study. Some of her own writings are available here.

On International Women’s Day in the centenary of the Irish Rebellion, we salute Constance Markievicz!