In the period sometimes referred to as the Irish Revolution, upheaval led to unreliable witness accounts and buried historical evidence that has only recently come to historians’ attention. Lauren Arrington explores these untapped resources and the complex biographies of two European activists in her book Revolutionary Lives.
Who were the Markieviczes?
LA: Constance Markievicz is the better known of the pair, because of her political roles but also because she was an expert at self-publicity.
She grew up in a wealthy family who owned a sprawling estate on the west coast of Ireland, but she rebelled against the strictures of Victorian society and left home to study art—first in London and then in Paris. In the bohemian culture of Montmartre she met the dashing Casimir, a member of the Polish gentry, and they were engaged as soon as his first wife was out of the picture.
Constance and Casimir took their bohemian sensibilities back to Dublin, where they became involved in the local art scene that was closely tied to the growing nationalist movement. Constance was more politically radical than Casimir. She imagined that Ireland could be part of an international socialist movement, and national independence from Britain was the first step in achieving that.
Casimir was a nationalist in simpler terms. He hoped for an independent Polish nation-state and fought for the Russian Empire in the First World War because Czar Alexander II promised Poland independence in return for loyalty in the war. Casimir became even more conservative over time, especially after the Russian Revolution, which resulted in the burning of his family’s estate in the Polish-settled Ukraine.
Constance and Casimir split romantically, but they continued to love one another and stayed in touch as much as the political upheavals allowed. Constance was imprisoned on several occasions – and it was in 1918 in Holloway Jail, in London, that she became the first woman elected to the British Parliament. This achievement and her leading role in the 1916 Easter Rising, the centenary of which is being commemorated this year, have been the focus of several biographies of her.
If there have been several biographies of Constance Markievicz, do we really need another one?
LA: Absolutely – and I’d say that even if I hadn’t just written one! Previous biographies have been largely hagiographical. Their versions of Constance’s life have been driven by nationalistic commemorations or directed by the ambitions of feminist history. This has resulted in polemical depictions that exaggerate certain aspects of her character and airbrush out what are considered to be her less desirable thoughts and actions.
With Revolutionary Lives, I wanted to write a biography that told the lives of Constance and Casimir in their own time, as free as possible from our politics. So, I looked to contemporary sources that had never been consulted by previous biographers.
What kind of new sources?
LA: Well, first I should say that I consulted but did not really use the Bureau of Military History witness statements, a newly available source that has been plundered by researchers looking for new angles in Irish history.
LA: The bureau solicited interviews as part of a project to compile a state history of the series of conflicts that are sometimes known collectively as the Irish Revolution. It’s very clear that certain groups, like the ITGWU – the major labor organization in Ireland – decided on a “truth” about what happened and suppressed any dissent. For example, in their statements to the Bureau, the ITGWU-affiliated witnesses explicitly endorse R.M. Fox’s history of the union’s role in the Easter Rising and refuse to add further details.
The witness statements are also problematic because Constance was (and still is) a hugely divisive character. Witnesses who submitted statements to the Bureau were either friends who wanted to protect her legacy or antagonists who resented her because of her sex or her social class.
So, what new sources did you use?
LA: Newspapers from the period were essential to my book. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but previous biographers have neglected them. Many historians have, too.
LA: The simplest reason is availability. Very few print copies still exist of left-wing papers such as the Irish Worker and Workers’ Republic, or Republican War Bulletin. Select libraries hold microfilm versions, but the films are very brittle and often difficult to read. It’s an outdated technology, and very little is being done in the way of preservation.
But even researchers who have access to these newspapers often ignore them, due to complex political biases that privilege majority opinion, represented in mainstream papers such as the Irish Times – which has, coincidentally, been digitized and is easy to access.
I also used Russian and Polish newspapers in order to trace down new aspects of Casimir’s life and thought – his opinions about Russian and Polish politics and his ideas about Constance’s activities in Ireland. I couldn’t have done this without the help of two expert researchers in St Petersburg and Warsaw, and a translator at a UK university.
As you mention, 2016 is a big year in modern history. How is your book relevant beyond the Irish commemorations?
LA: Revolutionary Lives is a deliberately provocative title.
The independent Irish nation-state emerged out of a series of conflicts: a major
trade-union dispute known as the 1913 Dublin Lockout; the 1916 Easter Rising; the Anglo-Irish War; and the Irish Civil War. Constance played an important role in all of these conflicts, and she believed that they were part of an Irish Revolution.
That term is debated among scholars and the public. Some believe that the ambitions of the Irish Revolution were thwarted by a counter-revolution in the form of the Provisional Government and subsequent governments, which retracted the socialist policies declared in the 1916 Proclamation, to which Irish Republicans remained loyal. Others believe that the independent nation-state that emerged was the product of a Revolution. (This view involves ignoring, for the most part, the Irish Civil War.) Still others believe that the events of 1913-1923 were not part of a cohesive “revolution”, so the term is inaccurate.
But the “Irish Revolution” is just one part of the story. Constance and Casimir were revolutionaries before their involvement in their respective national struggles. They were part of an avant-garde culture that revolutionized sexual politics and modern art.
Revolutionary Lives tells a story that is much bigger than Ireland or Poland. It’s a story of a couple that refused to be bound by national borders, a story of cosmopolitans whose contributions to culture and to politics created the world in which we live.
Lauren Arrington is senior lecturer at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool. She is the author of W. B. Yeats, the Abbey Theatre, Censorship, and the Irish State as well as Revolutionary Lives.