Sonja Tiernan is a lecturer in Modern History at Liverpool Hope University and secretary of the Women’s History Association of Ireland. Her ground-breaking new book reveals the fascinating and pioneering life of Eva Gore-Booth and is the first dedicated biography of the Irish poet and radical political activist. Here she talks about Gore-Booth’s impact on Anglo-Irish politics
In the jubilee year of 1887, two beautiful young girls from Sligo were presented at the court of Queen Victoria. Eva and Constance were the eldest daughters of the Gore-Booth family of Lissadell. The family owned one of the largest estates in the West of Ireland and occupied a powerful position as Anglo-Irish landlords. The two sisters would later reject their Ascendancy class, choosing remarkable paths in life.
Through marriage Constance acquired the title Countess Markievicz. She went on to play a leading role in the Irish nationalist movement of the early twentieth century. Markievicz is one of the few women to reach iconic status in Irish history. Her younger sister Eva was perhaps more politically radical but has, until now, been hidden in the shadow of her sister’s memory.
Eva is mainly remembered as a poet and a playwright or often she is recalled merely as a muse of W.B. Yeats. Through his poetry Yeats immortalised the sisters as ‘two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle.’ Eva was the gazelle to whom Yeats once considered proposing marriage.
Now the story of Gore-Booth’s life reveals her as a pioneering political activist, a person devoted to the ideal of a free and independent Ireland and a woman with a deep sense of how class and gender equality could transform lives and legislation. It was Eva who first inspired her older sister to become politically active and she remained the greatest influence on Constance throughout her life.
At first glance Gore-Booth’s early years appear idyllic. She lived a life of opulence and of privilege. However, she was born in 1870 which was a time of great political unrest in Ireland. Sligo had suffered badly during the Great Famine and although her grandfather had orchestrated schemes of assisted emigration to North America, tales of forced eviction from the Gore-Booth estate and coffin ships which sank in clear sight of Lissadell still abound even today.
In 1896 Eva established the first Sligo branch of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association. She convinced Constance, who was then studying art in London, to join the executive. The suffrage group faced a hostile reception at their first public meeting. One man protested that, ‘the women’s movement tended to make ladies independent, masculine and ride bicycles.’
The next year Gore-Booth took a dramatic decision to leave Lissadell, moving from the beautiful countryside of Sligo to the smog bound quarters of industrial Manchester. She left a seventy-two roomed mansion to live in a small terraced house with her partner, Esther Roper.
Manchester was a favoured destination for Sligo immigrants, a steam ship regularly departed from Sligo bay bound for Liverpool. Once they reached the destination port many Irish refugees would take the onward journey to New York, but tens of thousands remained in England and many travelled just thirty miles to the industrial city of Manchester where unskilled work was to be found.
The Irish worked in large, cramped and unsanitary conditions, living in tenement houses owned by their employers. Gore-Booth was deeply aware of the circumstances from which these people had fled. She devoted herself to improving the conditions of the working classes. She successfully established trade unions for women workers who were ignored by mainstream unions. She organised women who worked in occupations considered morally risky including barmaids, circus performers and pit-brow lasses.
Her trade union campaigns are fascinating. During a 1908 by-election in Manchester she not only successfully protected the employment of barmaids but she orchestrated the defeat of a formidable opponent, the future British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
If elected Churchill planned to support his Liberal Party’s Licensing Bill which would effectively ban the employment of women in public houses. Gore-Booth organised barmaids to oppose Churchill’s election. She invited Markievicz to Manchester to lend support.
Gore-Booth organised a rather striking coach, drawn by four white horses, to be driven around Manchester with Markievicz at the whip. When the coach stopped Gore-Booth and her sister took to the roof of the carriage and made rousing speeches.
When Markievicz was heckled by a man in the crowd, with the inevitable male query, “Can you cook a dinner?” “Certainly” she replied, cracking her whip in his direction. “Can you drive a coach-and-four?” she asked.
The campaign was an immense victory for Gore-Booth. Churchill was defeated by a strong margin. He was forced out of his Manchester constituency and temporarily out of politics. Markievicz continued to support Gore-Booth’s trade union campaigns and spent much of the following year in England in apprenticeship to her younger sister.
This was to have a lasting impact. Markievicz remained devoted to the cause of labour equality and became the first Minister for Labour in Dáil Éireann.
Markievicz is predominantly remembered in Irish history for her role in the Easter Rising. She took up arms as second in command to Commandant Michael Mallin, in Stephen’s Green and later in the College of Surgeons. She was sentenced to death for her part in the Rising although this was commuted to penal servitude for life, due to her sex.
As Ireland enters a decade of commemoration, key events in Irish history such as the Easter Rising will be remembered and the leaders, including Markievicz, will be honoured. There is a tendency to romanticise those who fought and died for the sake of Irish independence, while the contributions of the many who did not take up arms are too often overlooked.
Gore-Booth’s close relationship with Markievicz could actually be attributed to her near erasure from Irish history. To date, she has been considered merely as a bit player in the life of this dominant figure. The story of Gore-Booth’s life provides us with insights into the plight of those who may be forgotten in a decade of commemoration including women, emigrants, trade unionists and intellectuals.
The fact that Eva Gore-Booth’s life and her many achievements have been underplayed or undervalued raises an interesting debate about who and what is glorified in Irish history.
Sonja Tiernan’s new book Eva Gore-Booth: An image of such politics is published by Manchester University Press. Tiernan was awarded her PhD from University College Dublin and has held fellowships at the National Library of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin and at the Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies, University of Notre Dame.