“I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me,” Irish rebel Constance Markievicz told her British captors, when informed that they had commuted her death sentence.
Jailed for her role in the 1916 Easter Rising that marked the beginning of the end of British rule in what is now the Republic of Ireland, Markievicz was the only woman sentenced to face a firing squad – and was spared only because of her gender.
Two years later, in the 1918 general election, she became the first woman elected to the House of Commons.
Born Constance Gore-Booth into one of the privileged Anglo-Irish families that formed Ireland’s 19th-century upper class, Markievicz would become a titan of Irish independence.
Inspired by her experience as a child witnessing the suffering of peasants during a famine in her native Sligo, she was drawn into revolutionary activity promoting independence from British rule when she set up home in Dublin as the wife of a Polish aristocrat.
Active alongside her sister Eva in suffragette campaigns in Britain, Markievicz was jailed for the first time in 1911 for protesting a visit to Ireland by King George V.
She helped found the first 20th-century republican paramilitary organisation, and during the 1913 Dublin general strike was involved in the creation of the Irish Citizen Army – described by the Bolshevik revolutionary Lenin as “Europe’s first Red Army”.
Starvation and solitary confinement
Defiant, resilient and undaunted by men, Markievicz was held in solitary confinement after the Easter Rising then transferred to an English prison, where she endured hard labour and near starvation. She was released in 1917, but soon jailed again for sedition.
It was while in London’s Holloway prison that she won the parliamentary seat of Dublin St Patrick’s for Sinn Fein in the 1918 general election.
Sinn Fein MPs did not take up their seats, because they would be required to swear allegiance to the crown, which explains why establishment figure Nancy Astor is celebrated as the first woman to sit as an MP after winning an election in 1919.
Professor Senia Paseta, an Oxford University historian and expert on women Irish nationalists, believes Markievicz’s role in the history of UK parliamentary democracy is not as well known as it should be.
She said: “It is important to remember that the Constance Markievicz was not only the first woman elected to the House of Commons, she was also elected on an openly feminist and socialist platform. Her election was, therefore, even more extraordinary than is usually acknowledged.”
When Markievicz was released from Holloway, she joined the revolutionary Irish Republic’s parliament – also becoming the first elected woman cabinet minister in the world.
A staunch republican, she was again jailed during Ireland’s 1922–23 civil war, but in 1927 – weakened by spells behind bars and penniless – she died aged 59.
‘Has she received enough recognition? No.’
Scholars continue to discuss the political legacy of Markievicz, whom Lauren Arrington believes offers liberal feminists today a lesson in intersectionality – activism outside the interests of your own social class.
“She was an incredibly passionate individual,” said Arrington, a senior lecturer at the University of Liverpool. “For her, liberation was an issue of class, and she was strongly anti-imperialist.”
Playwright Jacqueline Mulhallen, who hopes to restage her play, Rebels and Friends, about Markievicz this year, says she was motivated primarily by inequality.
“She felt that women should fight for the independence of Ireland, although she found that being unequal as a woman made her appreciate what it was to be unequal in other ways.”
However, while Markievicz’s legacy continues to be debated, there is little doubt that she remains a thorn in the side of the British establishment as parliament undertakes a high-profile programme to celebrate women’s suffrage.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May, of the ruling Conservative Party, initially caused confusion when she promised to celebrate the landmark election of a woman to parliament over whether she was referring to Markievicz or Astor.
But on Wednesday, a portrait of Markievicz is being gifted to the UK parliament by the Irish Speaker.
Frances O’Grady, the first female general secretary of Britain’s powerful Trades Union Congress (TUC), said: “Markievicz was a great champion of working people along with her sister, the trade unionist Eva Gore-Booth. Despite coming from a privileged background themselves, they consistently spoke up for working women, many of whom were denied the vote until 1928.”
Despite historical interest in her role, Markievicz has not yet gained a high profile in British campaigns to celebrate women’s suffrage.
Mulhallen, the playwright, said: “Has she received enough recognition? No. In England, I find very few people even know who she is.”
The suspicion is that the awkward reminder of Britain’s imperial past the Markievicz anniversary represents could encourage many politicians to overlook her achievement.
Such is the importance of this Irish woman that Arrington believes it is time for her to take centre stage.
“I think the school curriculum needs to be heavily rethought in terms of how we chart women’s progress – and that we acknowledge an Irish republican’s significant contribution to women’s progress in Britain,” she said.