The exploits of the ‘Larkinite rebel countess’, Constance Markievicz, dominated contemporary press accounts of the Easter Rising. The scene at the College of Surgeons when she kissed her revolver before handing it over to the British officer at the moment of surrender passed instantly into Irish nationalist mythology.
Constance Markievicz was born in London. Her Protestant ascendancy family, the Gore-Booths, owned Lissadell, an extensive estate in Co. Sligo. She was presented at court to Queen Victoria in the monarch’s Jubilee year, 1887. The unpredictable pattern of her subsequent career began when she married a Polish Count, Casimir Markievicz; with little in common, they separated amicably at the outbreak of World War One when he went off to the Balkans as a war reporter. In 1909, she first became known to British intelligence for her role in helping found Na Fianna Éireann, a nationalist scouts organisation whose purpose was to train boys for participation in a war of liberation. She was also active in the Irish suffragette movement and focussed much energy into Inghinidhe na hÉireann, a militant women’s organisation founded by Maud Gonne. She co-operated closely with the labour leaders, James Larkin and James Connolly. Her compassion for the poor was evident during the 1913 Dublin Lockout when she worked tirelessly to provide food for the workers’ families. Two years later she helped organise and train the Irish Citizen Army.
During the Easter Rising Markievicz was second-in-command to Michael Mallin at St. Stephen’s Green/College of Surgeons and was active in a fighting capacity throughout the week. Afterwards, she was the only woman to be court-martialled (4 May 1916). It was later alleged by the Prosecution Counsel that she ‘crumpled up’ at her trial but the official records indicate that she acted throughout with courage, dignity and defiance, declaring: "I did what I thought was right, and I stand by it". The verdict reached by the court in her case was unique: ‘Guilty. Death by being shot’, but with a recommendation to mercy ‘solely and only on account of her sex’. The sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life.
Markievicz served 13 months in gaol, in Ireland and in England, claiming subsequently that her inspiration during her imprisonment had been Thomas Clarke - a signatory of the Proclamation - who was executed with Pearse and MacDonagh on 3 May 1916. Afterwards she was unforgiving in her attitude towards the Irish Volunteer Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill, who had opposed and tried to prevent the insurrection. In the General Election, December 1918, she became the first woman ever returned to the Commons at Westminster but as a member for Sinn Féin she did not take her seat. Instead she served as Minister of Labour (April 1919-21) in the first Dail. As the then leader of Cumann na mBan, she bitterly opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty (December 1921) and supported the anti-Treaty forces in the civil war. She later joined de Valera`s party, Fianna Fail. She died in a Dublin hospital in 1927; the working class people of the city lined the streets for her funeral.