This year marks the centenary of a great turning point in social history. After several decades of suffrage struggle, The Qualification Act of 1918 permitted women (over the age of 30) to vote and stand as candidates in elections. In the General Election at the end of that year Countess Markievicz became the first female elected to Westminster, even though she did not take her seat because she ran on an abstentionist card for Sinn Fein.
Alongside this anniversary, 2018 also marks 150 years since the birth of that first female Member of Parliament.
On the 4th of February 1868 Lady Georgine Gore Booth gave birth to a baby girl at No.7 Buckingham Gate in London. Named Constance Georgine Gore Booth, history would know her as the formidable rebel – Countess Markievicz. The Countess was born into the landed Protestant class and grew up in sublime privilege. The future rebel spent her first few years in a dwelling which was only yards away from the Royal Palace. Following the birth of her brother Josslyn in 1869 and her sister Eva in 1870, the family patriarch Sir Henry Gore Booth decided to take his brood back to his birthplace – Lissadell House, Sligo.
Sir Henry revelled in his sprawling 32,000 acre estate in the west of Ireland. He was a noted Arctic explorer and big game hunter in Africa and the wilds of Connacht suited this adventurer. Unlike many landlords across Ireland Sir Henry did not clash with his tenants and he was well liked and respected by those who rented from him or worked for him. He became President of the Sligo Agricultural Society and served as High Sheriff of Sligo as well as Justice of the Peace.
In 1874 Sir Henry’s wife Lady Georgine May Hill, who hailed from Yorkshire, gave birth to another girl Mabel and in 1878 a boy, Mordaut, thus completing the Gore Booth setup at Lissadell.
In 1879 a famine swept the north west and Sligo bore the brunt of it. The young Countess was 12 years old when she accompanied her father as he visited his tenants with food and hay. He also reduced their rent during those harsh months. The young Countess witnessed at first hand the ravages of poverty and how the kind gestures of her father could alievate it for those less well off. Had the Gore Booths remained at their plush pile near the Royal Palace, then the young Countess would never have experienced what years of an unequal society in Ireland produced and perhaps would not have carved out a life championing the cause of social justice and national freedom.
Sligo was, for the young Countess, a portal to freedom she would not have otherwise enjoyed in the suffocating realms of London’s high society. At the age of 4 her father gifted her a pony, by the age of 14 she won her first race at the County Sligo hunt. She rode out frequently with the Sligo Harriers, she fished in local lochs, she explored the bogs and went shooting under Ben Bulben. The Countess was born into Victorian wealth and stringent manners but lived life on her own terms, her independent streak was nourished amid the unruly wilds of western Ireland.
The exquisite dwelling Countess Markievicz was born in, 150 years ago is still an address of upper class aspirations. No. 7 Buckingham Gate was put on the market in the Spring of last year with the ultra exquisite price tag of £18million. There was, and up to now, no marker to indicate it as the birth place of Westminster’s first female MP and Ireland’s foremost female rebel. Perhaps that latter status may not sit well for those who wish to sell a dwelling which is more or less on the doorstep of her Majesty.
W.B Yeats wrote about the Sligo life of the rebel Countess in his poem ‘On A Political Prisoner’ which he wrote in January 1919, shortly after she was elected Westminster’s first female MP from her cell in Holloway prison.
When long ago I saw her ride
Under Ben Bulben to the meet
The beauty of her country-side
with all youths lonely wildness stirred
She seemed to have grown clean and sweet
Like any rock-bred sea borne bird.