Having passed her commemorative bust in Dublin’s Saint Stephen’s Green on many occasions, the thought never occurred to me that Constance Markievicz might appear in the media dressed in anything other than the uniform of the Irish Citizen Army. The present exhibition of portraits of Constance Markievicz in the National Gallery in Dublin suggests that there were competing images of a person who became an icon of the 1916 Easter Rising.
The photographs of Major Markievicz, dressed in the Citizen Army uniform and carrying a revolver were not those taken by a journalist covering the unfolding story of militant republicanism or the events of 24th April 1916, and the days that followed, but were pictures that Constance Markievicz herself commissioned in more peaceful times in a bid to rally women to the revolutionary cause. The National Gallery exhibition includes portraits of Constance Markievicz from her days at her home at Lissadell in Co Sligo and from her married life in Paris when her husband’s private income allowed them to live a leisurely life. The Countess Markievicz in a ball gown features prominently among the pictures and it was this image that continued to be used by many media outlets, even after the 1916 Rising. The media were almost universally hostile to those who had precipitated the events of Easter Week and the clear intention on the part of newspaper editors was to present images of Constance Markievicz not as a revolutionary soldier, but as an aristocratic figure who had enjoyed a life beyond the imagination of the Dublin poor.
Even a century ago there was an acute understanding of what has become known as “spin”, there was an understanding of how the ways in which images were presented could affect people’s perceptions and could sway their opinions. Newspaper editors were aware of their immense power to sway public thinking, the popular press provided the only access to news for most people.
If Constance Markievicz had not been a woman, would there have been a similar desire to manipulate her image? Major Markievicz herself would have felt no need to have paid for photographs emphasising her martial qualities and editors would not have had images of ball gowns with which to try to colour the public perception of her as a revolutionary leader. Of course, had she been a man, she might have faced the fate of Pearse, Connolly and the other leaders. As a woman, had she been treated as the men were, the backlash after the executions would have been even greater.