Constance Markievicz: on our side

By John O’Mahony

Reposted from Workers’ Liberty

Constance Gore-Booth led the well-off life of an “Anglo-Irish” ruling class family until she was 40 — introduced as a debutante to Queen Victoria in the late 1880s, art student in Paris, part of the aristocratic hunting fraternity in her home county of Sligo.

She married a Polish count, Casimir Markievicz, and thereafter was known as Countess Markievicz. She was an early advocate of votes for women, but apart from that there was nothing unusual about Constance Gore-Booth—except, maybe, her sister Eva, who went to live in England and became an active suffragist and a socialist.

Then something happened to Constance Markievicz. The Irish working class was stirring and moving. Jim Larkin, a Liverpool Irishman working in the docks as a foreman, was sacked because he sided with the dockers in a dispute with the bosses, and was sent to Ireland by the National Union of Dock Labourers to organise dockers in Belfast.

It was the beginning of a drive to organise the ‘unskilled’ workers of Ireland. Soon Larkin was at the head of a growing movement of militant workers.

They used the weapon of the sympathetic strike to build up the labour movement. (What is known in Britain as ‘secondary picketing’, and was outlawed by the Thatcher government in the early eighties, whose anti-union laws the Blair Government still maintains.) No workers were left to fight alone: every connected trade was brought into even limited trade union battles.

For example, the Dublin dockers struck until the seamen working the port of Dublin were allowed to join the seamen’s union. In 1913 the Dublin bosses combined to lock out the workers who were members of Larkin’s union. A bitter class war followed. Dublin’s workers organised their own militia, the Citizen Army to protect themselves from the police.

At the same time the Irish workers’ movement was drawn into the militant nationalist movement. For decades the Irish nationalist cause had been in the hands of a Home Rule party dependent on the Liberal Party in the British Parliament.

From1910 the Liberals came to depend for their majority at Westminster on the Home Rule Party, under whose pressure they brought in the Third Irish Home Rule Bill.

This met strong resistance from the Irish Protestants. Backed by the Tory Party, they organised a mass armed militia in Ulster, the Ulster Volunteer Force, and fomented a small-scale officers mutiny in the British Army. They set up an Ulster Provisional Government, pledged to resist the rule by the Dublin Home Rule Government which the British Government was setting up.

In response, the Home Rule nationalists created their own armed Irish Volunteers. The Liberals retreated and moved towards proposing the “temporary” partition of Ireland.

Constance Gore-Booth was drawn into this maelstrom. She threw herself into the trade union struggle, organising soup kitchens during the 1913-14 strike-lockout. She took part in the nationalist uprising of Easter 1916, and was sentenced to death for it.

15 men were summarily shot and one, Roger Casement, was hanged in Pentonville Jail after an Old Bailey trial. Constance Gore-Booth had her life sentence commuted to life imprisonment solely because of her sex, benefiting from the uproar about the Germans, nine months earlier, shooting a nurse who had helped escaping British soldiers, Edith Cavell.

In fact she was released after a year, but spent much time in jail thereafter—in 1918, in 1919-20, and then in civil war torn independent Ireland, in 1923.

She was elected to the House of Commons in December 1918, the first woman MP. As a Sinn Fein MP, however, she took her seat not at Westminster but in Dublin, in the secessionist Dail Eireann

When the Irish nationalist movement split in 1921-22 over whether or not to accept ‘Dominion Status’ for the 26 counties of southern Ireland within the British Empire, Constance Markievicz sided with the Republicans who rejected that status. The Republicans lost the ensuing civil war. When De Valera split the party of those who had lost the civil war, Sinn Fein, in 1926 and founded Fianna Fail on a policy of participating in the 26 counties parliament, Markieviczfollowed him.

Aged 59, she died in a hospital for the poor, before she could take her parliamentary seat.

Diana Norman’s biography of Constance Markievicz is a very supportive, loving, indeed even polemically defensive, exposition of her life. She thinks Constance has been unjustly neglected by historians and misrepresented by those who can’t play fair with a women revolutionary because they can’t play fair with women.

She exaggerates: surely it is not really true that most politically educated people have not even heard of Constance Markievicz (though most people do think the first woman elected to the British House of Commons was the Tory, Nancy Astor). But Diana Norman does make a convincing case that Constance Markievicz has been slandered and diminished by the standard historians. For example, she cites the widely-accepted canard that she shot an unarmed policeman in cold blood at the start of the Easter Rising, and shows that it could not be true.

She effectively shows up the idea that Constance Markievicz was stupid by quoting extensively from her writings.

Norman says that she finds Constance one of the nicest people imaginable — and she justifies that assessment in her portrait.

Constance Markievicz was ‘Minister for Labour’ in the Sinn Fein Provisional Government, and she was a founder of Fianna Fail, the party which has been the main representative of the Irish bourgeoisie since 1932.

Still, Constance Markievicz was someone who in her fashion and according to her understanding, came over to our side— completely. She went to live with the poor of Dublin. She used what money she had to help them. She starved herself. She humped big bags of turf (peat) up the stairs for people too ill to do it for themselves. Something like 100,000 Dublin working-class people walked past her coffin.

In the Dail Eireann debate on whether to accept the Treaty with Britain, in December 1921 and January 1922, Markievicz explained that she objected to the Treaty because it gave guarantees to a ruling class that had always “combined against the workers and used every institution in the country to ruin the farmer, and more especially the small farmer, and to send the people of Ireland to drift in the emigrant ships…

My ideal is the Workers’ Republic for which Connolly died. And I say that this is one of the things that England wishes to prevent. She would sooner give us Home Rule than a democratic Republic. It is the capitalists’ interest in England and Ireland that are pushing this Treaty to block the march of the working people in Ireland and England”.

Still, she came to be a supporter of De Valera. Would she have gone all the way with Fianna Fail after 1927, when it became the main opposition in the Dail, and after 1932, when it became the main government party?

Perhaps. More likely this honest and sincere though sometimes politically confused woman would have just died. Diana Norman thinks she did just that, partly because she found the Irish civil war and its aftermath unliveable.

Norman’s book might perhaps be more critical of the Irish nationalist movement in which Constance Markievicz flowered. But on the whole I think the loving and appreciative tone of the book is right. Markievicz was a great heroine of the labour movement—not just of Irish nationalism —and it’s time she got her due.

Reading about Constance Markievicz’s last period, when she lived—by choice~ —on the edges of Dublin’s slums — which an official report before World War One had said were worse than the slums of Calcutta — I recalled a conversation with a supporter of the ‘Mandelite’ Trotskyist current.

An upper-class Indian, very rich, much-publicised, globe-trotting, self-serving and self-regarding in all things, he tried to account for why the Trotskyist movement in Sri Lanka had collapsed politically in the 1960s. In Sri Lanka, he explained, the gap between the workers and the petty bourgeois, and even more so, bourgeois like himself, was just too great for the upper-class ‘Trotskyists’ to go and live with the workers and educate and build a mass working-class Trotskyist movement…

Constance Gore-Booth went to the workers. She held nothing back. The tragedy was that her socialism merged into left-wing nationalism and became a sterile populism. Her fate was that of a whole generation of Irish socialists.

But she was a socialist—and she lived and died a socialist in a way that is foreign to most of the British socialist movement today. She deserves to be remembered and honoured and—I think Diana Norman is right —loved as a socialist and feminist pioneer.

* ‘Terrible Beauty: a life of Constance Markievicz’, by Diana Nornnan.

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