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January 12, 2017

Markievicz Biography

Lindie Naughton, Markievicz: A Most Outrageous Rebel (Merrion Press, 2016, 330pp, €39.99 HB, €19.99 PB

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Lindie Naughton’s Markievicz, A Most Outrageous Rebel is published at a time when the subject of this biography Constance de Markievicz, has become a focus of attention once more; as one would expect during this Decade of Centenaries. Over the past two decades much attention has been given to the role of the rank and file members of Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army with the release of new material from the Military Archives and private collections. It is timely that their most charismatic leader should be looked at anew in light of these studies, and Naughton has made good use of this source material.

Lindie Naughton can write, she has taken the well-honed narrative and handled it with the lightness that is the skill of someone whose business is word-craft. If the reader comes to this story for the first time; it will give them great enjoyment. For others more familiar with the subject this work will find its place alongside rather than replace the older studies such as Diane Norman’s 1987 Terrible Beauty, Anne Marreco The Rebel Countess, Anne M Haverty’s An Independent Life and the more recent study by Liverpool University’s Lauren Arrington. Arrington has written this story as Revolutionary Lives: Constance and Casmir, although it is unexpected to have a joint biography, this study does not diminished or obscure the wife by also including her husband! Biographers to date have been female with the exception of the first biographer Seán O’Faolain. The Average Revolutionary, published by Jonathan Cape in 1934, a book which was highly critical. It outraged Countess de Markievicz’s contemporaries who found his work ‘inaccurate and misleading.’

The cover of Lindie Naughton’s book shows a woman with no emblems, uniform, jewels or any distinguishing markings. By reducing the title to her surname, and without referring to her as the Countess or Madame, brought with it anticipation to this reader, that the subject was now such a well-known figure that she needed no more of an introduction. The sub-title is a more traditional one, she is described as outrageous and a rebel. The daughter of a County Sligo Landlord Constance Gore Booth, who on marriage became Countess de Markievicz, did indeed outrage her class and became a rebel. This can indeed be described as bold, unusual and shocking; it is only one aspect of this formidable lady’s life story. Her contribution in the area of worker’s rights, her political firsts, her imprisonments, her personal losses make the use of the words in the sub-title rather inadequate to show her in the round, and in my opinion reflecting a limited outdated version of this woman that I thought new scholarship had changed. By the same token the reissue of Anne M Haverty’s An Independent Life of 1988, an insightful title has been repackaged as Irish Revolutionary and makes use of the well-known image of Markievicz with the gun, while dispensing with the image from the same set of photographs that is now used for the cover of Naughton’s book! Do we use the old maxim don’t judge a book by its cover, while mindful that authors must pay attention to their illustrations to make sure they showcase the best of what is available. Some of the vast collection now in the possession of the Cassidy-Walsh Family could have been made use of here or some material from American collections which have been made more accessible to scholars in recent years.

At the outset Lindie Naughton’s subject emerges as a ‘warm, witty, kind-hearted woman’ from her private letters and she does capture the girl, who in her youth was described as likeable, agreeable, and fun to be with. The book makes good use of her diary entries and her subject emerges from accounts such as Sir Alexander Godley’s description of a weekend shooting party when Constance requested the men throw their hats in the air so she could shoot at them. The determination and independence of spirit is demonstrated in her travelling to Paris to study art and her selection of Casimir Dunin de Markievicz as her choice of husband. The book gives us a glimpse of the adventurous and irrepressible character as Naughton recreates the scene, in the days before their wedding, that Constance and her fiancé travelled around London on an open top bus practising the marriage ceremony so Casi could learn his affirmative reply to ‘Wilt thou take this woman to be your wife?’

However, this free spirited woman gets lost as the story continues, but it is understandable as the weight of source material from the period of just over a decade from 1916 until her untimely death in 1927, means the recounting of events leaves little time to include the smaller stories that round out the person. It is no easy task to take on this life story; it would be far easier to write the first biography of someone or the official biography of a person with exclusive access to unpublished material.

While historians; myself included, could quibble with sweeping statements, and an at times choppy time-line, each person who writes their version of a person’s story enriches it. In this book one such new source for me, was a document, remarkable in its survival, showing of the desire of Countess de Markievicz, well before the Rising to ‘leave her class.’ She wrote: If I could cut the family tie and have a life and an interest of my own, I should want no other heaven.’

These words remained with me long after reading them, knowing the consequences of her choice that an ‘interest of her own’ would be to enter Irish politics which would bring isolation from her childhood friends and relatives, poverty, hardship, hunger-strike and five separate periods in prison, and ultimately premature death – which could surely be the farthest thing from a heaven that one could imagine?

Sinead McCoole is the the author of a number of books including Easter Widows: Seven Irish Women who Lived in the Shadow of the 1916 Easter Rising (Doubleday Ireland, 2014).