Speech by the Taoiseach, Mr Bertie Ahern TD, at the opening of the Constance Markievicz Exhibition in Lissadell, Sligo on Friday, 30 March, 2007 at 4.05 p.m.
Constance Markievicz is an iconic figure, familiar to all of us for the major part that she played in the birth of this nation, from fighting in the 1916 Rising to being the first woman in Europe, if not the world, to be appointed a Minister in a modern democracy. And yet there is the feeling that her life and achievements have not, perhaps, been celebrated as fully as she deserves.
So, I am delighted and honoured to be here in Lissadell, childhood home of the Countess, to officially open the Constance Markievicz Exhibition which has been lovingly assembled by Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy.
Although she is an historic figure, the legacy of Constance Markievicz is a living one – eighty years after her death she continues to be an inspiration to Irish men and women. Her commitment to social justice was exemplary and she worked tirelessly with the poor of Dublin, particularly during the Great Lock Out of 1913.
Constance Markievicz first came to national prominence as one of the few surviving leaders of the 1916 Rising. The advancement of women in our society is central to Irish republicanism and as we fast approach this year’s anniversary of the Easter Rising, it is appropriate that we recall that a key social objective of the Rising was to put women centre-stage in Irish democracy.
The 1916 Proclamation was an explicitly democratic and egalitarian vision, with guarantees of “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and opportunities,” “cherishing all the children of the nation equally” and “the establishment of a permanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women”.
Many brave women played a key role in the Rising and the Irish people’s subsequent quest for national self-determination. I believe the best way we can honour their memory is to ensure that more women are to the forefront of our democratic institutions.
As citizens, we should all be concerned about the political under-representation of women in Irish political life. Only 14% of Dáil Deputies and only 19% of local representatives are female. This imbalance must be changed for the sake of the future of representative democracy in Ireland. More women in politics means a greater and more effective use of what Countess Markievicz’s great colleague, James Connolly called our greatest resource, our people.
On Wednesday, I published the report of the Taskforce on Active Citizenship which recommended a range of measures to promote wider civic participation in all its forms, including in the democratic process. In the next few weeks, the Government will also launch the ten year National Women’s Strategy which is based on extensive consultation and research. A key objective of this Strategy will be to increase the number of women in decision-making positions in Ireland, right across the political system and the public service and it will outline actions we can take to ensure this happens.
I also want to say today that in pushing forward with our plans for substantial commemoration of the Easter Rising in the build-up to the centenary in 2016, I have asked the 1916 Inter-Departmental committee to bring forward recommendations on how we recognise more fully the role of the brave and patriotic women who participated in the Easter Rebellion and our subsequent War of Independence.
Last year, at the time of the celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising, I read some of the work previously published by one of our foremost historians Sinead McCoole. She wrote :
“The women involved in the struggle for Irish political independence 1916-1923 were part of the long tradition of Irish patriotism. No less than the men, they were willing to give their lives for their ideals and to endure the rigors of hunger strike and separation from friends and family for their beliefs…. However, history has not remembered them in the same way as their patriotic brothers. In fact, until very recently they have been virtually ignored.”
In commemorating the events of 1916, I am determined that we should do so in an inclusive way in order to advance a greater understanding of the period as a whole. Any study of history which glosses over or diminishes the contribution of patriots - like Kathleen Lynn, like Kathleen Clarke, like Elizabeth O’Farrell, like Countess Markievicz and many more courageous women - is incomplete and a distortion of our past.
In her own time, the irrepressible Countess Markievicz, made a major contribution to building a fairer and stronger Ireland. She was a founder of Cumann na mBan and a woman very much to the forefront in the Irish people’s struggle for Independence. She was leader of the Irish Citizen Army battalion that was based in St Stephen’s Green in 1916. Two years later, in the General Election of 1918, she went on to become the first woman to be elected in Ireland.
Constance had a great affinity with the Trade Union movement and was, of course, appointed by Eamon deValera as Minister for Labour in 1919, a post I held myself in more recent times.
I am pleased to say that the strong principles of social justice espoused by the Countess are today echoed in the system of social partnership which we have developed to such great effect in this country. This process of extensive and intensive social dialogue has delivered excellent results, in the form of 18 consecutive years of economic growth, improved living standards and greater social inclusion.
As a country we have achieved much of what Constance Markievicz fought for so bravely at the beginning of the twentieth century. She came from an era divided between the Big House and the abject poverty of Strumpet City and yet she was not afraid to forego her aristocratic background to reach out to the poor of Dublin. Today, I would be proud to show the Countess the great regeneration that is taking place in Dublin where the worst housing and tenements of the inner city are being replaced with high standard modern accommodation.
The exhibition, which is being opened here today, comprises the most definitive collection of material from the life of Constance Markievicz which is available for public display. These items are of great historical interest, not least because many of them relate to the early days of Fianna Fail of which Constance, along with Eamonn de Valera was a founder member.
In fact, not many people know that Constance Markievicz actually chaired the inaugural meeting of Fianna Fáil in the La Scala Theatre. Markievicz had been a colleague of James Connolly in the Citizen Army and her prominence at Fianna Fáil’s historic first meeting was no accident and had a real symbolic resonance.
Pearse and Connolly, as the leaders of the Republican and Labour movement, had come together in 1916 to proclaim a republic in which the egalitarian idea was centrally enshrined. Ten years later, in May 1926, Fianna Fáil was established as a constitutional republican party to give effect to the aims of the Proclamation.
Markievicz’s prominence at the La Scala Theatre sent a clear message that Fianna Fáil was not just a republican party but a party that was intent on fostering strong links with the Trade Union movement. Another founder member of Fianna Fail, who shared the platform with Markievicz at the inaugural meeting, Sean Lemass, would subsequently affirm that Fianna Fail was Ireland’s “real Labour Party” in terms of its focus on social justice.
This exhibition of Markievicz’s life and times includes an extensive collection of photographs taken in the aftermath of the 1916 Rising along with letters written by Constance while in Holloway prison and sketches of the Abbey Theatre Committee Meetings. These, along with many other memorabilia on display, provide a major insight into the extraordinary and very full life of this great woman to whom we, in modern Ireland, owe so much.
The beauty of Lissadell has been immortalised in the poetry of WB Yeats as the home of Constance and the Gore Booth family. Unfortunately, the effects of time and neglect had taken their toll here over the latter part of the last century. And so, it is wonderful that the future of this fine house has now been secured and that Edward and Constance who bought it back in 2003 are so sympathetically restoring it. So much has been achieved here over a short period of time and it is great to see the renewed beauty of the house and the gardens which are being developed as a centre for horticulture. But then, to live here with your seven children must be the best way to breathe life back into a big house such as this one! This is truly a living heritage.
The restoration of Lissadell and its development as a centre for cultural and eco tourism is a major addition to the North West and is an important source of employment in this area. Under the new NDP, Sligo as a Gateway City, will also benefit from huge investment in every aspect of the lives of the people here and the wider North Western region. Recent growth and investment in the hotel sector in the area is also a major boost for tourism in the region.
This Government is committed to the protection and conservation of our built heritage and provides grants and supports for heritage properties in trust or private ownership. Of course, historic properties owned by the State are also conserved and maintained by the OPW. I am delighted that last year, my Government colleague, Dick Roche, established the Irish Heritage Trust to acquire properties of significant heritage value to secure their conservation and make them available for public enjoyment. A tax relief for donors of properties to the Trust has also been introduced.
It is only right and proper that we remember our past and our forebears who laid the foundations for the Ireland that we inhabit today. Today that past is clearly illuminated for us here at Lissadell both through the splendour of the house itself and this major exhibition celebrating its famous daughter. It is especially fitting that two of the occupants of this house, Constance Cassidy and her daughter Constance Elisabeth, are named after the woman that we are honouring today: Constance Markievicz.
I have no doubt that this Exhibition will be a major attraction here and I understand that it will be the first in a series at Lissadell House which will also focus on W.B. Yeats, Eva Gore Booth, George Russell and other major figures in the Irish political and literary world who had a significant connection with Sligo. Many congratulations are due to Edward and Constance for putting together this fine exhibition and for all that they are doing for Lissadell. I wish them and all of their family every success for the future.