If you say the name Countess Markievicz to anyone in Ireland, they’ll nod their head appreciatively — or at the very least get that mild eyebrow twitch where they recognize a name. In the Irish rebellion of 1916, the Countess — or Constance Gore-Booth, as she was christened — was the most singular (if not sole) female figure in the dozen or so names that will forever be linked with the Irish revolution.
She was a fighter, an artist, a woman of high birth who rejected her roots to take up the cause of her adoptive country. She was, and is, a vital and vibrant part of Irish history, and a well-known one.
She also had a sister. But you don’t hear very much about her.
Eva Gore-Booth was two years younger than Constance but no less vehemently rebellious. As young girls they were both often spotted out and about on their bicycles near Lissadell, the estate which had passed along the Gore-Booth lineage for generations. Neither Eva nor Constance were ones for the gentle hem or the drawing room. They were both spindly, gangly, women with better things to do than sit about and be ladies.
In their younger years, and as they developed into adults, their views were very much shaped by their parents. Their mother, affectionately known as Gaga, was a sort of liberal traditionalist — she would do her best to support working women in the community, though she was still constrained somewhat by her upbringing and the given “natural law” of landlord and tenant. But she was openly encouraging of her daughters’ desires to not be constrained by their gender.
Their father was the Arctic explorer and adventurer Sir Henry Gore-Booth, a driven man who nonetheless understood the inherent injustice in Ireland’s long established feudal system. He was, by all accounts, kind to his “tenants”, the townspeople around Lissadell — often offering food during particularly rough winters, or negotiating for tenants to have more control and standing in their own affairs.
Both Gaga and Henry were liberal, rebellious in their own right, but nonetheless thinking within the long-established box that was Ireland under colonial rule.
Their daughters, however, were entirely uninterested in doing anything but breaking the mold.
Constance’s life has been well-documented, one that saw her at the heart of The Irish Question and the Irish campaign for freedom — sentenced to death after the 1916 Rising but gaining a reprieve due to her gender. She was elected as one of Ireland’s first TD’s, representatives in Parliament, while her gregariousness and vibrant personality saw her pursued by Yeats and others — even after she’d married Count Casimir Markievicz.
Eva, however, took a different — if no less extraordinary — path. In her early years she took part in many of the causes that her sister did: working in the Sligo community, helping women workers, and involving herself in the issue of Irish statehood.
But there was something missing in Eva’s life, something that would give her the spark and drive to achieve goals far beyond her upbringing or her gender. And it was a spark that would, it seems, ultimately drive her from the annals of Irish history.
That spark was named Esther.
Esther Roper was of much more humble beginnings, the daughter of a Manchester factory worker who later went on to become a missionary in Africa. Seeing the plight of women of lower classes, rather than the more common wealthy women that occupied the suffrage cause, Esther was more concerned with improving the day-to-day lives of the poor. She was fastidious and didn’t suffer fools, a powerful force behind the scenes but never the type of person to wield the conch and lead the march.
Esther suffered from asthma, while Eva had respiratory problems since a bout of scarlet fever in her youth. While convalescing in Italy the women met, and that was that.
Over the following decades, they would form an intimate romantic and professional partnership. They lived in Manchester and then London, and if there was a cause in the entire British Isles between 1900 and 1925, it’s likely these two women were involved.
They were a vital part of the suffragist movement (not “suffragette”, which was a mocking, dainty moniker applied by newspapers), working alongside the Pankhurst women to fight for the women’s vote. But the rich-poor divide would inevitably split the movement: Esther and Eva were interested in the working woman, while the Pankhursts were courting the upper classes. What good was the vote when women were being paid next to nothing, dying in childbirth, and remaining incapable of carving professional success? A vote doesn’t mean much if there’s no food on the table.
History would, alas, remember the Pankhursts — known for chaining themselves to railings and throwing themselves in front of the horses — and not the delicate work of Eva and Esther: reviewing and lobbying for legislation, supporting political candidates who fought for their cause, and speaking loudly for the voiceless working woman.
They did far more than just fight for women’s rights and women’s working conditions. Eva was staunchly anti-war, and when conscription fell on the UK in the midst of World War I, she would travel to “conscription courts” across the country. Here men would have to make the case for their refusal to participate in the war, always being sent to battle or to prison (many were sentenced to death but pardoned as the war ended, though by that time some had died in the horrific prison conditions).
And while Eva was in London and Constance back home, the two worked together often. During a particularly vibrant political campaign, Eva organized for Constance to ride a horse-drawn carriage past their opponent’s rally. The sight of a woman, whip in hand, commanding such a vehicle ensured press attention. At the time, a heckler loudly asked her if she could make dinner, and with a crack of the whip Constance replied: “Yes. Can you drive a coach and four?”
Once again, Eva’s hard planning was buoyed by Constance’s flair for the dramatic.
Before her eventual death, Eva also dedicated herself to work as a playwright, and published well-regarded volumes of poetry. She immersed herself in friendships with some of the great artists of the time, Yeats and Picasso included. Eva and Esther’s relationship — hidden in plain sight — made them a force to be reckoned with, and their fiery love combined with thorny natures made them dangerous women to cross.
They even published a journal detailing many facets of human sexuality, from gay relationships, to the folly of marriage, to early accounts of trans people and gender re-assignment operations.
It’s saddening, then, that Eva’s life has been all but forgotten. To be at the centre of so many parts of Irish and British history and not be recognized isn’t just ignorant: it’s symptomatic. After her death, Esther’s family burned her diaries, and it’s likely that historians symbolically did the same with Eva’s achievements.
The relevance of Eva’s life is one that survives to today. While her sister’s fight for the Irish cause is all but settled, so many of Eva’s battles are still being fought. Women are still paid less than men, there is still less respect for their place in the working world, and working class women remain one of the most chronically under-represented subsets of society.
It would also be curious to see how she would view the ongoing fight for equal marriage. Eva was a lesbian, yes, but she staunchly opposed the concept of marriage. And while much of that was fuelled by that era’s male-female dynamic, it’s hard to imagine that this somewhat middle-class (if vitally symbolic) fight would be her cause celebre if she were alive today.
Instead, it’s easier to envision Eva working with LGBT youth who are homeless, or addressing the chronic mental health problems in the community, or searching for disparity in the economic or professional fates of the LGBT worker.
In the home, and in the bedroom, Eva’s driving force was her love for Esther, but outside that sphere her driving force was a deep sense of injustice. That people can be punished for the circumstances of their birth, the actions of aristocratic fools, or the gender of who they choose to love.
There is still much to learn, but there is more to remember. About a woman who changed the face of many political movements, and ultimately was punished with a fate so often levelled at women, and the LGBT community: she was forgotten.
But there is still time to remember.
If Eva’s life interests you, my biographical play “I Run, I Sing, I Swim, I Dive” premieres at the International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival this week – running Monday to Saturday in the Teacher’s Club, at 9.30pm. Tickets are available here.
If you’d like to explore Eva’s life further, I highly recommend Sonja Tiernan’s comprehensive biography “An Image Of Such Politics”.