At four minutes past noon, on the front steps of the General Post Office, Patrick Pearse read the rebels’ Proclamation of the Irish Republic. It addressed both Irish men and women, declaring “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens.” At a time when women in most European countries (as well as the United States) did not have the right to vote, the inclusion of equal rights for women was revolutionary. While it is not known who insisted on including the language of equality, its progressive message was strongly supported by prominent rebel leaders James Connolly and Constance “Countess” Markievicz.
Countess Markievicz was an active member of the nationalist group Cumann na mBhan, or “League of Women.” Formed in 1914, their goal was equality for women and an independent Irish state, by any means necessary. These women were not only willing to put their lives on the line for Ireland, but were also champions fighting for social reform on many issues, such as land reform, the rights of labor and women’s suffrage. When other, male-dominated nationalist groups united to fight in the Easter Rising, they were joined by the already politically active members of Cumann na mBhan.
Thanks in part to the disorganization of British forces, the rebellion was initially successful, with nationalists occupying a number of politically significant locations. Their failure to gain control of the city’s transportation network, however, allowed British authorities to bring in thousands of reinforcements, shifting the tide of battle. After six straight days of fighting, the rebels realized they were outnumbered, outmanned and outgunned. It was nurse Elizabeth O’Farrell, a fierce nationalist and member of Cumann na mBhan, who was elected by the rebels to give word of their surrender. She grabbed a Red Cross badge and a white flag and marched bravely towards the British army. However, despite her role in one of the most crucial events in Irish history, she has seemingly disappeared from this moment in time—literally. A photo taken of the official surrender by Patrick Pearse, which O’Farrell arranged and attended, features only Pearse, with O’Farrell’s presence relegated to just the tip of her boot (and even that was often edited out by the British press in the years following the Rising).
More than 3,400 rebels were arrested in the rebellion’s aftermath, and 16 participants were executed, including all seven signatories of the Proclamation. Countess Markievicz was the only woman sentenced to death. Her life was spared, however, because just a year earlier Germany had executed Edith Cavell, a British nurse who had tended to both Axis and Allied soldiers on the frontlines. The British government’s public outcry about Cavell’s death left their hands tied with regards to Markievicz, who was instead imprisoned alongside 76 other female rebels.
After being released from prison, Markievicz became the first woman elected to the British House of Commons (though, she like other nationalists, refused to take her seat), and later served as Minister for Labour in the newly-created Irish Republic.
The Republic had enshrined the rights of women (including full voting rights for women over the age of 21) in the 1922 constitution establishing the Irish Free State, but these gains were soon reversed, due to the post-Rising loss of the most progressive members of the nationalist coalition and the increased influence of the Catholic church on the Free State. One of the most prominent critics of women’s equality was Eamon de Valera, who had refused to allow women to serve with him during the Easter Rising. Following de Valera’s election as prime minister, a revised 1937 Constitution, drafted under his leadership, severely curtailed women’s rights, enacting a ban on divorce and creating an obligation for women to remain caretakers of the home and family.
A century after the Proclamation of the Irish Republic declared equal rights for all Irish citizens, Ireland, like many countries, continues to struggle to fulfill that promise. As historians work to restore women such as Countess Markievicz and Elizabeth O’Farrell to their rightful place in history, a fuller, richer story of the fight for Irish independence—and equality—is likely to emerge.