Would the countess have supported repeal of the 8th?

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, Issue 6 (November/December 2018), Platform, Volume 26

Constance Markievicz: feminist, revolutionary—and Catholic.

By Mary Kenny

During the 2018 referendum on removing the eighth amendment from the Irish Constitution (which recognised the right to life of the unborn), feminist campaigners for repeal invoked images of the revolutionary and feminist Constance Markievicz to support their side of the campaign.

But would Con Markievicz have unequivocally supported the repeal partisans? She was a feminist, to be sure, but a feminist of her time, and feminists of that time were apt to be keener on purity and temperance than on sexual freedom of choice. (Christabel Pankhurst’s rallying cry was ‘Votes for Women—and Chastity for Men!’) In sexual matters, Constance’s biographers tend to agree that she was somewhat reserved, or perhaps, as we might say today, repressed. Seán Ó Faoiláin, her first biographer, thought that she was sexually ‘cold’.

On aligned subjects such as divorce, Constance showed herself to be a conservative, speaking out in Dáil Éireann against this as a deplorable ‘English’ influence. She was close to Mary MacSwiney, the sea-green incorruptible sister of Terence, the martyred mayor of Cork, and never, so far as I know, disassociated herself from Miss MacSwiney’s fierce opposition to birth control—another ‘English’ influence of that period.

Constance was also an enthusiastic Roman Catholic convert, who was deeply moved by the recitation of the Rosary. During lulls in fighting during Easter 1916, she saw Michael Mallin and his adjutant, William Partridge, drop to their knees at the College of Surgeons in St Stephen’s Green to recite the Rosary. To Constance this was a moment of epiphany. After she was received into the Catholic Church formally, at Clonliffe College in June 1917, she remained especially attached to the Rosary. She cherished a set of Rosary beads delivered to her in one of her many—five, altogether—prison sojourns and blessed by Pope Benedict XV (a supporter of women’s suffrage, interestingly). Rosary beads, brought by a Capuchin priest, also consoled Constance on her deathbed.

Thus she probably wouldn’t relish joining in with the pro-choice campaign cry of ‘get your Rosaries off our ovaries!’ She probably would have been rather appalled by the Sunday Independent cartoon, post-referendum, which depicted a doctor performing a ‘Rosaryectomy’ on the symbolic body of Ireland, triumphantly proclaiming ‘Mission accomplished … obstruction removed’.

Obviously, we can never really judge how a character from history might have reacted to events in our time, because circumstances and contexts change so much. It is worth remembering, however, that Constance Markievicz—feminist and revolutionary—was also emphatically a Roman Catholic. Indeed, she was part of that seed-bed of values that constructed Catholic Ireland: one of those several Irish patriots who became Catholic as part of their identification with Ireland—Maud Gonne, Roger Casement, four of the six revolutionary Gifford girls, the popular novelist Annie M.P. Smithson—and ushered in a state that, willy-nilly, created the conditions for an all-powerful Catholic Church. Constance wanted every element of the ‘southern unionist’ influence flushed out of Irish life, which, arguably, made the composition of the Free State less diverse and opened up a vacancy of power.

The decision to be part of a religious denomination is usually complex, and I wouldn’t wish to suggest that those who made this decision in the revolutionary period did so only as a badge of Irish identity. The adherence to any faith requires commitment and sincerity: it isn’t just a political statement. Constance showed, especially in her letters to her sister Eva, a disposition for ‘spirituality’. (She was also fascinated by astrology and repeatedly asked Eva to draw up horoscopes.)

The Gore-Booth sisters were, of course, baptised into the Church of Ireland, which in the 1870s and 1880s, when they were growing up, was a highly formalised and class-structured denomination. Except for their exploits on the hunting field, Constance found every aspect of her own class boring and stuffy, while the life of the people seemed to have so much more intensity and passion. She told Eva, too, that the story of St Brigid, probably heard amongst the tenants of their estates, had stayed in her memory.

When young, she is reputed to have been drawn to various forms of spiritualism and to have been ‘a student of occult science’. Lauren Arrington’s superb biography cites a source claiming that ‘in her early youth she went in for spirit-rapping and table-turning’. Since Theosophy (a kind of outgrowth of Eastern mysticism) and séances were high fashion at the time, it seems plausible.

She continued as a nominal Anglican, however, and was married, in Marylebone, London, in the Anglican rite, although her Polish husband was himself, at least nominally, a Roman Catholic. Religious practice doesn’t seem to have played a significant outer role in her life until Easter 1916 and that moment of conversion. When spared from execution and sent to Mountjoy, she registered as a Catholic, although her reception into the Church did not occur until more than a year later.

Easter 1916 was so suffused with Catholic spirituality—the very date of the Rising itself chosen because of the religious associations with sacrifice and resurrection—that it might have been difficult not to be affected by the zeitgeist. And Constance was a great one for the zeitgeist: she seemed to have an extra sensitivity to the spirit of the age—she caught it and ran with it. She was an early feminist and suffragist; then a convert to the nationalist cause; then, especially after the 1913 lockout, a socialist. Once the Russian Revolution occurred, she considered herself a Bolshevik, although, as a Catholic, she also felt bound to pray for Lenin’s efforts—‘God speed Lenin!’, she wrote more than once to Eva.

I believe that Constance’s commitment to Catholicism was sincere and heartfelt—it was in her character to throw herself into any commitment. In her time in jail, the prison chapel meant a lot to her, as she pondered the meaningful spirituality of Carmelite nuns. Yet her Catholicism was also, in some ways, rather modern: you could say she was almost an ‘à la carte Catholic’. When under instruction from her priest, Father McMahon, she told him that she had no interest in the doctrinal orthodoxies: ‘I’ll take them as read!’ For her, it was the spirit of faith that mattered, not the letter. (She took the baptismal name of Anastasia, an early Roman martyr.)

She also made a valiant effort, subsequently, to marry James Connolly’s socialism with the more enlightened efforts of the Catholic Church to bring justice to the poor (as outlined in Leo XIII’s famous encyclical Rerum novarum). Constance had quite a down-to-earth analysis of the problems of organised religion straying from the original spiritual message:

Every church and every sect is but an organisation of thoughtless and well-meaning people trained and controlled by juntas of priests and clergy who are used to doing all the things that Christ would most have disliked … And yet I don’t know how this can be avoided, for without organisation Christ would be quite forgotten, and all organisation seems in the end to go down the same road: and if it does not go in for graft and power it just fizzles out.’

Above: Jim Fitzpatrick’s Repeal the 8th. Countess Markievicz. Irish Revolutionary poster—a commonly invoked juxtaposition during the recent referendum campaign.

‘As a labour activist she knew that ‘organisation’ mattered, yet she believed that the spiritual must come before the material. At the end of her life she referred to ‘meeting Paddy Pearse [and] Jim Connolly in the hereafter’ (and assuring them that she wouldn’t take the oath to a British king!).

Probably the most meaningful—certainly the most enduring—personal relationship in Constance’s life was with her sister Eva, who was, as is known, a poet, pacifist and socialist. Eva also had a spiritual turn of mind, and Constance and Eva practised a form of spiritual telepathy across the geographical distances that separated them. After Eva’s death, Constance sought Eva’s spirit for comfort—and communication.

There are, of course, many aspects of Irish life today that would astonish Constance Markievicz. She did believe, in a wider sense, in ‘choice’, and hoped that her daughter Maeve would ‘steer her own ship the way she wants … The more I live the more I believe in people usually knowing what is best for themselves’. She might also have come to see that curbing infant mortality in the Dublin slums does involve fertility control and the care of mothers’ health. But if the ‘Repeal’ side of the constitutional debate appropriated the image of Constance for their campaign, those praying the Rosary could also, with some historical authenticity, claim her spirit.


Mary Kenny has written a monologue, Dearest Old Darling, drawing on the prison letters of Constance Markievicz to her sister Eva Gore-Booth. It was performed by Jeananne Crowley at the Clifden Arts Festival in September 2018 and the published script is available via Amazon or www.mary-kenny.com.


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