Countess Markievicz, 1916 and the 1918 General Election
Toast to the Lassies proposed by FELIX M LARKIN at the Burns Night Supper
in the Kildare Street & University Club, 17 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin
Before I begin, I think I should declare an interest: I am the son of a Scots lassie, my mother having been born in Glasgow some 91 years ago. In these circumstances, I’m not sure that I can bring the right level of objectivity to the task which I have been given this evening. But I will try.
And it seems to me only right that, if I am to speak about the lassies, I should acknowledge the importance for women of the centenary that we observed last Monday here in Ireland – the centenary of the first public meeting of Dáil Éireann. That assembly comprised the majority of Irish MPs elected in the General Election held in December 1918, and that was the first parliamentary election in which women had the vote in these islands. The MPs in question had pledged that, if elected, they would not take their seats in Westminster, but would set up a rival assembly in Dublin – and that is precisely what they did.
One of their number was Countess Markievicz. She was the first woman ever elected to the House of Commons – but since she had been elected on an abstentionist platform, she did not take her seat in Westminster. Instead, Nancy Astor was the first woman to sit in Westminster – elected in November 1919, almost a year after Markievicz’s election. She was an American, and it strikes me as very strange that neither the first woman elected to the House of Commons nor the first woman to take her seat there were actually British. I don’t know what that tells us about the British political system, but clearly there was no aversion to ‘blow-ins’ in those days.
One of the first thing the First Dáil did was to elect a government to challenge the writ of the Dublin Castle regime – and, remarkably, Countess Markievicz served as Minister for Labour in that government. This was ten years before Margaret Bondfield became the first female cabinet minister in Britain and fourteen years before Frances Perkins was appointed the first female member of the US cabinet. And, in Ireland, we had to wait until 1979 before another woman entered the cabinet. Markievicz’s achievement is, therefore, worthy of note in the context of this toast.
Markievicz was, of course, also one of the rebels in 1916. Whereas most women participants in the Rising acted as messengers or nurses or simply fed the fighting men, she was a combatant and, as we shall see, didn’t hesitate to fire a gun. She was second-in-command of the Irish Citizen Army contingent that took over St Stephen's Green, and later the College of Surgeons. Here, in the University Club, one of the members ̶ Stephen Kelleher, a professor of mathematics in Trinity College ̶ witnessed the events in Stephen's Green on Easter Monday 1916. In a letter his wife wrote to her family in Derry, she recounted how her husband had seen the rebels going into Stephen’s Green and expelling the public. I quote: “The gates of the Green were all shut – the chains keeping them back broken and the inside barricaded with seats etc ... Next they [the rebels] started digging trenches.”
Kelleher saw Countess Markievicz arrive at the Green, and his wife states that “she was dressed in male attire – all in green – boots, puttees, a tunic almost to the knee, a feather in her hat, and she appeared in great form”. Later, Kelleher was present in the Club when Markievicz aimed a shot at one of his fellow members, Dr Daly – fired from St Stephen’s Green into the Club where, as Mrs Kelleher wrote, “he was foolish enough to show himself at a window”. Dr Daly was an officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps and was in uniform. Mrs. Kelleher comments: “Anything in uniform was potted”. Fortunately, on that occasion, Markievicz missed her target – though the window was shattered – but she is alleged to have shot an unarmed policeman at one of the gates of St Stephen’s Green at another time on Easter Monday, and to have run triumphantly into the Green afterwards shouting “I got him, I got him” – and one of the witnesses to this episode (not Professor Kelleher) reported that “some of the rebels shook her by the hand and seemed to congratulate her”. The policeman later died from his wounds.
Still on the subject of Markievicz and guns: it is said that, when she was Minister for Labour, she once produced a revolver and placed it on the table in order to facilitate the settlement of an industrial dispute in which she was mediating. I’m sure that focused the minds of both parties wonderfully.
As is well known, Markievicz was court-martialled after the 1916 Rising and condemned to death, but her death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. The record shows that she behaved in a cowardly manner at her trial, breaking down and pleading for clemency – saying “I am only a woman, you cannot shoot a woman, you must not shoot a woman”. This gender-specific plea for mercy has not prevented her from becoming a feminist icon – celebrated as a female combatant in 1916 and as the first woman elected to the Westminster parliament.
It may, however, be more appropriate to see her as a stereotypical example of her generation as depicted by Roy Foster in his book, Vivid Faces. He argues that the radicalism of that generation represented as much a “generational shift” as anything else: they were, in Foster’s words “reacting against their fathers”. He writes: “a cohort of people emerged in Ireland who ... were determined to destabilize the worlds they were born into”. In this respect, they were the same as revolutionaries at any time and in any place – young, educated, upper- or middle-class people revolting against their parents and their parents’ values, both political and social. In that sense, Dublin in 1916 was no different to Paris in 1789, Russia in 1917, student revolts in Paris and elsewhere in 1968 - even Baader-Meinhof in Germany. I suspect Markievicz would have been quite at home in the Baader-Meinhof gang.
All I can say is: thank God all lassies are not like her. Nevertheless, I think it is right that we should salute the advance represented by the enfranchisement of women and the election of the first woman to the House of Commons – and her subsequent selection as the first female Cabinet minister in these islands. In toasting the lassies this evening, remember those momentous events of one hundred years ago and give thanks that lads and lassies now enjoy the same rights and obligations in the political sphere in both Britain and Ireland. We are – all of us, both men and women – all the better for that.
And so, the toast: TO THE LASSIES