Constance De Markievicz: In the Cause of Ireland
The Rebel Countess: The Life and Times of Constance Markievicz
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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.