Countess Markievicz: "Short skirts and strong boots..." - October, 1915
The formation of the Republic of Ireland as an independent country is a long story.
One aspect of the Irish struggle for independence that rarely received enough mention in the history books is the role Irish women played in this struggle, and not just within the home but also in demonstrations, activism, unionization and, when all other avenues failed, radical militant action. The Easter Rising was carried forward on the brave actions of not just Ireland's men, but its women also.
One of the most notably famous women revolutionaries is of course the Countess Markievicz. A founding member of Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army. Each of these organizations formed core facets of the movement to free Ireland from an oppressive foreign rule.
As an active nationalist, suffragist, and socialist the Countess spent a lot of time agitating for the cause of independence and also for the more equitable treatment of women within the emerging republic ideals. In the time leading up the the Rising, Countess Markievicz worked hard to mobilize her peers in wealthy society calling on women in particular to take appropriate steps to prepare for the inevitable days of conflict.
"Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots. Leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver." - Countess Markievicz, October 1915
When the day of the Rising came in 1916, she aided in the blockade of and occupation of Stephens Green and we have a diary record from District nurse Geraldine Fitzgerald which describes what she witnessed;
"A lady in a green uniform, the same as the men were wearing (breeches, slouch hat with green feathers etc.) the feathers were the only feminine feature in her appearance, holding a revolver in one hand and a cigarette in the other, was standing on the footpath giving orders to the men. We recognized her as the Countess de Markievicz – such a specimen of womanhood. There were other women, similarly attired, inside the Park, walking about and bringing drinks of water to the men. We had only been looking out a few minutes when we saw a policeman walking down the path from Harcourt Street. He had only gone a short way when we heard a shot and then saw him fall forward on his face. The Countess ran triumphantly into the Green saying “I got him” and some of the rebels shook her by the hand and seemed to congratulate her."
As one of the leaders of the Rising she was incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol. There, she was the only one of 70 women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. At her court martial on 4 May 1916, Markievicz pleaded not guilty to "taking part in an armed rebellion...for the purpose of assisting the enemy," but pleaded guilty to having attempted "to cause disaffection among the civil population of His Majesty".
Markievicz told the court, "I went out to fight for Ireland's freedom and it does not matter what happens to me. I did what I thought was right and I stand by it." She was sentenced to death, but the court recommended mercy "solely and only on account of her sex". The sentence was commuted to life in prison. When told of this, she said to her captors, "I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me".
When later released under a general amnesty, Countess Markievicz returned to the cause of Irish Independence as an Irish politician. She was the first woman elected to the Westminster Parliament, and was elected Minister for Labour in the First Dáil, becoming the first female cabinet minister in Europe. She served as a Teachta Dála for the Dublin South constituency from 1921 to 1922 and again from 1923 to 1927.
Truly there is so much that our little island owes to this and many other amazing women of the Rising and we hope that they're always remembered when Ireland's people speak of their independence.