Easter Monday marks the hundredth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, the pivotal event in the struggle for Irish independence from Britain. In Revolutionary Lives, Lauren Arrington details the career of one of the least-likely champions of the Irish nationalist cause, the Countess Markievicz, née Constance Gore-Booth. Born into a landed gentry family from Co. Sligo, she repudiated her upbringing to become a radical socialist voice in Irish politics, fighting with the trade-union based Irish Citizen Army in 1916. Her subsequent imprisonment cemented her standing in nationalist circles and in the 1918 general election, she became the first woman elected to the British Parliament, although her official invitation to the opening of Parliament had to be sent care of Holloway prison. She remained a prominent political figure in Ireland, and an enthusiastic propagandist for the republican cause, until her death in 1927.
Unusually, Revolutionary Lives is a dual biography, presenting Constance alongside her husband, the Polish painter and writer Casimir Markievicz, whom she met in Paris in 1898. On their subsequent move to Dublin, the Markieviczs rapidly established themselves at the center of cultural life in Ireland. In demand as a portraitist, Casimir was also closely involved in the theatre, writing a series of political plays and founding his own company. As described by R. F. Foster in Vivid Faces, Ireland at the time was a ferment of new ideas, where nationalist currents mingled with others running the gamut from spiritualism and vegetarianism to women’s suffrage and trade unionism. Her role in women’s suffrage organizations brought Constance into contact with James Connolly’s Irish Transport & General Workers Union, and ultimately into the Irish Citizen Army.
The outbreak of war in 1914 found Casimir stranded in Warsaw, but this enforced geographic separation mirrored increasing separation in their personal and political lives. While Constance became a vocal supporter of the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution, Casimir was soured by Red Army raids on his family estates in the Ukraine, and turned to an increasingly conservative Polish nationalism. Constance’s feminism and socialism proved no less awkward to the equally conservative Irish nationalists who dominated political life in the fledgling Irish Free State. After her death, former allies such as Eamonn de Valera portrayed her exclusively as a nationalist heroine and declined to acknowledge her radical political beliefs. Revolutionary Lives rebalances the picture, not only by placing Constance squarely in the context of the political ideas that dominated her life, but also in bringing the often-forgotten Casimir out from her shadow.