Constance Markievicz: the green above the red

By Sean Matgamna

Reposted from Workers’ Liberty

The well-known author Tim Pat Coogan once made the true comment that Irish history has the only example of Communists and bourgeois nationalists joining together against imperialism, in which it was the Communists who were gobbled up.

He was referring to the 1916 Rising and to what happened afterwards to the hundreds of socialist workers—members of the trade union militia, the Irish Citizen Army—who took part in it together with the secretary of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, James Connolly, the military leader of the rising.

The Irish labour movement was absorbed in the general nationalist movement as an important but politically subordinate part of it. So were the socialists.

‘Strike together but march separately’, ‘Don’t mix up the class banners’—these were the slogans raised by Lenin and Trotsky in the Communist International, to guide socialists involved in national struggles. Ireland between 1916 and 1923 is one of the classic examples of the truth in Lenin’s and Trotsky’s position.

Unfortunately it is a negative example. In Ireland, all the banners were crossed, and in the end, the red flag was trampled in the mud. A new and unexpected meaning was given to the old Irish nationalist rallying cry, which had expressed the fervent desire to put ‘the green (flag) above the (English) red’. Now it was the Irish bourgeois green above the Irish working-class red.

Nobody symbolised the confusion and crossed banners which wrecked the brilliant prospects Irish labour seemed to have in the second decade of the 20th century better than Constance Markievicz.

She was a member of the Irish Citizen Army and fought in Citizen Army uniform during the Easter Rising of 1916. She was sentenced to death when the British Army recaptured Dublin. Unlike 15 of the other prisoners of war—including James Connolly—who surrendered to the gallant British General Maxwell and were then shot after summary court martial, Markievicz was reprieved ‘solely because of her sex’.

The Irish Citizen Army had been set up by the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union to defend striking workers. A member of the Anglo-lrish ruling class and the wife of a Polish count, Constance Markievicz took the side of the workers against the Dublin bosses and the murderous policemen during Dublin’s bitter labour war of 1913.

She became a Connollyite socialist republican. After the strike, James Connolly, acting Secretary of the ITGWU, kept the Citizen Army going and linked it with the revolutionary nationalists, the Irish Volunteers. Together with the Volunteers, the Citizen Army rose in rebellion against British rule, in 1916. It faced insuperable odds, but some 1,2OO rebels, about one fifth of them Citizen Army, held Dublin for a week against the mighty British Army.

Markievicz was not just a member of the Citizen Army. She was also — with the approval and support of James Connolly — a member of the Irish Volunteers, the petty bourgeois revolutionary nationalists. Yet Constance Markievicz was an honest socialist who believed in the workers’ republic.

She remained a sincere socialist, and was recognised as one of their own by Dublin workers, until her early death at 59 in a hospital for the Dublin poor. Tens of thousands of Dublin workers marched behind her coffin. But she died — still a follower of Connolly, and still a sincerely committed socialist — a member of De Valera’s Fianna Fail party, the party which has been the main instrument of the 26 County Irish bourgeoisie since the 1930s.

What happened to the militant Irish labour movement and to Constance Markievicz was that they merged and blurred their own political identity with that of the petty-bourgeois and then bourgeois nationalists. They retreated into politics which combined, on one level, the militant pursuit of the nationalist cause together with anybody willing to fight for it, and on the other, militant but narrow trade unionism.

Socialism, the workers’ republic, was there somewhere too – but not yet the stuff of practical politics.

Socialism became indistinguishable from nationalism. It dissolved into a left wing nationalist current and then, falling under the influence of Stalinism in the 1930s, into a sort of slushy Green-Pink populism. This was all the more unfortunate because what was then the big majority of the Irish proletariat, the Protestants of the in north-east, rejected and resisted nationalism.

After Connolly, the unions tried to avoid politics for mixed reasons, but one central reason was their desire to evade issues on which any answer—nationalist or Unionist — would alienate one or another group of organised workers, and maybe split the unions. That is probably the main reason for the astonishing abstention by the labour movement in the 19t8 election, when the Sinn Fein nationalists appealed for a majority on a programme of secession from the UK, and got it.

The political questions became the property of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, and their answers held sway even with the workers. Politically and organisationally, Irish labour never evolved beyond the politics of a tiny reformist Labour Party. Fianna Fail, initially a radical petty bourgeois party, gained the support of most workers and kept it although it bas for three quarters if a century now, been the main bourgeois party in independent Ireland.

Constance Markievicz — honest, devoted, and selfless socialist though she was—symbolises the confusion that created this situation. The most important of Connolly’s comrades and heirs, if only because of her part in the Rising, she floundered helplessly. Had Connolly lived things might have gone differently, but he died before a British firing squad in May 1916.

Constance Markievicz ended up in Fianna Fail; so, in the’40s and 50s, did Connolly’s daughter Nora Connolly O’Brien, though she too was always a socialist.

So today, though they are not in Fianna Fail, many Irish socialists can be heard sometimes muttering incoherently about the latent anti-imperialist potential which still exists in Sinn Fein and even in… Fianna Fail.

Diana Norman’s book is a splendidly sympathetic account of Markievicz. I liked it a lot, though it should be said that it is the work of an uncritical enthusiast, the book of someone (I assume) English, who has newly discovered romantic Irish nationalism and has fallen in love with it. In any case she loves Constance Markievicz — but that is appropriate. Constance Markievicz did what she could, and personalIy this upper-class woman held nothing back from the labour movement once she ‘came over’ to us. Tragic political confusion was not hers alone.

‘The Prison Letters’ is a treasure-trove, containing not onIy the letters but also a 130-page biography of Constance and her sister Eva (a socialist and feminist who worked in England) by Eva’s life-long companion, Esther Roper.

Terrible Beauty: a life of Constance Markievicz, by Diana Norman, and Prison Letters of Constance Markievicz, edited by Esther Roper.

From WL 8, Oct-Nov 1987

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