Review of Lindie Naughton, Markievicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel, by Claire Guerin

LINDIE NAUGHTON, Markievicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel, Newbridge: Merrion Press, 2016. ISBN 978 1 78537 081 6, €19.99–€34.99.

The various interpretations of the life of suffragist, socialist and markievicz-web1nationalist revolutionary Countess Markievicz often reveal something profound about the state of the society in which they were written. Some notable examples come from the 1930s, when Sean O’Faoláin and Liam O’Flaherty distanced themselves from their advocacy of the republican side in the Irish civil war by adopting the propaganda rhetoric of its rivals. With Sean O’Casey, they created the gendered myth of the demagogue who did not have the wit to understand the ideology she shrilly espoused; the annihilator of respectable, middle class femininity; the bad mother and wife who encouraged other women to neglect their sphere. As Erskine Childers was associated with feminine characteristics to rationalise his eradication, so Markievicz’s reputation was attacked to prevent others from following her example. A number of women writers and academics including Jacqueline Van Voris and Anne Haverty sought to address the revisionist myths of the 1930s, and a slew of more recent works, written in the shadow of the centenary of the 1916 Rising, subject Markievicz’s life to fresh analyses of her background and influences. Lindie Naughton, too, in her 2016 biography, casts a fresh eye on Markievicz’s cultural, political and ideological development and in doing so amasses an impressive amount of detail.

The author does not skip over Markievicz’s upbringing, correctly portraying it as important to the eventual emergence of both Gore Booth sisters as social revolutionaries. In common with Laura Arrington, Naughton shows that Markievicz’s conversion to radical politics was not a sudden or reckless whim, but was moulded by her “very pleasant, kindly inflammable family, ever ready to take on new ideas” (W.B. Yeats, p.30) and the relatively liberal landowning background which saw her brother Josslyn, who inherited the Lissadell estate, study farm methods in the U.S. and Canada and found the Drumcliff Dairy Society and the Sligo Manufacturing Society. Josslyn was, as described by Yeats, “theoretically” a Home Ruler (p.31), but Constance retained her unionist predisposition. However, Naughton depicts Constance and her sister Eva as inherently sympathetic to the poor and downtrodden. They were both active and vocal in the North Sligo Women’s Suffrage Association, and Constance would later assist Eva in rallying for women workers and campaigning for pro-suffrage candidates in England.

Constance had been inspired by Sarah Purser to study art, and pursued her calling in Paris. Here she met Casimir Markievicz, and the two married in 1899. They followed George Russell’s advice to locate to Dublin, leaving their young daughter Maeve to be looked after by Constance’s mother. The couple became involved in the Theatre of Ireland and the Abbey – incensing Yeats, who did not like Casimir’s popular plays – and helped to found the United Arts Club, which admitted both sexes on an equal basis. It was a scene in which language activists, revolutionaries and artists mingled, and Markievicz joined women’s group Inghinidhe na hÉireann, which Naughton notes was formed by Maud Gonne because women were barred from joining the Celtic Literary Society. With Bulmer Hobson she founded Na Fianna Éireann – the author gives Markievicz most of the credit – with which she aimed to undermine recruitment for the British army, and in 1909 she wrote an article for the Irish Nation in which she declared that “A Free Ireland with no Sex Disabilities in her Constitution should be the motto of all Nationalist Women” and urged women to enter public life and get elected to public bodies. The author makes the excellent point that the new parties finally gave Markievicz a way to express the feelings on poverty and equality instilled by her upbringing, with an emphasis on direct action and openness to women not encouraged by the established parties and co-operatives.

Markievicz  wrote for Inghinidhe’s newspaper, Bean na hÉireann, and was elected to the executive of Sinn Féin in 1909. She attended a lecture by Frank Ryan on ‘Nationalism and Socialism’ at the Sinn Féin Drumcondra Branch in 1909, and her role in establishing the Betsy Gray Sluagh of the Fianna in Belfast brought her into contact with James Connolly’s writings. She joined the Irish Citizen Army, which was formed as a defence force for workers, but fought alongside the Irish Volunteers in defence of an Irish Republic 1916. In treating rumours spread soon afterwards that she deliberately shot an unarmed policeman, the author suggests that Markievicz may have shot at Constable Lahiffe and believed she had wounded him in the arm, though other accounts indicated she was not in the area at the time. After 1916, women did not make the advances in political representation that their visibility would seem to have promised. George Russell wrote in 1921 of militarism vying with political progress and of “that tense and artificial uniformity of mood and mind necessitated by the struggle”. Nevertheless, Markievicz successfully made representations to Dáil Éireann president, Éamon de Valera, and was appointed Minister for Labour in 1919. She went on a fundraising tour of the United States for Cumann na Poblachta, the party opposing the 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty, and following the fall of Dublin to pro-treaty forces in the civil war, she worked in propaganda in Dublin before going to Glasgow on de Valera’s request, one of a number of prominent women who served as republican diplomats, propagandists and writers.

The civil war had the effect of brutalising public discourse, and in this, republicans were as culpable as their rivals. Yet, like Liam Mellows, Seán McLoughlin, Ernie O’Malley and, to an extent, Erskine Childers, Markievicz perceived the necessity of reassessing the relevance of republican rhetoric to a desperately poor and alienated public. Naughton’s quotations from her post-war writings indicate the development in her political ideology and her relationship to the Catholic church and give tantalising hints of the influence she might have exerted in Fianna Fáil but for her declining health and ultimately, her death in 1927. Overall, Naughton does an admirable job of cataloguing Markievicz’s political views and restoring her reputation as a cultural, political and women’s rights activist of continuing relevance rather than the ignorant agitator fashioned by 1930s revisionism. One praiseworthy aspect of this book is that anecdotes are used sparingly and very effectively. An impressive depth of research allows Markievicz’s personality to develop for the reader and makes the biography – in spite of a tendency to become bogged down in contextual narrative – thoroughly engaging, and a useful reference.

Claire Guerin