by Philip Ferguson
Today (Feb 4) marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the first woman elected to the British parliament! This was in the general election of December 1918, at the end of WW1. And no, she was not a Tory reactionary, but an Irish revolutionary – Constance Markievicz.
She was in jail at the time in London.
She had been second-in-command lof the insurrectionary forces at Stephen’s Green during the 1916 Rebellion in Dublin and, among other things, performed valuable sniper duties; after the surrender she was tried by court-martial and sentenced to death, commuted to penal servitidue for life on account of her being a woman.
The British were subsequently forced to release the prisoners, from the end of 1916 to mid-1917. Considered one of the hardest of the hard-core, she was in the very last group of prisoners to be released, returning to an ecstatic welcome in Dublin.
In May 1918 she was arrested for sedition and again imprisoned in England. It was here that she ran for parliament.
She stood on a platform of independence and radical social change in Ireland and not taking her seat at Westminster if elected.
In that election, 73 seats were won by people who said they wouldn’t take their seat at Westminster if elected. A majority of them were in prison or ‘on the run’.
(These people won a majority of the seats in Ireland and set up an independent parliament of their own in Dublin, declared independence from Britain and passed the Democratic Programme, an outline for radical socio-economic change. They then fought the British state to a standstill, as the British attempted to inflict a reign of terror in Ireland.)
Markievicz was the founder of the very first republican paramilitary organisation of the 20th century, Na Fianna Eireann. She taught them to shoot, drill and blow up stuff. She was also one of the founding leaders, a few years later, of a workers’ militia, described by Lenin as “Europe’s first Red Army”. This was the Irish Citizen Army, which arose to defend workers against the Dublin cops in the great lockout of 1913-14; after the lockout the ICA was transformed from a workers’ defence force into a workers’ insurrectionary army. Markievicz served throughout on its seven-person Army Council.
During the war for independence, she led the women’s wing of the Irish Republican Army, Cumann na mBan.
Markievicz opposed the “Anglo-Irish Treaty” of Dec 1921, arguing that it was an attempt by the ruling classes of England and Ireland to prevent the unity of British and Irish workers and a betrayal of the masses of countries like India and Egypt who were still struggling to free themselves from the yoke of British imperialism.
She fought against the Treaty and the establishment of the ‘Free State’ and was again imprisoned, as well as being ‘on the run’ in Scotland.
Here is Markievicz’s speech against the Treaty, delivered in the Irish parliament, where she was minister of labour at the time.
Here are some other interesting pieces by her:
On the conditions of women in English jails (written 1922)
Break down the Bastilles (written 1919)
What Irish Republicans Stand For (a critique of the early Free State, published 1923)
There is a whole bunch of biographies of Markevicz, going right back to the 1930s. However, I would particularly recommend the following:
Diana Norman, Terrible Beauty: a life of Constance Markievicz (1987)
Anne Haverty, Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary (2016; this is an updated edition of her 1988 Constance Markievicz: an independent life)
Lindie Naughton, Markievicz: a most outrageous rebel (2016)
The Norman book is excellent, but the Naughton and new edition of Haverty contain more recently-available sources, material that just was not available to Diana Norman or anyone else in the 1980s and earlier.