Constance Gore-Booth was born on 4th February 1868, the oldest of five children. Her father was a landowner in County Sligo, Ireland.
Constance is most well known for her role in Irish politics, but long before then her first passion was art. In 1892 she went to London to study painting. While there her political beliefs began to take shape and she joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS). From London she moved to Paris to continue her studies. It was there that she met her soon-to-be husband, a Polish Count.
They married in 1900 and she became the Countess Markievicz. Together they returned to Ireland and settled in Dublin, where Constance began to gain a reputation as a landscape painter. However it wouldn’t be long before her she gained a very different reputation.
She became one of the founding members of the Dublin-based United Artists Club, which drew together creative people from across the city to celebrate Irish culture. It was through this club that she began to meet characters that would greatly influence her thinking, including a woman called Maud Gonne – who along with Constance would go on to be a key leader in the fight for Irish independence.
However the big change of heart for Constance came by complete chance. In 1906 she was renting a cottage just outside Dublin. While there she found some old newspapers called The Peasant and Sinn Féin left there by the previous inhabitant. As she read about the struggle to free Ireland from British rule she was captivated, in her own words,
“I read then of what a few were trying to do actually at the moment, and, like a flash, I made up my mind I must join up.”
From then on her life was almost entirely dedicated to a single cause; a free Ireland. In the coming years she would risk her life and spend much time in jail for her part in the struggle to that end.
In 1908 she joined Sinn Féin, the Irish party leading the struggle, whose name means ‘we ourselves’ in Irish. She also joined Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) a women’s Irish nationalist group led by her friend, Maud Gonne.
In 1909 she wrote: “The first step on the road to freedom is to realise ourselves as Irishwomen – not as Irish or merely as women, but as Irishwomen doubly enslaved and with a double battle to fight.”
While her passion for a free Ireland became her main focus she hadn’t forgotten her suffragist beliefs. In a slight foray from her political life in Ireland she returned to England, to Manchester where her sister Eva Gore-Booth, by now a political activist in her own right, was living. Suffragettes there were trying to stop Winston Churchill from being elected as MP for the area (because he opposed women getting the vote!) Constance stood against him in the by-election and drew attention to the suffragist cause when she rode through the streets of Manchester on a carriage drawn by four snow-white horses. When a man from the crowd heckled her by asking whether she could cook she responded in a beat with “Yes. Can you drive a coach and four?”
Back in Ireland Constance was jailed for the first time in 1911 after she spoke at an Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) demonstration. On her release she joined James Connoly’s Irish Citizen’s Army (ICA). In 1913 many poor Irish workers tried to unionise and over 20,000 were shut out of their workplaces in what became known as the ‘Lock Out‘. During this time Constance worked tirelessly with the ICA to organise food for those unable to work. She funded much of this herself – selling her jewellry to pay for the food. She also ran a soup kitchen to help feed the City’s poorest school children.
She went on to design the uniform for the ICA and famously gave the fashion advice for other women in the republican movement,
“Dress suitably in short skirts & strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.”
Constance became perhaps most well know for her part in the 1916 Easter Rising. During this violent stand off with the British forces she held the position of Second in Command to Michael Mallin in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. They held out for six days until eventually leader Patrick Pearse surrendered. It is claimed that when the Countess was arrested she kissed her revolver before handing it over.
Constance was arrested and taken to Kilmainham Gaol along with the others involved in the uprising. Along with all the other (male) leaders she was tried and sentenced to death by firing squa. However her sentence was later revoked ‘on account of her sex’. When the court told her of this decision she said “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”. But shoot her they didn’t, and her career in politics was far from over.
After spending time in prison in England she was released in 1917 and returned to Dublin. She was soon in prison again for protesting against the conscription of Irish men during the First World War.
A little thing like being in prison couldn’t stop Constance though, and so from her cell she stood in the upcoming general election! In 1918 she was became the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons. She was one of 73 Sinn Féin MPs who were elected, all of whom refused to take their seat. Instead they formed the first Dáil Éireann or Irish Parliament. She became the first ever Irish Cabinet member when she served as Minister of Labour (and only the second female cabinet member anywhere in Europe!)
Constance had also been an active member of Cumann na mBan (League of Women) since it’s formation in 1914. After the Rising she helped to revitalise the group and lead the women who formed it in their political activities.
She joined the newly formed Fianna Fáil party in 1926 and was elected to stand as a candidate in 1927, sadly before she could take her seat she died in hospital in Dublin due to appendicitis. Her funeral was held publicly and over 250,000 people gathered in the streets of Dublin to say goodbye to the woman who had inspired them so greatly.
Find out more…
The book The Rebel Countess gives an indepth account of Constance’s life. You can get it here.
Read about Constance in her own words! Here is an article she wrote.
See a video of Constance after her election to parliament here.
You can visit Constance & Eva’s childhood home, Lissadell House in County Sligo where you can see many of her original items.
If you’re ever in Dublin there are lots of ways to find out more about the Countess. You can visit Kilmainham Gaol and learn more about where she and the other leaders of the Easter Uprising were held.
The poet W.B. Yeats knew the Gore-Booth sisters and wrote a poem in memory to them which you can read here.