Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Introducing: Countess Markievicz

I’d like to thank Diane and the rest of the IntLawGrrls for inviting me to contribute to the Blog from the Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, here in University College Cork (Ireland). In keeping with the tradition here on the blog I have chosen an ‘international foremother’ as the subject of my first post: Countess Constance Markievicz.
Constance Gore-Booth was born in London in 1868 and acquired her title and her surname when she married a Polish aristocrat. (She's pictured at left at age 18.) Her aristocratic status notwithstanding, however, Markievicz was an egalitarian and an Irish nationalist, having come to live in Ireland as a child (her father was an Anglo-Irish landowner). Although she met her husband while they were both studying in Paris, they settled in Dublin 1903 where she was a successful landscape artist and moved in a circle of Irish literary, artistic and political talent that included William Butler Yeats and Michel Davitt. In 1908 she joined Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann (‘Daughters of Ireland’) and later founded Fianna Éireann in 1909 (an organisation that instructed boys in the use of firearms and paramilitary operations). She later joined the Irish Citizen’s Army (she's in uniform below right) and, by the time the 1916 Rising came around, she was a well-seasoned and well-known member of the Nationalist elite.
Markievicz was a lieutenant in the 1916 Rising commanding troops in St. Stephen’s Green where they held for six days before surrendering having been provided with a copy of Pádraig Pearse’s surrender order. She was then tried for treason and sentenced to death but, unlike the majority of the Easter 1916 leadership, she was spared execution because she was a woman. On commutation of sentence she is reported to have retorted to the Court “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”.
In 1918 she was elected to Dáil Eireann (the lower house of parliament). Although she was the first woman parliamentarian elected in the British Empire she refused to take her seat (all parliamentarians were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown). She was present at the founding of Fianna Fáil (Ireland’s dominant political party) in 1926 and was once more elected to the Dáil the next year. This time she planned to take her seat under Fianna Fáil policy but she died before the Dáil was called.
Markievicz was a terrorist to some and a freedom fighter to others, but above all she was an early example of female engagement in nationalist struggles and in parliamentary politics. Ireland now has an exceptionally low percentage of female elected representatives and it is perhaps worth recalling that we were one of the first electorates to vote a woman into a parliamentary position. Markievicz may have been an odd mixture of privilege, aristocracy and eccentricity but her role in Ireland’s history is an enormously influential one. Thus, with some circumspection about her methods and not a little pride in the results she helped to attain, I introduce Constance Markievicz to IntLawGrrls, to join Grace O’Malley and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones as Irish women of legal and political influence.

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