The Countess of Irish Freedom

She was called the Countess of Irish Freedom by playwright Sean O’Casey and though born with a silver spoon in her mouth, she spat it out and risked her life for the common people of Ireland that she loved so much.

Constance Gore-Booth was born into a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family on Feb. 4, 1868 in London. Her father had a large estate in Co. Sligo where she moved in the circles of the Ascendancy growing up as a noted horsewoman and a crack shot as well as a beautiful young woman. She couldn’t help comparing her life to the lives of the poor dispossessed Irish families. Even when she later married into wealth and privilege, she never forgot the plight of the common Irish. She studied art and in 1898, attend the Julian School in Paris. It was there she met Count Casimir Markievicz, from a wealthy Polish family. Though he was Catholic, they were married on Sept. 29, 1901. Constance Gore-Booth was now the Countess Markievicz.

In 1903 they moved to Dublin where she began to make an impression as a landscape artist. She and Casimir founded the United Arts Club in 1905 but she soon tired of this life. Nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for, she said. Then in 1906 she found that ‘something. She rented a cottage in the Dublin hills from formerly rented by poet, Pádraic Colum. He left old copies of the revolutionary publications The Peasant and Sinn Féin there. Reading these, Constance found the cause to inspire her life.

In 1908 she became active in nationalist politics, joining Sinn Féin and Maud Gonne’s women’s group, Inghinidhe na hÉereann. She went to England in 1908 and stood for election against a young man named Winston Churchill. She lost and returned to Ireland where she founded Fianna Éireann in 1909, an organization similar to the boy scouts, but focusing on military drill and the use of firearms. Pádraic Pearse would later say that without Fianna Éireann, the Volunteers of 1913 would not have arisen.

By 1911 she was an executive member of both Inghinidhe and Sinn Féin. She was jailed for the first time for demonstrating against the visit of King George V. She also involved herself in the labor unrest of the time, running a soup kitchen during the lockout of union workers in 1913 and supporting labor leaders James Larkin and James Connolly. Her activity took a toll on her marriage and Casimir left for the Balkans, where he served as a war correspondent and then joined the Imperial Russian cavalry during World War I.

As the war began, Constance was in the center of the nationalist activity in Dublin which exploded on the 24th of April, 1916 in the Easter Rising. Most women in the movement participated as nurses or by running messages through the streets. Not the Countess. As part of Connolly’s Citizen Army, she was second in command to Michael Mallin at St. Stephen’s Green. She supervised the erection of barricades and was in the middle of the fighting. Moved by the faith of the men around her and its connection to the long struggle for Irish independence, she promised herself she would become a Catholic.

Mallin, Markievicz and their men held Stephen’s Green for six days, finally giving up only when the Brits showed them a copy of Pearse’s surrender order. The English officer who took their surrender was a distant relative of Markievicz and he offered to drive her to jail. No offence, old feller, she said, but I much prefer to tag along with my own. She was taken to Kilmainham jail where she was the only one of 70 women prisoners who was put into solitary confinement. Expecting to be executed, she sat in her cell listening to the volleys of the firing squads as her comrades were murdered. As prepared as she was to die, alone in her cell the sounds must have been frightening. At her court martial she had told the court, I did what was right and I stand by it. She was sentenced to death, but General Maxwell commuted this to life in prison on ‘account of the prisoner’s sex.’ She told the officer who brought her the news, I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.

Released in the General Amnesty of 1917, she kept her promise and became a Catholic. The fire within her had not been extinguished by the tragic events of 1916, and she continued the struggle. In 1918 she was jailed by the Brits during a phony ‘German Plot,’ aimed at breaking anti-conscription forces in Ireland. While in prison, she became the first woman elected to the British Parliament, running as a Sinn Féin candidate. She refused to take the oath of allegiance to the King and was denied her seat, but when the first Dáil Éireann was formed two months later, she was appointed the first Minister of Labor and went on the run. She was jailed twice during the War of Independence and was released to attend the Treaty debates.

When the Irish Civil War broke out Constance was once more involved in the fighting, helping to defend Moran’s Hotel in Dublin. Later she toured the US raising funds for the Republican cause. After the Civil War she regained her seat in the Dáil, but her politics ran her afoul of the Free State government and she was jailed again. Along with 92 other women prisoners, she went on hunger strike and was released after a month. She joined Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party in 1926 and was elected as one of it’s candidates in 1927. However, a month later she became sick and died in a public ward at Sir Patrick Dunn’s Hospital. It may have been appendicitis or cancer, many said it was simply overwork.

She could have lived a life of leisure, insulated from the trials and tribulations of the common man, but the Countess gave it all up and intentionally risked her life for them. When her body was taken to the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, for burial, as many as 300,000 people turned out on the streets to bid her farewell. At her graveside, Eamon de Valera gave the eulogy. When young people are searching for history’s heroes, they should be told the story of Constance Gore-Booth, she was truly the Countess of Irish freedom.

O’Carolan The Harper

The ancient Irish harpers were professionals of the highest order. Because their status was one of great honor, their training was long and rigorous. It generally began before the age of 10, and the student had to become the absolute master of three forms of Irish music, the history of the instrument, its maintenance, and all of the scales and arpeggios related to it. It’s no wonder that then, that the excellence of Irish harpers was recognized world wide. Dante praised them with rare admiration, as did Francis Bacon, who wrote, “No harp hath a sound so melting and prolonged as the Irish harp.” In 1165, Giraldis Di Barri wrote, “On musical instruments the Irish are incomparably more skilled than any nation I have seen.” Vincenzo Gallileci, famed opera master of Florence, revealed in 1581 that the Italians derived their knowledge of the harp from Irish masters.

Harpers were so highly respected that Irish Kings competed to maintain the best in service to their court, and there are many accounts in ancient Irish manuscripts that indicate the esteem in which they were held. One reads, “At the banquet, there were nine seated in front, with nine blue flowing cloaks and nine brooches of gold. Nine crystal rings were upon their hands, a thumb ring of gold on the thumb of each, clasps of gold on the ears of each, a torque of silver on the neck of each, and nine shields with golden emblazonment above them on the wall. There were nine wands of white silver in their hands for they were the King’s nine harpers.”

Originally supported by Gaelic aristocracy, Irish harpers later found patrons among the Norman Irish families like the Butlers and Fitzgeralds. However, that was soon to change. One of the ways in which England tried to subdue Ireland, was by replacing her heritage, culture, and traditions with English values. But the bards and harpers kept that ancient tradition alive.

Because their song and verse praised Ireland, freedom, and their Gaelic lifestyle, the English considered harpers, rhymers, and poets as dangerous and seditious persons. By the close of the 17th century, laws were enacted forbidding Norman or English homes from supporting Bards and Harpers. As Gaelic aristocracy was gradually subdued or disenfranchised, many of the harpers lost their patrons and took to the roads in an effort to keep their tradition alive. Across the face of Ireland, they composed and sang of their Gaelic past in return for a night of food and shelter.

Of all the Bards Erin ever produced, the last and perhaps the greatest was Turlough O’Carolan. Born in 1670 in Co. Meath, he was blind – either from birth or from a childhood bout with smallpox. A kindly local woman named McDermott Roe felt that she could help, and had the young man trained on the harp. The young O’Carolan was inspired and truly motivated by music. It was obvious that he was gifted with a natural ability, and Mrs. McDermott Roe became his patron. O’Carolan absorbed not only the sean nos, or old style, singing of his forebears, but the contemporary music of his own time. He became renowned as a poet, musician, and composer, singing his own verses to his harp. When he decided to take to the road to expand his learning and to share his ability with others, Mrs. McDermott Roe bought him a beautiful harp and a horse with which to travel.

O’Carolan seemed destined for his calling for he was gifted with an extraordinary memory. Once when challenged by another musician to a test of skill, O’Carolan played back the challenger’s composition note for note with enhancements that made it a far superior composition – a feat that was later attributed to Mozart.

O’Carolan married once in his career and had several children, but when his wife died in 1733, he took to the road again, gladly received and provided for in return for his beautiful compositions – more than 200 of which have survived to this day.

Most have become a standard part of the musical repertoire of some of the most respected classical companies and artists in the world. Throughout the years, O’Carolan’s melodies, originally composed for the harp, have been translated to dozens of instruments by hundreds of artists and used to support various sets of lyrics. One O’Carolan Planxty, used to support a poem written by the President of the Anacreontic Society, an 18th-century amateur musicians club in London, became their official song. In 1814, that tune was used to support a poem called the Defense of Fort McHenry which was published as the Star-Spangled Banner. In 1992, Shanachie Records released a CD entitled The Music of O’Carolan containing 14 of his works performed by classical guitarists.

O’Carolan remained a wandering minstrel until March of 1738. It was then that the ailing 68-year-old Bard returned to the Alderford, Co. Roscommon home of the McDermott Roe family, where he was met at the door by the surviving members of the McDermott Roe clan. “I have returned,” he said, “I have gone through it all, and only death is left. Shall my patrons still provide like when I got my first learning, and my first horse?” The old Bard was led to an upstairs bed to be cared for. On the 25 of March, he called for his harp, and lifting his beloved instrument he composed his last beautiful melody – O’Carolan’s Farewell to Music. Then God’s angels welcomed the master into the heavenly choir.