Local History: A countess visits... and a graveside oration for a forgotten volunteer

A society beauty and a driven woman … two descriptions of Countess Constance Markievicz whose name and persona are woven into the foundation story of modern Ireland.

A society beauty and a driven woman … two descriptions of Countess Constance Markievicz whose name and persona are woven into the foundation story of modern Ireland.

Whether as a champion of women’s rights or an armed rebel in the thick of the 1916 rebellion hers is a stirring presence in any recollection of Ireland in the troubled times from 1910 to 1925.

It was in her capacity as an incorrigible supporter of a united republican Ireland that she came to Naas in April 1925 to stand beside the grave of Sean O’Sullivan, a republican soldier who had died in a British internment camp.

By that time she had achieved so many firsts that her presence was certain to draw an audience.

The first woman elected to be elected to the House of Commons in 1919 (although as a Sinn Féin candidate she abstained from parliament) and the first woman in a western European country to become a cabinet Minister, her political achievements were in turn grounded on years of activism on behalf of women, of workers and of the republican cause.

She had backed her words with action and had no hesitation about putting herself in the line of fire in Easter 1916 when in full uniform she joined with Michael Mallin in command of the rebels in St Stephen’s Green.

Having grown up in the hunting country of north Sligo she was expert with a firearm and in St Stephen’s Green she shot to kill.

She was a match for any of her male comrades when it came to aggression in combat.

When the fighting came to an end she was rounded up as one of the rebellion leaders and was tried before the court-martial which sent Pearse, Connolly and Plunkett to the firing squad.

While there is some controversy about how she escaped a sentence of execution her subsequent detention did nothing to dampen her republican fervour and during the troubled years that followed she joined with other republican women in leading opposition to the Treaty signed in 1921.

Much of her advocacy surrounded the question of republican internees and it was this mission which brought her to Naas on the ninth anniversary of the Easter Rising in which she had played a central role.

Her stature was such that she was certain to command an audience, although it was an indication of how war-weary the Irish people had become by the early 1920s that the presence of Markievicz rallied a crowd of only two hundred to Naas cemetery.

In many ways she was representative of the anti-treaty republicans who, now deprived of their leadership status, were unsure of their future direction. Some like De Valera were beginning to accept that physical force republicanism no longer held sway with the Irish public while others still clung to military action in the pursuit of a republican and united Ireland.

However what was diminished in number remained intense in emotion and the Countess gave full vent to her passions as she stood beside the grave of Sean O’Sullivan, a Tipperary man who had settled in Kill, and who had died in early 1921 in the British internment camp at Ballykinlar, Co. Down.

His grave is at the Dublin Road end of St Corban’s cemetery in Naas, conspicuous to visitors who enter under the lych gate from the main road.

The Countess was introduced by Tom Harris of Caragh, then a member of Kildare County Council, and one of the county’s republican leaders during the war of independence (1919-21).

Speaking first in Irish and then in English, Harris told the assembly that the Countess would deliver the oration in memory of their late comrade, Sean O’Sullivan.

But first there were some gestures of republican protocol to be observed. A floral wreath was placed on the grave with a card inscribed “In fond and loving memory from Naas Co., I.R.A.”

And according to the Kildare Observer reporter, the “Sinn Féin flag” was then planted at the head of the grave.

With such a suitable backdrop of republican iconography the Countess launched into her oration – first in Irish and then in English -- addressing her audience as “comrades of the Irish Republican Army.”

She began by saying that they were standing there at the grave of the brave Irish soldier, Sean O’Sullivan, “on that day of glorious memory the ninth anniversary of Easter Week 1916”.

Her rhetoric was first directed at the British whose torture and cruelty had led to the death of a brave soldier such as O’Sullivan.

However she reserved her scathing intensity for the Free State Government led by W.T.Cosgrave who she categorised as “traitor Irishmen who joined with the English to crush the Irish Republic.”

The great irony was that at Easter 1916 while the Countess was taking aim in St. Stephen’s Green, W.T. Cosgrave was in the thick of the fighting at another rebel outpost in the South Dublin Union.

One time comrades had been sundered by the split over bringing violence against the British to an end in 1922.

With her gift for the stinging phrase she held forth that those who stood true to the ideals of the Gael, those who had listened to Pierce and Connolly, knew that they were standing for something more than “an Anglicised province”.

She referred to the number of republican detainees still in jails in Ireland, England and Scotland and appealing to her own gender she urged that “every woman in the crowd would stand by them and comfort them by every means in their power.”

The reporter noted that “There was general applause at the conclusion of the Countess’s address.”

She left Naas and in the following months was again to be at the forefront of nationalist developments. She reconciled herself to constitutional politics and chaired the inaugural meeting of Fianna Fáil in 1926.

However even her indefatigable personality had its limits and in April 1927 she quite suddenly succumbed to an illness which some put down to overwork.

Her visit to Naas had been brief and in some ways low-key but for a while on that Sunday evening in April 1925 a local audience was captivated by one of the most motivated and talented people of her time.

Series no: 326.

Local Historian Liam Kenny writes the weekly ‘Looking Back’ column in the Leinster Leader.