Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wild Irish Women (2)

by Tim Vicary

One Sunday afternoon in July 1916 two women, Eva Gore-Booth and her friend Esther Roper, were talking quietly in a flat they shared in London. They were discussing Eva’s sister Constance, whom she hadn’t seen for months. Suddenly, Esther stood up. ‘We must go to Euston Station to meet the Irish Mail,’ she said.  She couldn’t explain why this was so urgent, but Eva agreed.
At the station Esther stood near the ticket barrier while Eva went to the far of the platform. When the train came in, Eva looked into a carriage and saw her sister, Constance. Delighted, Constance got out and the two sisters embraced.
Esther, waiting at the ticket barrier, saw some people approaching through the steam on the platform.  It was ‘the strangest little procession ever seen by astonished eyes. First a brown cocker spaniel, well known in Dublin as “The Poppet”, then a couple of soldiers with rifles, then Eva and Constance together smiling and talking hard. Lastly an officer with a drawn sword, looking very agitated.’
Outside the station Constance was hurried into a taxi, the spaniel jumping in after her. ‘Holloway Prison,’ a detective told the driver. ‘Send the dog to our flat, if they won’t let him in!’ Eva shouted as the taxi drove away. 
A long way from their wild upbringing in the west of Ireland? Or perhaps not. For Constance’s charisma was due to her gender and social class as well as her character. Both sisters were free spirits, but Constance was the wild one. As a child she was injured jumping her pony over a sleeping cow (the cow stood up at the wrong moment); she sailed her dinghy single-handed across Galway Bay; she had a pet monkey and a tame snake; she loved practical jokes; she was an excellent horsewoman, riding in point-to-points as well as drag hunts for the Sligo Harriers; she confounded one of her early suitors by throwing his cap in the air and shooting holes in it. She’d been presented to Queen Victoria. She’d married a Polish Count. And her father owned 60,000 acres.
No wonder the officer waved his sword so feebly, and let her keep her spaniel! These Anglo-Irish women were not so easily intimidated.
But it was another side to Constance that had got her in trouble. Although her father was a benevolent landlord, lowering rents in time of hardship, many Anglo-Irish landlords were not. As a child she knew many poor tenant families who lived off potatoes and shared their one-roomed hut with a pig or cow. That was bad, but at least they were surrounded by fresh air. In Dublin, she found similar families living in smoky tenements ten or twelve to a room, with a single shared toilet down four flights of stairs and across a yard.  That was what persuaded her that society had to change.
File:Dublin Slum dwellers 1901.jpgThe Great Lockout of 1913 pitted the Irish trade unions, led by James Larkin, against ruthless employers led by William Murphy. Murphy kept wages down by employing men in two categories: permanent and casual. If a permanent man was late or absent for any reason he was immediately sacked and demoted to the bottom of the casual list, while the man at the top of that list took his place. When Larkin called a strike, the employers locked their workers out, and tried to starve them into submission. Larkin was hunted by the police, and hid for a while in Constance’s house.
Injustices like that made her join James Connolly’s Citizen Army. Like Connolly, she wanted Irish independence not just as a symbol, but to improve the lot of the poor. Connolly said: ‘Ireland as distinct from her people is nothing to me.’ As I described in a previous post, in 1916 she was a leader in the Easter Rising and sentenced to death for treason. Then, because she was a woman, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and she was put on a train to England (with her spaniel).
The spaniel was released but Constance served a year.  The prison was cold, damp and dirty, the food was grim, the sanitation filthy, and the hard labour unceasing. One day she stole a raw turnip and ate it. Her weight fell to seven stones.
When she was released, she became the first women ever to be elected to the UK Parliament. (while she was in prison again) As I described before, she refused to go, like all Sinn Fein members. But she did visit briefly, smiling ironically at her name on the peg which was helpfully provided for each MP to hang his sword on (!)
Instead, Constance became Minister of Labour in the self-proclaimed Parliament of the Irish Republic, Dail Eireann. 1919 and 1920 saw a terrorist campaign in which the Irish Republican Army (IRA) led by Michael Collins, was at war with the British Army and the brutal para-military police, the Black and Tans. Then a Sinn Fein delegation, led by Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, negotiated a peace treaty in London with the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. Ireland was free at last!
And then it all went wrong. Why? How?
Well, the Treaty was a compromise. It gave the 26 counties of southern Ireland their own parliament, their own taxation system, full control over Irish law, education, health, employment – all the things that most affect the lives of ordinary people. It gave Ireland Dominion Status – the same form of independence achieved by Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Ireland had achieved more freedom in one generation, Collins argued, than in the past 400 years.
So what was the problem?
There were three sticky issues – the King remained the head of state, though he had no power; the UK retained two naval bases in Ireland; and the 6 Protestant counties of northern Ireland had the right to opt out and stay British (which they promptly did) Which do you think was the most important?
Strangely, it was the first one - the oath which every member of the new Irish Parliament was required to swear to King George. THAT was what many people could not stomach. The words of an oath, which could be said in a moment, and then ignored.
Michael Collins was happy to do that. But not Constance.  In the Dail she said: ‘I would sooner die than give a declaration of fidelity to King George or the British Empire.’  Eamonn de Valera agreed, like many others. And so, instead of peace, there was a new civil war, in which each group of Irish revolutionaries fought the other. Many of their best leaders, like Michael Collins, were killed.
To me this seems sad, and hard to understand. Constance had worked hard to help the poor people of Ireland. That was why she had supported James Larkin, joined the Citizen Army, been Minister of Labour. Did the poor people of Ireland really care more about this form of words, this oath of allegiance, than about practical changes which would give them jobs, hospitals, schools – all of which were possible under the Treaty? For her, it seems, the answer was yes.

She died in July 1926, a month after her sister Eva. Enormous crowds attended her funeral, bringing eight lorry loads of flowers. A year later, Eamonn de Valera, who spoke her funeral oration, changed his mind, and took the oath after all.
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 


  1. This is an erudite and fabulous post dealing with quite a span. I really enjoyed reading it. Thank you for posting.

  2. Thank you Carol. I'm glad you enjoyed it. In case you noticed, it's a springer spaniel in the photo, not a cocker - I couldn't find any good free cocker spaniel pix.

  3. A fascinating period of Irish history clearly explained. Thanks Tim.

  4. There is so much fantastic historical information to share.... thank you for sharing such interesting stories.

  5. I knew about Michael Collins, but I wasn't familiar with Constance's story. Thanks! That was fascinating.


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