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A countess never forgotten

PETER FROST remembers an English aristocrat who played a momentous part in Irish working-class history - and cost him a pub quiz

"We was robbed!" The Christmas quiz at the village pub is a key fixture for my quiz team, "The Comrades."

We were doing well, in equal first place, and when Harry the quizmaster declared the tie-breaker round would be on British politics. We knew we were home and dry.

It was neck and neck on the first nine questions and then came the final decider.

Harry asked it: "Who was the first ever woman elected to the House of Commons, and in what year?"

"Easy," said the other team. It's an old favourite pub quiz question. We let them go first.

As we expected they answered: "Viscountess Nancy Astor in 1919."

We knew we'd won. The correct answer was, as any good republican knows, "Countess Constance Markievicz in 1918."

Elected for Sinn Fein in Dublin South, like the other 72 republicans voted in she would not pledge allegiance to the king and never took her seat. But elected to the House of Commons she certainly was, 95 years ago this very month.

Then quizmaster Harry pronounced his verdict.

"Lady Astor, Tory and Unionist MP for Plymouth in 1919 - correct."

He was wrong of course, but have you ever met a pub quizmaster who admitted he was wrong?

Poor Countess Constance Markievicz, hated by the British Establishment from which she sprang, has always been sidelined by history and never received the credit she so richly deserves. Not on this side of the Irish Sea anyway.

Countess Constance was:

  • Elected to Parliament while serving a prison sentence
  • First ever woman elected to Westminster in 1918
  • First ever woman elected to the Dail Eireann, the Irish parliament
  • First ever female minister in any government anywhere in the world as Irish minister of labour from 1919-22
  • First female Irish cabinet minister.

And she achieved a score of other important firsts for women and in Irish politics.

What a woman. She and her sister Eva were courted by Ireland's greatest poet William Butler Yeats. Both sisters turned down Yeats's proposals of marriage.

Constance would become companion, comrade and sometimes lover to some of Ireland's greatest heroes including James Connolly, Jim Larkin, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera.

She was born in 1868 as Constance Georgina Gore-Booth in London into a wealthy family that had a large estate at Lissadell in Co Sligo.

Her father, Sir Henry Gore-Booth, was an explorer, but unlike many landowners in Ireland he treated his tenants fairly and well, providing free food in the 1879-90 famine for instance.

Both sisters were debutantes, presented to Queen Victoria. Both could have chosen an easy life as part of the aristocracy. Neither did.

Sister Eva became part of the labour movement in England and a keen Suffragette. Constance too joined the campaign for votes for women.

Eva would campaign against the first world war and join the Independent Labour Party and play her part in many other peace, trade union, feminist and socialist groups.

Constance, less politically active at the time, studied art at the Slade and in Paris where she met and married Count Casimir Markievicz.

In 1903 the couple moved to Dublin and the countess gained a reputation for herself as a landscape artist. She also acted at the Abbey Theatre.

She joined the revolutionary group The Daughters of Ireland. Although turning up at her first meeting in a satin ball gown and a diamond tiara didn't do her any favours, she had come direct from a grand government ball.

In 1906 she rented a small cottage in the countryside close to Dublin. The previous tenant had left behind old copies of The Peasant and Sinn Fein, a revolutionary publication that argued for freedom from British rule.

The countess read these fascinating old documents and the ideas she discovered in them changed her life forever.

By 1908 she was deeply involved in nationalist politics in Ireland. She joined Sinn Fein and Inghinidhe na hEireann, a militant republican women's movement.

In that year, she first stood for Parliament, unsuccessfully standing against Winston Churchill in Manchester.

In 1909 she founded the youth movement Fianna Eireann. They were effectively republican and paramilitary-armed Boy and Girl Scouts. The Fianna taught teenagers to shoot as well as Irish history and radical republican politics.

Patrick Pearse would credit Fianna Eireann as important to the foundation of the Irish Volunteers in 1913.

In 1911 Markievicz was jailed for the first time. She had demonstrated against the visit of George V. They arrested her when she publicly burned the union flag.

In the Dublin lockout of 1913, alongside James Connolly, James Larkin and Maud Gonne she ran a soup kitchen in Liberty Hall to aid those strikers who could not afford food. Constance sold her jewellery to pay for the food.

No wonder she was elected treasurer of James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army.

She designed her own stylish Citizen Army uniform in rich green Irish linen with a dramatic cocked hat sporting long red feathers.

She could not resist having an old friend, a society photographer, take some startling pictures of her in uniform posing with her long-barrelled revolver.

In the Easter Uprising of 1916 her distinctive uniform became well known as she played a very active role in the street fighting in central Dublin.

She was second in command at St Stephen's Green and held out against the British army for six days, conceding defeat only when shown the surrender order signed by Patrick Pearse himself.

She was paraded through the streets of Dublin with other arrested leaders and then held in solitary confinement at Kilmainham jail.

The British courts martial sentenced her to death. They commuted her sentence because she was female.

Markievicz was angry at this special treatment. She protested: "I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me."


The British court had no mercy on her male comrades - the leaders were all shot. The injured Connolly, unable to stand, was shot tied in a chair.

She was released from prison in 1917 but not for long. By 1918 she was jailed again for her part in anti-conscription activities.

It was during this sentence that she won her seat in Westminster's House of Commons.

In the civil war she was a staunch opponent of the 1921 Treaty which gave Ireland dominion status within the British empire.

Michael Collins, the man who signed the treaty, claimed that his old comrade Constance could never understand the rationale behind the treaty as she was English. She called him a traitor.

After the civil war ended, she toured the United States.

The countess was also re-elected to the Dail but her staunch republican views led her to being sent to jail yet again.

In prison she and 92 other female prisoners went on hunger strike. Within a month the countess was released.

The hunger strikes of the Suffragettes had been a huge embarrassment to the British government before the war. The newly created Dail could not afford a similar scandal.

In 1926 the republican movement split. Markievicz joined Fianna Fail, led by Eamonn de Valera.

Just five weeks later she was dead of TB contracted while working in the poorhouses of Dublin.

Over a quarter of a million Irish people lined the streets as her funeral made its way to the republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.

Ireland has never forgotten Countess Constance Markievicz and it never will, even if Harry our quizmaster has.


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