100 YEARS AGO: Countess Markievicz appointed Minister for Labour

Published in Volume 27

By Joseph E.A. Connell

Above: Constance Markievicz: three convictions—Irish nationalism, feminism and socialism—were to guide her through most of her life. (NLI)

Constance Gore-Booth was born in 1868 to one of the largest landowning families in County Sligo, part of the Anglo-Irish gentry, whose control of the bulk of Irish land was a source of long-standing resentment to the Catholic Irish majority. At eighteen she became a débutante and enjoyed several ‘seasons’ in London but was unable to attract a husband, possibly because of her abrasive mockery and an inclination towards practical jokes. From these beginnings, Constance became imbued with a concern for the working person.

She moved on to an art school for women in Paris, and there she met the Polish Count Casimir Markievicz. They wed the following year, and spent the early years of their marriage moving between Paris, Lissadell in Sligo and his family estates at Zywotowka (now in Ukraine). Before her marriage, she and her sister Eva had organised the ‘votes for women’ movement in their home parish; now Markievicz took up the issue of feminism more seriously and began to write for the Inghinidhe na hÉireann journal Bean na hÉireann. Markievicz was also to develop a sympathy for socialism. These three convictions—Irish nationalism, feminism and socialism—were to guide her through the rest of her life.

When Constance Markievicz and other Irish suffragists realised that John Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party intended to exclude women from the vote if they achieved their goal of Home Rule, they went into open opposition. Moderate Irish nationalists, supporters of Redmond, detested the suffragists for threatening their movement in this way, but Markievicz won steady support from the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and its leader, Jim Larkin.

She repaid him by supporting the unions and unemployed workers during the massive lockout of summer 1913, when Dublin’s employers tried to break the growing unions’ power once and for all. Larkin stayed at the Markievicz house on the night before ‘Bloody Sunday’, 31 August 1913, when the Dublin Metropolitan Police attacked a large crowd in O’Connell Street. Markievicz herself was severely beaten by the police.

Experiences like this made Markievicz implacable; hating industrial exploitation and male domination, she yet believed that British power lay at the root of all Irish evils. When the first Dáil was seated in January 1919, Constance Markievicz may not have been the most logical choice to be Minister for Labour, but in the light of her growth as an advocate for working people she was a popular choice with the Irish public.

Markievicz served as Minister for Labour from April 1919 to January 1922, in the cabinets of the first and second Dáils. She became both the first Irish female cabinet member and only the second female government minister in Europe. (She remained the only female cabinet minister in Irish history until 1979, when Maire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed Minister for the Gaeltacht.)

In June 1927 Countess Markievicz was admitted to Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, to a ward filled with the poor. She had appendicitis and was operated on by Sir William Taylor. An infection set in following the operation and she developed peritonitis. She was very run-down as a result of her many activities on behalf of the poor of Dublin and in support of republicanism, and her health suffered badly. She was also heartsick, could not accept the Oath and could not enter the Dáil. At first she appeared to be getting better, but she passed away on 15 July 1927.

Constance Markievicz died disappointed at the outcome of her life’s labours, dismayed that the Irish Free State was such a prosaic, compromised affair rather than the radical workers’ democracy she had dreamed of and worked for throughout her adult life. Though truckloads of flowers and thousands of mourners attended her funeral, the Free State government refused to grant her official funeral honours.

Joseph E.A. Connell is the author of Michael Collins: Dublin 1916–22 (Wordwell Books).

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