“Dress suitably in short skirts … and buy a revolver”: The role of women in The Easter Rising of 1916

As we mark the centenary of The Easter Rising, a recent article by Olivia O’Leary for The Guardian lead me to consider the involvement of women in the conflict and on the involvement of the aristocrat-turned-rebel, Countess Markievicz, in particular.

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Three young rebels of Easter, 1916

          Easter fell early this year, on March the 27th, but a century ago Easter Sunday was celebrated on the 23rd of April, with Easter Monday falling on the 24th.  However, the religious festivities of 1916 were to be greatly overshadowed by the outbreak of an armed conflict in Ireland, one which came to be known as The Easter Rising. The Rising, a rebellion against British rule, largely took place in Dublin, with smaller skirmishes breaking out across the country. It began on Easter Monday, 1916, when a group of around 1,800 men and women took over key buildings in Dublin, transforming The General Post Office into their headquarters. It was on the steps of the Post Office that Patrick Pearse read aloud a statement, known as the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, in which he declared that Irish men and women would fight for their independence from the crown.

The British army, caught unawares by the development and with forces focussed on World War One, was initially slow to react but it soon took measures to halt the rebellion. Within a few days, extra troops had arrived in Ireland. Fighting broke out on the streets of Dublin, and it is thought that almost five hundred people were killed in the conflict. Of them around two hundred and sixty– three for every rebel death – were civilians, with many killed as a result of crossfire in the busy city, or of the British use of artillery and heavy machine guns.  The Rising began on April the 24th and lasted for just five days, though its legacy is still celebrated by Irish Republicans, and the conflict is a common theme in many of the famous Belfast murals. Many others, however, such as the former Irish Prime Minister, John Bruton, criticise the ‘celebratory’ tone surrounding memorials. He believes that ‘It is important that in remembering and commemorating what happened that we don’t glorify or justify it.’

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The destruction of Dublin, 1916

The centenary of the conflict lead many to discuss the way it is commemorated, and indeed whether the legacy is worth remembering at all. In a recent article for The Guardian, for example, published shortly before Easter this year, journalist Olivia O’Leary voiced her admiration at her grandfather’s involvement in the Rising, yet her disappointment in the outcome. She wonders, ‘What happened to the promise of equality in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic read out on Easter Monday 1916, … addressed to “Irishmen and Irishwomen”?’ O’Leary goes on to note that while the proclamation declared an end to British rule, it also guaranteed religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens. What’s more, writes O’Leary, it made a commitment to universal suffrage, something which was extraordinary at the time, and two years before women in Britain won the vote. O’Leary writes of her disappointment therefore that the progressive message ‘became stifled by a conservative culture obsessed with female chastity and purity.’

‘Historians,’ writes O’Leary, ‘now tell us that there was a tussle to have women included so pointedly in the proclamation.’ It was a struggle won by James Connolly and Constance Markievicz, the prominent feminist and socialist. Yet only two years later in the general election of 1918, ‘when Sinn Féin swept the boards,’ it was clear that the socialists and feminists had been pushed aside. ‘Most of the dreamers and visionaries had been shot in 1916’, writes O’Leary, ‘and a more pragmatic and conservative leadership concentrated totally on the nationalist goal of separation from the UK.’ Thus, when the Irish Labour movement decided to stand aside in 1918 so as not to split the nationalist vote, the only woman elected was Markievicz.

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Constance Markievicz, the rebel countess of 1916

After reading O’Leary’s article, I was curious to read more about the involvement of women in The Easter Rising. In particular, I was keen to learn more about the role of Constance Markievicz, knowing very little about her beside her reputation as the ‘rebel countess.’ One post, by BBC History, notes that her exploits dominated contemporary press accounts of The Easter Rising. An instance of this being ‘the scene at the College of Surgeons when she kissed her revolver before handing it over to the British officer at the moment of surrender,’ a tale which passed instantly into Irish nationalist mythology. Quite something for a woman who had been born into the aristocratic Gore-Booths family in London, 1868, and presented at court to Queen Victoria in 1887.

The author writes that she married a Polish count, Casimir Markievicz, however they had little in common and separated amicably at the outbreak of World War One. Then, in 1909, Markievicz first became known to British intelligence for her role in helping the nationalist scouting organisation Na Fianna Éireann in their mission to train boys for participation in a war of liberation. She was also deeply involved with the Irish suffragette movement and focussed considerable energy into Inghinidhe na hEireann, a militant women’s organisation founded by Maude Gonne. Markievicz demonstrated further compassion in her work with the poor. In 1913, for example, during the Dublin Lockout, she worked tirelessly so as to provide food for the worker’s families.

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Countess Markievicz

Just two years later, she was involved in helping to organise and train the Irish Citizen Army. Indeed, during the Easter Rising, Markievicz was second-in command to Michael Mallin at St. Stephen’s Green/College of Surgeons, and she actively fought throughout the week. After the conflict, she was the only woman to be court-martialled, on May the 4th, 1916. While it has been suggested that Markievicz ‘crumpled up’ during her trial, there is little evidence to support this. Official records instead suggest that ‘she acted with courage, dignity and defiance’ at the trial, and declared “I did what I thought was right, and I stand by it.” The verdict reached by the court was unique; she was found ‘Guilty. Death by being shot,’ yet with a recommendation to mercy based ‘solely and only on account of her sex.’ The sentence was therefore commuted to a life sentence.

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Countess Markievicz during her time in prison

Markievicz ultimately served thirteen months in Irish and English gaols, and later claimed that her inspiration during the period of her imprisonment had been Thomas Clarke, a signatory of the Proclamation who had been executed alongside Pearse and MacDonagh on the 3rd of May, 1916.  Afterwards she also was known for being unforgiving in her attitude towards the Irish Volunteer Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill, who had opposed and tried to prevent the Rising. In the General Election of December, 1918, Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons. However, as a member for Sinn Féin, she never took her seat in Westminster. Rather, she served as Minister of Labour (1919- 1921) in the first Dáil, the lower house of the Irish Parliament. She is known to have bitterly opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December, 1921, and supported the anti-Treaty forces during the civil war. In 1921, aged 59, Markievicz died in hospital in Dublin. At her funeral, the working class of the city lined the streets.

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Crowds line the streets for the funeral of Countess Markievicz, 1921

Markievicz is perhaps the best known woman to have been active in the Easter Rising, but she was by no means the only one. In her article entitled Women of the Rising: Activists, Fighters & Widows, Sinéad McCoole writes of the many who fought alongside her, and are only now receiving recognition. Approximately three hundred women took part in the events of Easter week, 1916. This figure is one which McCoole draws from recently released material held by the Military Archives, and is much higher than previously thought. Beyond the statistics, McCoole also examines contemporary newspapers for ‘a more immediate insight into the roles played by women in 1916.’ One press report, for instance, stated that the women ‘were serving in the dining room of the Post Office dressed in their finest clothes, and wore knifes and pistols in their belts… wearing green and white and orange sashes.’ While another report, based on an account by a Red Cross nurse and published under the headline ‘Fearless Under Fire,’ expresses a great amount of admiration for ‘…these Irishwomen, who did their work with a cool and reckless courage, unsurpassed by any man from the first to the last day of the Rebellion.’

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Some of the approximately 300 women involved in the Easter Rising

Indeed, the contribution of women attracted a great deal of international attention, and in the aftermath of the Rising many representatives of the American press came to interview the women who had been imprisoned. Kathleen Lynn, for example, who had served as Chief Medical Officer in the Irish Citizen Army later reflected that they were not what the media had expected; ‘We were not up to the mark and as snappy as they would have liked us to be. They got the impression that we were a poor lot.’ Yet, whatever the opinion of the American press, and whether or not the Easter Rising should be commemorated or simply remembered, the role of women in the conflict should not be overlooked. In a recent article entitled The Forgotten Role of Women Insurgents in The 1916 Rising, Tom Clonan effectively summarises by stating that while women continue to be ‘effectively airbrushed from historical accounts of the Rising and their sacrifices for the state routinely omitted in discussions about Irish identity and citizenship,’ the role they played in the struggle of 1916 and in the subsequent War of Independence was nonetheless vital.

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Further reading:


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