"A Dream of Liberty". Constance Markievicz's Vision of Ireland, 1908-1927
Bibliotheca Historica n:o 34
Markievicz a Freedom Fighter
Constance Markievicz was born among the privileged Anglo-Irish but dedicated her life to ending British government in Ireland. Many people from her class were at this same time interested in cherishing the Irish language and culture but only few combined armed rebellion against British government with these nationalistic cultural goals. And even fewer fought to improve the status of workers and women, in the way that Markievicz did.
Constance Markievicz was a nationalist whose aim was to make Ireland an independent nation. Already in her youth she was inspired by the Irish cultural legacy and worked to maintain it. Markievicz's conception of Ireland was based on an ideology that romanticized the past of "Irish Ireland". She found justification for her claim for independence on the one hand in looking back to a golden age of the past and trusting in permanent national characteristics, but on the other hand also in the history of Ireland's sufferings. Those elements were in a more central position in her thinking than emphasizing the significance of the nation's own language.
Markievicz emphasized the significance of a shared history and environment as a uniting factor for the Irish, -including Anglo-Irish-, and this was a natural basis related to her own background. Those elements together with the national characteristics had formed an Irish "race" that was unlike any other. The Irish did not care for material things; idealism and the spirit of self sacrifice as well as instinct were characteristic of them in the same way as emotionality was a characteristic of their language. For Markievicz, supporting the republic was also "instinctive", a proof of the race's memory. Thus it was natural and characteristic for the Irish to strive for independence, towards a new society. Markievicz's concept of the characteristics of Ireland were partly shaped by contradictions. Compared to Britain Ireland was small and materially poor but on the other hand spiritually rich and equal. The social Darwinist thinking of that time was reflected in Markievicz's speeches, too: she described the British as unpleasant even in their appearance.
Religion was one of the most important features that was believed to distinguish the Irish from the British. Even before converting to Catholicism Markievicz used religious metaphors as part of her polemic. The fight against Britain was for Markievicz a fight against a prosperous, arrogant, materialistic empire, David's fight against Goliath. But like David, Ireland had a righteous God on its side, as Markievicz suggested in her poems. Religious metaphors and comparisons of nationalists to the martyrs of the early church were a constant feature of Markievicz's speeches and writings: she compared Larkin to Christ and the Fianna-boys to the Christ Child. It was possible and permitted for a man to compare his life to Him; every one had to bear his cross. The Irish nationalists that fought against British materialism were like a small Christian vanguard to Markievicz. They shared a high spiritual idealism that would finally break the enemy. Markievicz even linked the Last Judgment with nationalism: then the life of every Irishman would be weighed as well as the way they had paid their debt to the martyrs of nationalism.
Converting to Catholicism was not only Markievicz' personal choice but an important feature in the portrait of any perfect Irish patriot after the Easter Rising. The conversion showed in her work in public writings where she could use religion as a weapon against the supporters of the Irish Free State or against employers and at the same time emphasize the right religion and the Christian morality of the republicans. In trying to persuade the people to support James Connolly's ideas after the civil war and after election defeat she emphasized his Christian principles and the harmony and the combatibility of Connolly's ideology with the doctrines of the church. The Christian idea of salvation was reflected in the description of her own two conversions: first to the nationalist movement and, second, to Catholicism, both of them happening in a situation where sudden enlightenment made Markievicz a person who had found a new path.
For Markievicz the republic of Ireland meant unambiguously the island of Ireland but over time the definition of the Irish people had become a more complex issue. Like many other nationalists Markievicz disregarded the problem of Ulster and hoped that every one that had experienced the common past and environment of the island of Ireland could join together regardless of different background, class or religion. Markievicz strongly criticized those Irishmen who overlooked that goal; in other words those unionists and those who worked for Great Britain and were on the whole indifferent to nationalism.
To achieve political goals was even more important to her than the revival of the national culture: Ireland had to regain the independence that it had lost when it became part of the United Kingdom. It must become a republic that would guarantee equal citizenship to all its citizens regardless of class and gender. In Markievicz's view, only the independent republic could offer the necessary framework for social and economic reforms. Ireland was entitled to strive for republic because it was a community quite separate from Great Britain and it had the features of a nation-state; it had a unique culture, history and language that the people living on the island of Ireland shared.
According to Markievicz part of the characteristics of the Irish "race", like sacrificing one self and heroism, had already shown themselves over a long period of time. One could rely on them also when planning the future, because creating an independent nation was not possible without sacrifices. Markievicz thought that because of the necessity of violence and suffering the desire to sacrifice one self had to be roused in Irishmen. Gaining independence was seen as the right object of a small and noble nation's fight. Markievicz accepted the republican doctrine according to which the use of force was the only possible way to independence. The Irish were to be educated with might and main, with speeches, writings, demonstrations and actions, to see the fact that the connection with Britain had to be broken even if violence proved necessary. Markievicz founded a youth organization Na Fianna Eireann just for that purpose.
Markievicz wanted to arouse all Irishmen to resistance but did not imagine the eventual rebellion would have the widest possible support. She believed in the arousing power of an exemplary vanguard, just like IRB which relied on the traditional nature of rebellion in Ireland and Markievicz accepted the IRB's separatist republicanism, although she did not like the conservatism of the organization. However, accepting the tradition of past rebellions and reviving it in the modern world were important to Markievicz. But even if she supported traditional rebellion: people marching to battle with waving banners and uniforms and shouting the slogans of bygone patriots, the "army" that she had planned for this battle was an exceptionally radical group of women, young people and workers.
Before the Easter Rising in 1916 the guiding line in the politics of Markievicz was through passive resistance and cultural nationalism to create wide support for a violent rebellion by which the connection to Great Britain would be broken and a republic of Ireland founded. The defeat in the Easter Rising was a victory in the view of Markievicz because it fulfilled her wish: it changed people's opinion and made them resist the British government. When that goal had been reached and when the republican shadow government, Dáil Eireann had been formed, she worked as a minister in it. In that role Markievicz followed the decisions of Dáil Eireann which she saw as made by representatives democratically chosen by the Irish people. One of the themes of her speeches became the hope that the republic would be acknowledged in the peace negotiations at Versailles, and when that hope faded, the improving of social defects and the creating of an economic policy capable of coping with Ireland's problems became most central in her work.
When the possiblity of promoting independence improved after the Easter Rising and having gained the support of the people, the republic became the goal of the nationalist movement. Not every one, however, saw the founding of the republic as the main goal, as Markievicz did. Her aim was an independent republic of Ireland, precisely the worker's republic that James Connolly had worked for, a co-operative nation. It was a republic people had died for, a republic where preference was given to the rights of those -poor people, women and workers- that at that moment had no influence at all. During the first Dáil Eireann she built the image of the future republic on the basis of an agrarian ideal. In the future land would be given to both landless men and women; the ideal was a patriot family living in the country and raising a lively and healthy generation with the products of the land. Markievicz put emphasis also on the way of life in that future home: a good home was like the nation in miniature. She was fascinated with the idea of home and women's role in the building of ideal homes in ideal Ireland. The idea of co-operation that was part of Markievicz's ideal republic had been familiar to her since her youth, and in spite of the success of co-operative movements all over Europe she considered it an Irish idea. A small-scale experiment with the Fianna-boys proved to Markievicz that co-operation was an idea worth supporting and that the rising generation of Ireland should adopt it. Quoting the Democratic Programme that the shadow parliament promulgated in 1919, Markievicz emphasized co-operation as a true characteristic of the republic: co-operation was the only sensible way and the only possible alternative to the former economic policy that was so alien to the Irish mind. She thought that accepting the Free State spelt not only political defeat but did a great deal of harm to the economic structure, because it meant the rejection of the idea of co-ooperation which was characteristic of the Irish and which distinguished the Irish from the British way of thinking.
For Markievicz it had always been a great challenge that she had to act in a situation where Ireland was more or less a part of Great Britain. She did not trouble herself about that after the republicans had formed their shadow parliament: that and the people's support gave her hope of impending victory and a feeling that the ties with Britain had been severed. That is why she so strongly condemned the oath of allegiance that was accepted in the compact of the Irish Free State. Markievicz did not wish for divisions in the nationalist ranks but when the civil war broke out she considered it her duty to join battle alongside the troops of the republicans rebelling against the Free State for she had sworn allegiance to the republic. The war and defeat in the election in which she had hoped the people "awakened" by the Easter Rising would show their "instinctive" judgment with regard to the Free State, were a bitter disappointment for her. In that hopeless situation she returned to the streets to speak directly to the people. As a weapon against the Free State she used now, in the middle of a depression, the proclamation of a new, stronger reformating politics. Markievicz also demanded that her own party, Sinn Fein should emphasize similar things.
However, Sinn Fein was not the only forum for Markievicz, not even when it was at its most popular just after the Easter Rising. The nationalist movement gathered around Sinn Fein did not in itself quite fulfill Markievicz's social and political aims. Her concept of the idea of equality that was a central part of being Irish made it also possible for her to work in the women's and worker's movements as well. The problems that these movements emphasized had also an impact on Markievicz's vision of future, and she did not reject or postpone the resolving of these problems as the mainstream of the national movement did. It was also important for her to awaken women and workers to the national fight because if they were organized they could better watch and demand their rights in the future.
Markievicz had already supported the suffragette movement in an earlier phase. Organizing and educating herself particularly for public life and proclaiming the movement's demands in public were already familiar means of political action for her in her early days in the suffragette movement. When Markievicz became an active member of the nationalist movement, the suffrage had still to be gained in a situation where an independent Irish parliament still could not act. She therefore worked to improve women's situation through those movements which at that time strove for political independence. As a basis for this she had, regardless of her disappointments, her concept of the naturally egalitarian morals of the Irish race and on the other hand the memory of the country's past when women were active in every field of social life. The best advocate for women's rights among men she found in James Connolly. Among women's organizations Markievicz's ideas were best fulfilled first in the radical Inghinidhe na hEireann which declared open rebellion and demanded that the people should be awakened, educated and trained, and in later Cumann na mBan which became in practice a part of the IRA after the Easter Rising. On the other hand, organizing girls to act in the Fianna or organizing women to act in their own union IWWU was only a minor part of Markievicz' work. Most important for an independence fighter was to organizing women for the national fight and this was not a principal aim of the IWWU. On the other hand, the improvement of the conditions of working women and mothers was close to Markievicz's heart; she always preserved the habit, familiar to her since her childhood, of holding out a helping hand to poor families.
In the shadow government, furthering the cause of women was left to Markievicz. As a minister Markievicz tried to increase women's influence by appointing them arbitrators in her own ministry and giving them assignments that she thought would suit them because of their gender, like taking care of child abuse cases. She hoped for women candidates in the elections and tried to carry through the initiatives of giving them land. Although Markievicz considered men's attitudes and even the principles of the Catholic church which maintained the inequality between genders to some of be the reasons for women's poor situation at that time, she found women's passivity to be the biggest reason. This could be due to personal experience, breaking our of her background. Her amazement at women's passivity was also due to her knowledge of the past when women's activity had been both possible and natural. Now that women lacked independence, they had simply forgotten. But because women's activity had once existed and was now only "slumbering" , it was possible to awaken the women with the help of speeches, writings and her own example.
Markievicz emphasized the historical example of the fighting woman, even if she did not demand that every woman should be in a leading position. Every one had her own place and her own duties, but one had to keep in mind the goal of independence and every action had to be aimed at that goal. The fact that to Markievicz the woman of the past was a fighter was not important only because she could thus justify women's participation but also because in this way she could encourage women to strike a new course and to cross their limits. To Markievicz wrong ideals of femininity were those that defined a woman only as a housewife and a mother and shut her out of politics. The rejected aspects of both genders the feminine side of a man's soul and the masculine side of a woman's soul should be emphasized more freely. In the education of women and girls she was not inspired by the role of a domestic or a nurse: because the women had taken part in battles they were entitled to get the franchise and a place among the decision-makers just as she herself was entitled to be a minister. Thus Markievicz did not emphasize those "feminine qualities" of women with the help of which they would in the name of the general good best serve society by staying at home, even though she did remind women of the necessity of creating a good home during the first Dáil Eireann, when she according to her own view was already working for the future republic. However, Markievicz could hardly have accepted Fianna Fail's conservative concept of a woman's place.
In her way of dressing and acting Markievicz liked to emphasize the masculine, even aggressive side of woman. In an Inghinidhe na hEireann play she appeared as an armour-clad Joan of Arc who would fight to free Ireland. Joan of Arc was not a mother and motherhood was not a primary issue for Markievicz. She did not direct her words to mothers in particular but spoke to women as women and to the Irish in general. Also when claiming improvements in the conditions of working women, she was, in spite of her sympathy, more like their leader and organizer than like a mother understanding the problems of another mother. By encouraging women in the role of a fighter and choosing that role voluntarily herself, Markievicz certainly broke the traditional rules which may explain the fact that she was often seen as a hysterical, fanatic and also a bad mother. Alertness and heroism were characteristic of her writings about women, as well in her writings such as her historical plays, where women had a central role and where they were firm and righteous. Markievicz who in the beginning of her career emphasized the pure ideals of women which they had kept outside party politics, saw the same kind of hope in those women who had rejected the compact of the Free State and by that action had proved the dependability of their principles. By emphasizing women's qualifications and possibilities, Markievicz was also justifying her own actions, because it was relatively rare for a woman to be active in politics at that time.
Women were a group that had to be recruited to fight but they were not by any means the only group. By educating the children of Irish mothers a generation could be created with the help of which the battle could be started. Like Patrick Pearse and the women of Inghinide na hEireann Markievicz paid attention to the education of the rising generation. Unique to her methods was the fact that the boys in Fianna na hEireann were trained to be soldiers. The essence of the education that was offered to the boys was that of preparing for the extreme sacrifice; morals and spiritual training were specially emphasized. Although Markievicz trusted in the power of education and enlightenment to such an extent that she considered social evolution to be inevitable when the amount of knowledge increased, the solving of the national question could not be left to rest upon it alone. For solving that question people had to be organised and trained even to take arms. In addition to women and children Markievicz wanted to take also into the front ranks of the fighters those workers whose living conditions needed to be improved. For her the labour question was opened up by Larkin and Connolly both of whom wanted to create an independent labour movement which would cover the whole of Ireland. For Markievicz suffering people were always worthy of respect, and during the Lock-Out she saw in the Irish labour movement a small national army which had fought against Britain without sparing itself. Their fight against British capitalists was the same battle about the same things as Ireland's fight against British supremacy. For her Larkin and Connolly were living legends of the independence fight whom she certainly and especially considered to be nationalists.
Markievicz did not by any means see socialism as a strange idea to the Irish as, for example, Arthur Griffith did. On the contrary it was an idea that emphasized national uniqueness and was based on the Irish history and character, and she defined it as "James Connolly's socialism". For Markievicz the labour movement was not so much about a revolution that would change the structures dramatically, as about rearranging and rebuilding, in other words about reformism. It was crucial that the labour issue had opened up for her just through Connolly who thought that it was impossible to separate the national and the labour issues from each other. However, Connolly was not the only person close to Markievicz who tried to forward the worker's cause; her sister's life's work among women workers was also significant in the development of her thinking.
Markievicz did not want to postpone the resolving of social problems as the mainstream of the national movement did. The problems that the labour movement had brought up had to be solved and the workers had to be given a chance to be a part of solving them. Co-operation was the key to a truly succesful establishment of national independence and it had to be extended to all groups of society. Thus Markievicz as minister acted as a conciliator between workers and employers trying to avoid confrontations among the Irish.
After the Easter Rising Markievicz believed that the workers would support the nationalist politics of Sinn Fein. She made it clear that she supported both movements because her concept of a free Ireland was both "economic and political". Markievicz wanted the Irish to get organized both economically and politically - in trade unions, co-operative associations and republican organizations. Markievicz connected economic freedom with political freedom: it meant supporting Irish industry, strengthening the Irish trade union movement and nationalizing Irish business life in every way. Economic freedom did not mean government-led socialism, which Markievicz denied was Connolly's goal. She explained Connolly's aim to take command of factories, farms and political organs rather as giving of authority to Irish representatives than as a central feature of syndicalism. Neither the contents of Markievicz' speeches nor her aims changed essentially, although she sometimes talked about class and capitalism. Gaining full national independence was central for her all the time. For Markievicz Wolfe Tone's phrase: "men of no property have to support rebellion" did not mean only the landless but also the workers. Thus, Markievicz wanted the workers to take part in the national fight but not necessarily to lead it. In a situation where the Irish republic was about to be founded labour had to take its share of the burden. Although Markievicz saw hope in the Bolshevik revolution, she did not regard the success of the Bolsheviks as a victory for socialism; in her writings it was more like an example worth following: it was as if the great French revolution that had had so much influence on the Irish republicanism, had broken out again.
The established image of Markievicz as an impatient and bloodthirsty weathercock is too simple. She worked in politics tirelessly for almost twenty years and in spite of her rebellious attitude and her colourful speeches, she spent only two weeks of that time in physical fighting. For Markievicz the most important thing was to work in organizations and parties in order to make the Irish accept her programme. Her basic principles did not change with every new contact, but she made choices, she rejected Hobson, for example, when he proved to be over careful in her judgment; she rejected Larkin when he disbanded the workers' front and she rejected the compact of the Free State. After the founding of the Free State when the policy of Sinn Fein prohibited her from taking part in politics and prevented her from gaining the people's support, Markievicz disengaged herself from that part of the radical republicans that still held out against the treaty and joined Fianna Fail party that de Valera had founded. Her choices tell us a lot about what Ireland would be like in the future and what she thought were the means to achieve it.
The franchise was a necessary weapon for Markievicz throughout her career. She believed in the moral power of the franchise. In spite of her suspicion of parlamentarianism she wanted a republic to follow the rebellion, a republic where representatives chosen by the people would gather together to make the decisions. Voting and fulfilling other obligations of citizenship gave the basis for actions which had to be backed up by an idea - thus Markievicz did not want the dictatorship of a small vanguard to follow the rebellion. On several occasions she demanded that people trust themselves and distrust their leaders. In the background there was the idea of a deliberative person seeing the situation the way Markievicz did. Once she was out of politics in prison, she emphasized that she had done enough, now it was some one else's turn. However, she was conscious of the importance of her work, which was manifested in her claim to the post of Minister of Labour.
The fact that she polled a large number of votes in almost every election proves that her person and her politics were received with sympathy among the voters. By that standard she was a successful politician. Certainly she was also the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons but as a minister in the shadow government she was not, however, among the most important or the most appreciated. Her programme was too radical and her aim, a republic that would cover the whole island of Ireland did not come true. To her contemporaries and to succeeding generations her goals were often left in the shadow by her colourful actions and personality. However, Markievicz worked tirelessly for wide social reforms throughout her career. A dream of liberty united and sustained up her actions and thinking.
The basis of Markievicz' political career is crystallized in her remark "Life is politics". That idea was the basis of her own actions, too. For her politics consisted not only of being a member of an organization or a party but also taking of action personally when needed. Her idea of what a society should guarantee its members was reflected in her own charity work for she continually raised money and food for the poor. In a broader sense, that observation was not only personal but was also connected with the programme that she advanced. The Irish national ideology had to reveal itself publicly in every action - not just in a certain sphere of politics or not only through the leaders' example.
The emphasizing of self-action that was part of the co-operative idea,
had characterized the ideas of Markievicz at all times. Markievicz hoped that
the Irish would themselves understand the necessity of a national struggle
without being compelled to do so. As Irishwomen or Irishmen, workers or
children, individuals had their own duties to perform. Supporting independent
agriculture and Irish industry would create work and wealth for the ordinary Irishmen
who would take part in decision-making and change their circumstances
through organizing. Markievicz' citizen was someone who depended on the
republican tradition: it was his duty to forward good government and his duties to
his community were more important than the privileges that he expected and
was granted. The freedom of an individual could only be achieved through
the gaining of national freedom, freedom regardless gender or class, and
only national freedom could offer the possibility of living a "true Irish life": the
life of a useful, independent citizen.