Markievicz letters: a new, expanded edition

The first edition of Constance Markievicz’s prison letters was put together by Esther Roper, the partner of Markievicz’s sister Eva Gore-Booth, to whom many of the letters were addressed.  The editon was published by Longman Paul in 1934.  Roper, with help from Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, one of the executors of Markievicz’s will and  longtime friend and fellow activist, wrote a substantial biographical essay for the book.

Over 50 years later Amanda Sebestyen worked on a new edition and wrote her own introduction.  This edition was brought out by the feminist publisher, Virago, in 1987.

Thirty-one years later (last year, 2018) Lindie Naughton, the author of a new recent biography – Markievicz: a most outrageous rebel (Dublin, Merrion Press, 2016) – has put together a new edition.  This edition returns the letters to their original form.  (Lindie notes, “Consulting the originals in the National Library of Ireland makes it obvious that the published versions of the prison letters skirted around some sensitive issues and blanked out the names of people who quite possibly were still alive at the time of the original publication.”)

The prison letters come from her various stints in jail: May 1916-July 1917 in Mountjoy (Dublin) and Aylesbury (Buckinghamshire); June 1918-March 1919 in Holloway; June-October 1919 in Cork; September 1920-July 1921 in Mountjoy; and November-December 1923 in the North Dublin Union.

Moreover, this edition adds a bunch of letters that haven’t appeared in print before.  These include letters to family members, in particular her beloved stepson Stanislaus, and various friends.  A section of the letters written when she was not in prison come from her final years (1924-1927).

Unfortunately, letters which Markievicz wrote to Eva Gore-Booth from the United States, during time she spent there building support for the cause of the Irish Republic, have long since been lost.

One of the amusing things about the prison letters here is how Markievicz tried to piss off the censors with how she signed herself by the initials she used after her name: IRA, ICA, MP and TD.

What comes through most in the letters are her courage, her wit, her revolutionary outlook and her humanity.  She frequently expresses concern for various people, both friends and combatants she didn’t know personally.

There are also fascinating little snippets into how the lackeys of British rule routinely lied, something she deals with quite wittily.  For instance, writing to Nora Connolly from Cork Jail on June 26, 1919, she relates aspects of her most recent arrest and trial:

“My whole prceedings have been ‘Gilbertian’ from my arrest and capture, my journey by special train, with about 30 police and 30 enemy soldiers armed to the teeth; (and) the Preliminary Exam when the Peelers got a look at me  as to identify me and rehearsed their version of my speech.

“The Sergeant swore to hearing me tell the people to treat the police like ‘leepers’.  For a moment I could not think what he meant; at the courthouse he had learnt to say ‘lepers’.”

The cops had made notes on her speech, which amused her as it was at dark and she couldn’t even read her own notes in the dark so it was highly unlikely they had been able to take notes of her speech.  It seems they concocted their own version later on – “both repeated the same yarn”.

At the end of the letter she sends “special love” to Nora’s moth Lillie, James Connolly’s widow and regrets not having got to see her before being arrested.  The letter then ends “My greetings to all good rebels.”

In a letter to Eva she writes about the revolutionaries of 1848, pointing to the revolutionary ideas of people like Lalor and Mitchel but their lack of an organisation, wondering whether perhaps the country was not ripe for a political movement that embodied their ideas and cites Lenin about the importance of conditions.  She adds:

“Pearse was rather like the ’48 men in that, but thanks to Tom Clarke and Sean McDermott, the organisation was there, and Connolly had the brain, so that when the moment came they were able to grasp it.”

She goes on to note that Pearse was a much finer orator than Connolly but that Connolly “never made an uninteresting speech.  He had more force and more world-knowledge and everything he said was worth remembering.  He was so practical too.”  Pearse and Connolly, she wrote,”often seemed to me to be a complement to each other.”

In another letter to Eva, she makes some withering comments about the English trade union bureaucracy: “they will never be of much use to humanity, only scrambling for champagne and frock coats in the end.”  (In the same letter, incidentally, she expresses a fondness for Oscar Wilde’s writing, something that a lot of respectable people would not have admitted to at that time.)  By contrast, elsewhere she expresses admiration for the radical Scottish working class leader, John Maclean, “a hero”.

In prison, Markievicz was a voracious reader – at least when she could get books – and there is a lot in the letters about what she was reading.  Her particular interests were Irish and English history, Irish language material, economics and labour history, as well as a few novels.

Although Markievicz converted from Protestantism to Catholicism after the Rising, this was mainly to identify with the oppressed.  It’s evidewnt she was never much one for religion, and certainly not organised religion.  In a letter to Eva in January 1924, she writes about the relationship between Christ and organised religion: “The tragedy of Christ’s life to me is far greater today than it was during the few terrible last hours of suffering.  For every church and every sect is but an organisation of thoughtless and well-meaning people trained in thought and controlled by juntas of priests and clergy who are used to doing all the things that Christ would most have disliked.”

In another letter she writes about a police strike in Britain and wishes the screws would go on strike too and destroy the prisons.

The last letters contain a lot of detail about her life outside politics, although she was very active politically and was still getting elected as an abstentionist TD to Dail Eireann and was an active local councillor.  She learned to drive and bought a Ford and learned to do some basic work on it; she liked driving outside Dublin and painting in watercolours; read a lot; gardened; and continued to write articles and also the pamphlet James Connolly and Catholic Doctrine.

In a January 1924 letter to Stanislaus she expressed admiration for her daughter’s mechanical abilities: “Maeve spent a day here on her way to Sligo and helped me pull the car to pieces.  She loves machinery and is very clever at it.”

One of the most moving letters is one of the last she ever wrote.  It was very short and was written just after Eva’s death in 1926, which came as a huge blow to her.  The letter is mainly about the relationship between her beloved sister and Esther Roper.  Markievicz writes that Esther was Eva’s “spiritual sister” and continues, “She is wonderful, and the more one knows her, the more one loves her, and I feel so glad Eva and she were together and so thankful that her love was with Eva to the end.”

  • Philip Ferguson

Posted on June 4, 2019, in British state repression (general), Censorship, Constance Markievicz, Counter-revolution/civil war period, Fianna, Fintan Lalor, Free State in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Ireland and British revolution, Ireland in 1800s, Irish Citizen Army, James Connolly, Nora Connolly, Padraic Pearse, Political education and theory, Prisoners - past, Republicanism post-1900, Republicanism pre-1900, Revolutionary figures, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Markievicz letters: a new, expanded edition.

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