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Rewriting women into our story

On the Edge

On The Edge
Áine Ryan

SHOULD I have been surprised that when I checked my copy of ‘A New Dictionary of Irish History’ there was no mention of Constance Markievicz? Clearly the fact that she was the first female MP in the British Parliament and a key player in the 1916 Rebellion was not  enough for her make the cut. That is despite the fact that a little-known Fenian, John J Breslin, was included, as was Edward John Littleton, the First Baron Hatherton, a Whig politician in the British Parliament. Okay, he was Chief Secretary for Ireland (1833-34) and did support Catholic Emancipation, but surely Constance (nee) Gore-Booth, born to an ascendancy family in Lissadell House, Sligo, deserved a paragraph too?
Isn’t her riches-to-rags story – via a revolution – a worthy legacy? Wasn’t it telling that she was honoured at a ceremony in the British Houses of Parliament in Westminster last month for her role as the first woman elected to the House of Commons – albeit as an abstentionist Sinn Féin MP? Indeed, she was also the first woman in Europe to hold a cabinet position; it was in the first Dáil, from 1919 to 1922, as Minister for Labour.
It was so fitting that a photographic reproduction of a 1901 oil painting of her – owned by the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin – was presented to Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow on behalf of the Irish Government by Ceann Comhairle, Seán Ó Fearghaíl at last month’s ceremony. It will be on public display in the British parliament’s ‘Voice and Vote’ exhibition on ‘women in parliament’ until October 6 next before becoming part of its permanent display.
Markievicz’s singular role in British politics was noted by Mr Bercow in his speech. He also reminded people that her election was in the year that the struggle for female suffrage was successful and the Qualification of Women Act was instituted into law.

From riches to rags
IT is often suggested that Constance and her sister, Eva, also an activist, were deeply influenced by their father Sir Henry Gore-Booth’s benevolence towards the tenants on their huge estate during the famine of 1879 to 1880. He not only provided free food for the tenantry but also organised assisted emigration for these families.
Her life of revolution certainly brought her on a long way from the debutante balls of London and the salons of Paris where she mixed with the royalty of Europe with her Polish husband, Count Casimir Markievicz. Constance was one of the leading soldiers on St Stephen’s Green during the Rising. A founder member of Fianna Éireann, Cumman na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army along with James Connolly (a hero of hers), she was also sentenced to death, in the aftermath, alongside her comrades, but it was commuted to life imprisonment because she was a woman.
Her political convictions continued throughout her relatively short life, and she died from appendicitis complications in a public ward in a Dublin hospital, aged just 59 – all of her wealth given away to the poor.
Poignantly, among those at her deathbed was a Co Mayo woman, Dr Kathleen Lynn. Her  name only became a household one two years ago during the centenary celebrations of the 1916 Rebellion.

Women’s role in history
SO why are women still written out of history?  Did you know that 60 female members of Cumann na mBan, the Irish Citizens’ Army and Clan na nGaedhael Girls Scouts took part in the Easter Rising? Other than Constance Markievicz, Maud Gonne, Lady Gregory, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington and, perhaps, Molly Childers, the Giffords, Kathleen Clarke and, of course, Kitty Kiernan, Michael Collins’s lover, what names trip off our tongues when speaking about this seismic time in our political and cultural history?
Well, to start with – and to name but a few –  there is Helena Molony, Agnes O’Farrelly, Sorcha MacMahon Rogers, Siobhán de Paor, Nancy O’Rahilly, Bridie Mullane, Linda Kearns, Rosie Hackett, Sinéad de Valera, Mary Andrews, Marcella Cosgrave and Catalina Bulfin MacBride. The last in that list was the wife of Seán MacBride, son of Maud Gonne and Major John, who was born at Westport Quay.
Surely we shouldn’t just associate Constance and Eva with the iconic WB Yeats line: “The light of evening, Lissadell,/Great windows open to the south,/ Two girls in silk kimonos, both./Beautiful, one a gazelle.”
Surely gender equality will only be achieved in our present parliament and broader society, when we rectify our historical narrative.