Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Wild Irish Women

by Tim Vicary

Who was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons? Nancy Astor, you say – every schoolgirl knows that.
But sorry, schoolgirls, that’s wrong. Read the question again, more carefully, as your teacher told you to do. It’s true that Nancy Astor was the first woman to TAKE HER SEAT in the Commons, in December 1919. But a quite different woman was ELECTED to the House of Commons, a whole year earlier, in December 1918.
Constance
A feisty lady from Dublin, with the traditional Irish surname of, er, Markiewicz.
Markiewicz? Irish? Come on. If she was really elected, why didn’t she take her seat? Explain, please. This doesn’t make much sense.
Lissadell
Ok, let’s start at the beginning. Once upon a time, in 1868, a little girl called Constance was born. She was born in London, so she wasn’t really Irish, but her father, Sir Henry Gore-Booth, was an Anglo-Irish landlord. So Constance Gore-Booth and her younger sister Eva spent much of their childhood at the beautifully named family home of Lissadell, which is in the county Sligo, a large portion of which their father owned.

W.B. Yeats, 1900
Like all Anglo-Irish girls they learned to ride and shoot from an early age, but they also developed a commendable concern for the poor Irish peasants they saw around them, as well as an interest in art and poetry. One of the many artistic guests at Lissadell was the poet W.B.Yeats; much later he wrote a poem about the sisters: “Two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.”

Maud Gonne
Constance trained to be a painter, and in Paris in 1900 she married a Polish widower, Count Casimir Markiewicz – thus becoming the Countess Marciewicz. They settled in Dublin and she became a landscape painter. But Constance was also passionately interested in women’s rights, and the idea of Irish independence.  In 1908 she joined Inghinidhe na hEireann (Daughters of Ireland) the women’s branch of Sinn Fein, whose first president was Maud Gonne, about whom W.B. Yeats wrote many more poems. Although many members of the society were working class women, the Countess arrived at her first meeting after attending a ball at Dublin Castle, still wearing a diamond tiara.
These Anglo-Irish aristocratic women had immense self confidence and energy: they had been brought up to believe the world belonged to them and if they didn’t like the way it was, they were about to change it. Constance, like Maud Gonne, acted in Yeats’s plays at the Abbey Theatre; and with her sister Eva she campaigned for women’s suffrage. At a political rally in Manchester, where Winston Churchill – an opponent of women’s votes - was standing in a by-election, Constance appeared driving a carriage with four white horses. ‘Can you cook a dinner, woman?’ a male heckler challenged. ‘Of course I can,’ Constance replied scornfully. ‘Can you drive a coach and four?’
As you see, she was no shrinking violet. In 1909 she founded Fianna Eireann, an Irish nationalist scouts association which trained teenagers to use guns. In 1911 she was jailed for protesting against the visit of King George V to Ireland. She had thrown stones at the King and Queen’s portraits and burned Union flags. In 1913 there was a major strike in Dublin, and she joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army to protect the strikers. She set up soup kitchens and sold her jewellery to feed their families. Landscape painting seemed far behind!
Lieutenant Markiewicz
Her true moment of glory came during the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, when Connolly’s Citizen Army joined Padraig Pearse in occupying the Dublin’s General Post Office and reading out a stirring declaration of Irish independence. The Countess, as Lieutenant Markiewicz, ordered her Citizen Army Volunteers to occupy St Stephen’s Green and - absurdly  - to defend it by digging trenches in the park, like those on the Western Front.  Enthusiasm, however, is one thing, military tactics another: it had apparently not occurred to her how easy it would be for British soldiers to climb onto the rooftops around the park and shoot directly down into the trenches below! Her soldiers withdrew hurriedly to the more defensible College of Surgeons, where she surrendered six days later.
And that might well have been the end of the story. As one of the leaders of a rebellion which had tried to get guns from Germany in the middle of a war, she was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. But she was a woman! And so, unlike Pearse and Connolly and 13 others, she was spared.
Her bust in St Stephen's Green
And so we come, at last to her election to Parliament. All those Irish rebels who had not been shot were imprisoned for 6 months and then released, and at the 1918 General Election, inspired by the martyrs of the Easter Rising, they joined Sinn Fein and stood for Parliament. Constance herself was back in prison, for campaigning against conscription, but she was a Sinn Fein candidate too. And she won! She was elected for the constituency of Dublin St Patrick’s with 66% of the vote, thus making her the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons and beating Nancy Astor by 12 whole months!
But, er … she didn’t take her seat? Ah, no. You see, none of them did. Her party, Sinn Fein, won 73 out of 105 Irish seats, but no Sinn Fein MPs went to Westminster. Why not? Well, because as far as they were concerned, they were standing for independence, in support of the declaration which Pearse and Connolly had read out on the steps of the General Post office in 1916. That’s what the Irish people had voted for, they said. They hadn’t elected their Sinn Fein MPs to attend Parliament in some foreign city like London or Vladivostok or Timbuctoo, had they? No, they’d elected them to form an Irish government, in Dublin. And that’s what they did.
So Constance never took her seat in the House of Commons after all. Which is a pity, really, because it might have been quite dramatic.  Rather like a female Guy Fawkes sitting on the back benches and wondering: ok - what next?
There’s a lot more to tell about Constance (and Eva) but no space for it here. But if you’ve enjoyed this post you may understand why I felt inspired to write two novels about Anglo-Irish women in this period. They had a lot of courage and energy, a lot to protest about, and they surely lived their lives to the full!
Something to read about, while great-granny nods off beside the fire.
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Tim Vicary’s Anglo-Irish historical novels Cat and Mouse and The Blood Upon the Rose are available as ebooks on Amazon US and Amazon UK. You can read more about them on his website and his blog.
All pictures from Wikimedia Commons