Hanna Sheehy Skeffington on Constance Markievicz

Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was one of the most perceptive and no-nonsense of the prominent Irish radical figures of the revolutionary period and the long period of regroupment which followed.  In the following article, written in 1932, she notes how monuments, in this case a public monument to Constance Markievicz, can serve to efface the actual meaning of people’s lives, especially when they are revolutionaries.  Once dead, they can be converted into something far less threatening to the established order.  In this case, De Valera is performing the ritual on Markievicz and Sheehy Skeffington is presenting the actual, historical Markievicz and what she stood for.



by Hanna Sheehy Skeffington

Monuments to the dead are often misused – sometimes,  no doubt, unconsciously – by the living to misinterpret what those whose memorial is unveiled truly stood for.  Constance Markievicz, whose bust has been unveiled in Stephen’s Green, where she fought, as Commandant in the Citizen Army, has suffered similarly.  It is due to her memory that an attempt be made to place on record what she was and what she stood for.

Constance Markievicz was primarily and essentially a revolutionary, an iconoclast, with the direct vision, the divine discontent of a Joan of Arc, whose impatience with half-measures and compromise she shared to the full, a direct actionis, no respector of persons, however highly placed or respectable.

The picture painted by Eamonn de Valera of labour’s revolutionary heroine is conventionalised beyond recognition.  It resembles those portraits by “studio artists” that improve away the real features of the sitter, smoothing out the wrinkles and furrows for a touched-up image of their own, the image of a chocolate-box heroine.  It is an apologia where none is needed.

In the speech at the unveiling, Constance Markievicz is thus described:  “To many she was simply a strange figure, following a path of her own, not following accustomed paths, but the friends who knew her knew that she did that because she was truly a woman. . .  She put aside wealth and position that might have been hers.

“Love of her kind caused Countess Markievicz to join the ranks of the Citizen Army with James Connolly twenty years ago.”  “Ideas which are common today were then regarded as revolutionary. . .”   Then follow references to helping the poor and oppressed to earn a livelihood.

Connolly’s ideals, so far from being realised today by any parliamentary party, are as “revolutionary” as ever – and as unattained.  Both Connolly and Constance Markievicz stood for a Workers’ Republic.

Constance Markievicz was a disciple of James Connolly, a member of the Irish Socialist Party.  One of its objects was the ownership of the land by the people, who were to have control of the right of production, distribution and exchange; nationalisation of canals and railways; abolition of private banks – these and other “revolutionary” ideas were her ideals.  Not a word of uplift, of doing good to the poor in all this.

The interpretation of “Madame’s” attitude to the “poor and lowly” is one which she herself would have laughed to scorn.  For the poor “who are always with us” were not to Constance Markievicz a fixed, inevitable part of the eternal scheme of things.  She challenged the capitalist system under which the dispossessed toilers of the world are exploited.  She stood for nothing less than scrapping the “sorry scheme of things entire to mould it nearer the heart’s desire.”  She has left us unmistakable evidence in her writings, notably in a pamphlet written in defence of James Connolly in response to the challenge of a clerical anti-socialist critic.

Constance Markievicz was associated intimately with the formation of the Citizen Army arising out of the lock-out in l9l3.  When “Christian” employers were banded together to starve out the families of the locked-out, it was she who rallied to their support, going down to Liberty Hall to minister comfort to them, no patronising Lady Bountiful, no well-meaning philanthropist, but a rebel meeting challenge with challenge, giving back blow for blow.

“Madame” was, above all, a bonny fighter: her militant spirit was that of Queen Maeve or Granuaile, her countrywomen.  She had no early Victorian repressions and inhibitions, none of the sheltered femininity of the drawing-room type.  Where there was work that appealed to her to do she did it, whether it was carrying up bags of coal to a tenement back-room in the fuel famine of Cosgrave’s late regime or shouldering a gun and sniping at the enemy from the rooftops in Stephen’s Green or in O’Connell Street in 1922.

It would take a Connolly or a Mellows or one of the valiant women of the Citizen Army, her comrades in arms, to have appraised Constance Markievicz at her real worth.  It is a matter of history that Boland’s Mill* was the only rebel fortress in Dublin where no women were permitted to assist in 1916.  Cumann na mBan members were in other Volunteer-manned areas, the Citizen Army women shared command and responsibility in theirs.  This fact sufficiently illustrates the radically conflicting viewpoints of Connolly and de Valera – both consistent, both divergent – towards women and towards class distinctions and revolution as distinguished from evolution and constitutionalism.

To the one, woman was an equal, a comrade; to the other, a sheltered being, withdrawn to the domestic heart, shrinking from public life.  Each viewpoint has its exponents, but none will deny the self-evident fact that Constance Markievicz, Ireland’s Joan of Arc, belongs to the former category.  As typical of resurgent Ireland’s revolutionary womanhood she has her place in history, and all those who pass her memorial in Stephen’s Green, near Mangan’s Dark Rosaleen monument, will salute her as one of Ireland’s revolutionary leaders.

An Phoblacht, July l6, 1932

  • Boland’s Mill was commanded by de Valera in l9l6.


Posted on September 13, 2011, in Constance Markievicz, Historiography and historical texts, Republicanism post-1900, Women in republican history. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Hanna Sheehy Skeffington on Constance Markievicz.

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