Easter Rising, feminism, nationalism

One of the two editors of a book on the links between Scotland and the Easter Rising compared First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to Constance Markievicz, the best known of the women who fought alongside the men in Dublin a century ago.

Kirsty Lusk, a Phd student at the University of Glasgow, meant to liken Markievicz’s campaigning for the rights of women to Ms Sturgeon’s championing of women in politics and public life. But it was an unfortunate comparison and the SNP was quick to disassociate itself from it.

“While Countess Markievicz was clearly a very significant figure in Irish history, Scotland in 2016 is a very different place to the Dublin of 1916, so comparisons like this aren’t very meaningful,” a spokesman told the Scotsman.  Indeed they are not.

Countess Markievicz, the daughter of an Anglo-Irish landowner (her name and title came with her marriage to a Polish nobleman), had a long history of campaigning for women’s suffrage, but in 1916 she took to violence. She is said by some sources to have murdered an unarmed Irish policeman. Whether she did or not, she was prepared to kill (and to die) for her beliefs. She was in fact condemned to death, but reprieved because of her sex.


The proclamation of the republic, read by Patrick Pearse outside the GPO, headquarters of the rebels, did give equal prominence to women, but after the Rising the principle was soon forgotten. In the civil war Markievicz took to violence again, siding with Eamon de Valera. Later she was elected to the Irish parliament and became the first woman Cabinet member. She joined de Valera’s Fianna Fail party, the dominant force in the politics of the new republic for half a century.

Under de Valera women’s rights were suppressed – it would be more than 50 years before there was a second female member of the Irish Cabinet. Markiewicz died before she saw de Valera’s new constitution. Article 41 read:

the state shall endeavour to ensure that mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.

The Irish author Olivia O’Leary commented:

This was used not to give state support to women who stayed at home, but to discriminate against women who went out to work. Women public servants – doctors, nurses, teachers, television producers – had to resign because of their positions on marriage. They might be re-employed in a temporary capacity but at a reduced salary. There were always lower rates of pay for women in the public and the private sector.

Women were written out of the history of the Rising. Margaret Skinnider, born in Coatbridge, who fought with Markiewicz at St Stephen’s Green in 1916 and was repeatedly wounded, was denied the pension given by the republic to survivors of the Rising on the grounds that she was a woman.

There are many links between Scotland and the Rising. James Connolly, founder of the Irish Citizen Army and one of the leaders of the insurrection, was born in Edinburgh. His life, campaigns for workers’ rights and execution before a firing squad, have been remembered in the centenary of his death.

There are probably many more links between Scotland and the Ulster Unionists who opposed both Home Rule for Ireland and independence. The formation of an armed militia, the Ulster Volunteers, in 1912 provoked a similar response in the south, the formation of the armed Irish Volunteers. Yet the early Unionist Scots-Irish are seldom recalled, let alone celebrated.

The Rising was an important event both in Irish and British history and is rightly remembered. Modern Irish historians have taken a more balanced view of the events and the participants than was the case at previous commemorations. The stories of the innocent civilians, including 40 children, killed as well as those Irishmen who fought with the British Army in the First World War and the British soldiers killed by the rebels have been researched and recounted.

Daniel Mulhall, the Irish Republic’s Ambassador to the UK, wrote of the two friends, both active in nationalist politics and trade unionism, who chose to fight for their beliefs and were killed in 1916 – one in front of a firing squad at Kilmainham jail, Dublin, the other on the Somme.

Politicians use historical events in their rhetoric at their peril. Alex Salmond was unwise to refer to 1916 in the Scottish referendum campaign and, in an act of hubris, to presume the consent of the electorate in setting Easter 2016 as “Scotland’s Independence Day.” History is seldom simple.

This post was first published by the David Hume Institute and is reproduced with permission

Images are of British forces mounting roadblock at Mount St Bridge Dublin and of an armed Constance Mankiewicz via CC Irish Central/Wikipedia

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