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Countess for a Democratic Society

Constance De Markievicz: In the Cause of Ireland

by Jacqueline Van Voris
University of Massachusetts, 384 pp., $7.50

The Rebel Countess: The Life and Times of Constance Markievicz

by Anne Marreco
Chilton Books, 330 pp., $6.95

The historic cause of “Ireland” is, in the popular mind, so legendary and heroic that it sometimes seems a come-down to look at its heroes and heroines. Not that they lack heroic qualities, but they are almost all oddities—cranks, even—and such a simple cause would seem to demand more straightforward protagonists.

The explanation of course is that the cause was anything but simple. It was, at different moments in history, the cause of some Gaelic chieftains opposed to others, the cause of the Anglo-Irish Catholic gentry, the cause of the Anglo-Irish Protestant gentry, the cause of an aspiring middle class, the cause of a starving peasantry, the cause of a nearstarving proletariat, and the cause of romantic dreamers, poets, professors, and political fantasists trying, with some success, to bring the present to the rescue of the past. The cause was often more than one of these things at any given time and was expressed in a number of different political formulae, of which “separation” from the British Crown was only one extreme. Such a hybrid and obscure cause could only be grasped easily if over-simplified into the abstraction of “Ireland,” but this further confused the issue.

We have to remember,” wrote one of the Irish leaders of early 1916 almost peevishly, “that what we call our country is not a political abstraction…. There is no such person as Caitlin ni Uallachain or Roisin Dubh or the Seanbhean Bhocht. What we call our country is the Irish nation which is a concrete and visible reality.” But knowing that he represented only a tiny minority of that nation in thinking “nationally,” he found himself in a strange contortion of patriotic attitude: “As a matter of patriotic principle,” he wrote, “we should never tire of endeavouring to get our country on our side.” No wonder, in such a situation, that Irish patriots emerge as rather an odd lot.

THE MORE EXTREME are, until the twentieth century, drawn largely from the Protestant minority. But for an accident in shipping schedules, Wolfe Tone would have been fighting for the British East India Company when the Rebellion of 1798, with which he is often rather inaccurately associated, broke out; indeed, on the very day on which the Wexford rebels took the field he was doing his best to get to India again. Robert Emmet admitted that his insurrection was so feeble it did not deserve the name of one, but thereby became the greatest hero of them all. Both died bravely in the cause of Ireland. O’Connell, one of the relatively few Catholic heroes until the twentieth century, knelt before George IV and swore to the end his undying loyalty to Queen Victoria. There was Smith O’Brien, the correct Protestant landlord and member of the British Parliament, of whom one of his fellow-conspirators remarked that there was too much of the Smith and not enough of the O’Brien.

There was also Parnell, another Protestant landlord, living in County Wicklow with his English mistress and modeling his cowsheds on the railway station at Brighton. The founder of the Irish Republican Brotherhood itself, James Stephens, sworn in 1858 to do his utmost while life lasted to establish the Irish Republic, died in his bed in Dublin half a century later without having done any such thing and was mourned in a public funeral. Erskine Childers, the son of one of Gladstone’s ministers, was reviled as an Englishman by both English and Irish alike and was shot by an Irish firing squad for his loyalty to the Irish Republic. It is in this long tradition of heroic “sports” that Constance Markievicz (later to be described in typical police parlance as “the woman known as Countess Markievicz”) takes her place as one of Ireland’s most dramatic heroines.

She was born Constance Gore-Booth, eldest daughter of a well-to-do Protestant family which had lived in Ireland for nine generations. The year of her birth, 1868, heard a member of the British government, confronted by the apparent absurdity of extreme Irish nationalism, exclaim in exasperation but with perfect truth that he had a good deal more Gaelic blood in his veins than “many of the gentlemen in green uniforms flourishing about New York” at the time. In her life she was to make the point for him the other way round, for, wholly Anglo-Saxon, she was to become one of the most fanatical Irish republicans of all time.

THE ELEMENT of absurdity was present all right. She only stumbled on Irish nationalism in her fortieth year, and then quite by accident when she found an article about Robert Emmet in a nationalist newspaper that was lying about a hall where she was rehearsing some amateur dramatics. Until then her life had been only conventionally unconventional. Her good looks and superb horsemanship had been what had distinguished her in youth. The master of the Sligo Hunt of the time thought that in all his life he had never known a better all-round rider, man or woman. But traditional upper-class pursuits could not contain her. Impatient with the fashionable world of Dublin Castle and London she enrolled as an art student at the Slade and later moved to Paris. Her work was undistinguished. Soon she had fallen in love with a gay and handsome Polish count, a painter also of mediocre talent but of some success called Casi Markievicz, who was fond of women, bicycling, and drinking. She married him and brought him back to Dublin. Together they plunged into the Dublin life of the early 1900s: fancydress balls, exhibitions of their paintings, evenings with Yeats and AE and the Pirates of Penzance, all mixed up. None of this nor the birth of a daughter could hold her. She seems to have burned with too cold a fire to be interested in sex. Women’s suffrage was not enough either. It seems inevitable that she should have been drawn toward that tiny minority group of Irish nationalists who were beginning to demand more and more Home Rule for Ireland. It seems equally inevitable that she should have been drawn to their extreme wing, the militant republicans.

She now made up for lost time with a vengeance. By 1909 she was training the Fianna, an organization of Irish Boy Scouts, in fieldcraft and musketry. Many of them later fought and died like heroes. She worked heroically among the Dublin poor during the terrible lock-out of 1913 when she attached herself devotedly to the great-hearted Irish socialist and nationalist, James Connolly, in whose Irish Citizen Army she became a lieutenant. She fought in uniform in the Rising of Easter Week 1916. Condemned to death, she was pardoned and imprisoned in England but released in the general amnesty of 1917. She was to be imprisoned five times more, once when she was Minister of Labour in the underground Irish Parliament (the Dáil) during the so-called Anglo-Irish was of 1920. Her last imprisonment was at the hands of the first independent Irish state in history, the Irish Free State. The Anglo-Irish Treaty which set it up did not go far enough for her, and she opposed the Free State bitterly for what she regarded as its betrayal of “the Republic.”

What did she identify herself with when she espoused the cause of Ireland? Strongly influenced by Connolly she had come to see her political goal as an independent Irish Workers’ republic. Certainly her own practical work among the Dublin poor, feeding and clothing and comforting them, without consideration for herself, was heroic. But there was more to it than that. Hers was the sort of personality that actually needs an abstraction to fight for, whose energy, enthusiasm, and idealism can never be properly contained within mundane bounds. For such a person, what more boundlessly vague and inspiring cause could have lain ready to hand in the first decade of the twentieth century than the cause of Caitlin ni Uallachain?

HER STORY is told very competently and with due reverence in both these biographies. Inevitably they duplicate each other in much detail. Mrs. Marreco, calling her heroine Constance throughout and spending more time on the early years than does Mrs. Van Voris, perhaps aspires to a closer intimacy, but Mrs. Van Voris, whose heroine is always “Madame” (the name by which she was familiarly known among the Dublin poor) relates the historical background more fully, and achieves a deeper and more satisfactory study. Both have been meticulous and painstaking in their research, but if one volume has to be chosen to supersede Mr. Sean O’Faolain’s of thirty-four years ago, it must be Mrs. Van Voris’s. Yet she is slightly disappointing on two counts, the first as artist, the second as historian.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect the sweep and insight we expect of art in a book that rests on such honorable diligence; but every biographer in singling out a person rather than events lays claim to something like the novelist’s creative command of character. The trouble is that one artist has already given us a few vivid glimpses of Constance Markievicz as a real woman: the poet Yeats who was her contemporary. There is nothing in all these 350 pages that brings her to life as much as do the few lines he devoted to her. Of herself and her sister Eva Gore-Booth in their family mansion Lissadell in Co. Sligo he wrote:

The light of evening, Lissadell,
Great windows open to the south,
Two girls in silk kimonos, both
Beautiful, one a gazelle.
But a raving autumn shears
Blossom from the summer’s wreath;
The older is condemned to death,
Pardoned, drags out lonely years
Conspiring among the ignorant….

Elsewhere he wrote of her:

When long ago I saw her ride
Under Ben Bulben to the meet,
The beauty of her countryside
With all youth’s lonely wildness stirred

But he didn’t like what the cause did to her:

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill,
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?

Although he included her too in the song for Easter 1916 the terrible beauty didn’t last for him. Her mind, he was saying soon afterward, as she began her long pilgrimage of defiance and imprisonment,

Became a bitter, an abstract thing,
Her thought some popular enmity:
Blind and leader of the blind
Drinking the foul ditch where they lie…

Though Yeats was harsh on her, he wrote about her as someone to whom something happened, as a real person, felt rather than just read about; this sense of her is lacking in both these biographies. In Mrs. Van Voris’s case the flatness may be a reflection of her faulty sense of history, for though she has treated the political background fully she has done so uncritically and in a one-dimensional way. There is too automatic an acceptance of Sinn Fein and the Republic as the only genuine cause of Ireland. She mistakenly defines the issue in 1913: “In the north the Ulster Volunteers were arming and preparing to fight against the separation of Ireland from England. In the south the Irish Volunteers were preparing to fight for the separation of Ireland.” So it is not surprising that she should describe the split in the Volunteers of 1914, when a majority backed Redmond and the British war effort, and only 11,000 out of some 180,000 seceded, as the “expulsion” of Redmond. In any narrative of 1916 the quarter of a million Irishmen who volunteered for the British Army during the war need to be brought into the picture along with the 1500 or so who fought in the Rising. It was all right for Constance Markievicz to identify herself with Caitlin ni Uallachain; life gave her no other choice. But her biographer should take more than one step back.

There is a moving description of Constance Markievicz shortly before she died in 1927, haggard, old, and shabbily dressed, after further years of defiance and imprisonment, always on behalf of the Irish Republic of her dreams. “What she had fought for,” wrote a friend, “had not come into being; maybe nothing on earth could have brought it into being, so romantic and heroic was it.” The same could be said of Caitlin ni Uallachain, and she, as we know, was only a young girl and had the walk of a queen.

It is a pity that Chilton Books in buying the sheets of Mrs. Marreco’s book from her English publisher should have been unable to correct several misprints.

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