Today (February 4) in London History – the first woman elected to Parliament

A Polish countess who took part in the Easter 1916 Rising in Dublin was the first woman MP. It’s an extraordinary tale. Today’s her birthday. Her story is the stuff of today’s Today (February 4) in London History podcast.


Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

It’s of course one of the most famous lines in cinematic history. The speaker is Dorothy Gale, played by a very young Judy Garland. Toto’s her little dog. A tornado has just swept them up and swept them away from humdrum, infinitely ordinary, boring old black and white rural Kansas. Carried them to a different world – carried them to the magical, full-on technicolour, lambent, weird and wonderful fairyland known as Oz.

The tornado took them to Oz but if it had taken them to London Dorothy would have had much the same reaction.

The sheer wonder of the place and its history. And if Dorothy’s wide-eyed, jaw hanging open exclamation in The Wizard of Oz leaves you cold – well, maybe try a spot of Shakespeare – yes, that’s right, the Duke of Clarence’s dream of drowning in Richard II. 

Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;

Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw’d upon;

Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,

Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,

All scatter’d in the bottom of the sea:

Some lay in dead men’s skulls; and, in those holes

Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,

As ’twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,

Which woo’d the slimy bottom of the deep,

And mock’d the dead bones that lay scatter’d by.

Oz, Clarence’s dream of death by drowning, they’re places that beggar belief. And, yup, London and London characters and London history can be just as surreal.

Pick a card, any card. Oh my goodness, you picked Constance Georgine Gore-Booth. Today’s her birthday. She was born on February 4th, 1868. That’s why she’s the poster lass for this Today in London History episode. Gore-Booth was her maiden name. Constance Georgine Gore-Booth was born across the street from Buckingham Palace. Her nearest neighbour was Queen Victoria. When she was 20 she was presented to Queen Victoria – her family was that prominent, that rolling. Descended from 17th-century planters, her family were prominent Anglo-Irish landowners. When he wasn’t owning land, her father was an Arctic explorer and adventurer. So, yes, she was an Anglo-Irish heiress. She was renowned for skill with the rifle and in the saddle. Her sister was a prominent suffragette. They knew the poet Yeats. He wrote a fine poem about them. She was London born and educated – with Paris and the grand tour worked into the mix – but then, as an adult, she because Dublin’s daughter, Ireland’s Marianne – you know, Marianne, the personification of the French Republic.  She became a dyed-in-the-wool Irish nationalist. A member of Sinn Fein. A strident and flamboyant and beautiful orator, she made no secret of her support for armed rebellion against the British forces. Her advice to her fellow women was “Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank and buy a revolver.” She didn’t just talk the talk, she walked the walk. She was a major player in the Easter 1916 uprising. She was fearless. She was second in command of a troop of Irish citizen army combatants at St Stephen’s Green. According to one account, she shot and killed a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police. After a week of intense fighting she and her fellow rebels surrendered. She was sentenced to death. 

But the court recommended mercy solely and only on account of her sex. She 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.”

When her sentence was commuted to life in prison she told her captors, “I wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She was released from prison in 1917, along with others involved in the Rising, as the government in London granted a general amnesty for those who had participated in it.

In less than a year she was behind bars again for her part in anti-conscription activities. 

Next stop, Parliament. Yes, she stood for office and was elected for the constituency of Dublin St. Patrick’s. She was one of 73 Sinn Fein MPs. And here’s the thing, that made her the first woman elected to Parliament. And here’s the other thing, along with the other Sinn Fein MPs, she did not take her seat in the House of Commons. 

Anything else? Yes, just this bagatelle. She was an Irish countess. 

She married a member of the Polish nobility. His name was Count Casimir Dunin-Markievicz, whose family owned land in – wait for it, you listening Putin – the Ukraine.

See what I mean about not being in Kansas anymore when you’re in London. When you get caught up in the astonishing lives of Londoners. When you do the reel with them. 

Their lives, their places – it doesn’t matter. You’re not in Kansas. Even Oz can’t keep up with London when it comes to the power to astonish. I mean think about the hand I’ve just dealt you. The woman whose birthday we’re marking – Constance Georgine, Countess Markievicz – was the first woman MP, she was an Irish nationalist who was in the thick of the Easter 1916 Rising, she was (by marriage) a Polish countess, she was, as a child, Queen Victoria’s closest neighbour when Her Majesty was at Buckingham Palace.

And as for that address, her birthplace: 7 Buckingham Gate. Next door – not at the same time, but so what – lived Mark Sykes, who created the modern Middle East. You’ve heard of the Sykes-Picot agreement. In fact I did a podcast on him and that house. It aired on September 20, 2020. I titled it: “If you understand 9 Buckingham Gate you understand the world.”

But it doesn’t end there. 

We’re sure not in Kansas anymore when we’re at Buckingham Gate. Especially, 7 Buckingham Gate, birthplace of the heiress and Irish rebel and Polish Countess. Not so many years later it’ll be the home – well, one of the homes – of John William Mackay, the Irish-American industrialist of Comstock Lode fame. Yes, that John William Mackay. The Irish chap who was born in Dublin to a working-class family. His family shared a dirt floor hovel with a pig. When he was 11 he and his family emigrated to America. And in time from that dirt floor hovel shared with a pig 7 Buckingham Gate. In other words, from rags to riches beyond the dreams of Midas. He and three other Irish prospectors working the Comstock Lode hit it big. They couldn’t have hit it bigger. They were known as the Bonanza Kings. Their company, Con Virginia, made the greatest ore body discovery ever found in North America. For the record, the wealth of the Comstock Lode financed much of the Union side in the U.S. Civil War. It’s dizzying. And no question about it, it isn’t Kansas. It is London through and through – London seasoned with Ireland and Nevada and Poland and the Ukraine and the U.S. Civil War. 

But let’s see it out with the Countess. In the end she was at odds with friend and foe. She was arrested again in 1923. Went on hunger strike. Was released. Her health began to fail. Hard work and rough conditions took their toll. She died, of peritonitis, in a public ward at Sir Patrick Dun’s Hospital, in Dublin, on July 15th 1927.

Let’s end with Yeats’ fine poem about her and her sister. It’s a poem about the perfection of youth and beauty. And what comes after. Youth and beauty in the harness of time, and how time does his gift confound. Three footnotes. 1. Yeats shortens Constance to Con. 2. The gazelle in the poem is Eva, Constance’s sister. And 3. Lissadell is the family home in Ireland. 

Here’s the poem. I won’t say a farewell at the end. We’ll leave the last words to Yeats. 

In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz

By William Butler Yeats 

The light of evening, Lissadell,

Great windows open to the south,

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

Beautiful, one a gazelle.

But a raving autumn shears

Blossom from the summer’s wreath;

The older is condemned to death,

Pardoned, drags out lonely years

Conspiring among the ignorant.

I know not what the younger dreams –

Some vague Utopia – and she seems,

When withered old and skeleton-gaunt,

An image of such politics.

Many a time I think to seek

One or the other out and speak

Of that old Georgian mansion, mix

Pictures of the mind, recall

That table and the talk of youth,

Two girls in silk kimonos, both

Beautiful, one a gazelle.

Dear shadows, now you know it all,

All the folly of a fight

With a common wrong or right.

The innocent and the beautiful

Have no enemy but time;

Arise and bid me strike a match

And strike another till time catch;

Should the conflagration climb,

Run till all the sages know.

We the great gazebo built,

They convicted us of guilt;

Bid me strike a match and blow.

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