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Peace under fire

Although the Celtic Tiger movement of the 1990s has come and gone, there was an earlier one at the turn of the last century that actually brought about Irish independence.

Themes of freedom, courage and spirituality fueled it, and in a paradoxical way blended with the idea of peace under fire. In light of this, I published a book called “Three Plays for Ireland,” a trilogy in tribute to her revolutionary daughters. The plays were inspired by my journey to Galway in 2016 during centennial celebrations of the 1916 Easter Rising, a revolt against the British Empire that sparked the later creation of the Irish Republic. I was moved by the amount of political fervor and historical information flooding the media, universities and cultural centers around me — especially stories of remarkable women revolutionaries seldom told in textbooks or conventional accounts of that era.

Although there were many serving in the Irish Citizen’s Army and its auxiliary, Cumann Na mBan, who were serving as soldiers, doctors, nurses, messengers and even commanders during the weeklong rebellion in Dublin, I found one woman whose courage and vision particularly moved me. She was Constance Gore Booth, later after her marriage to a Polish Count known as Countess Markievicz, or the “People’s Countess.” Constance came from a dynasty of Anglo-Irish millionaires who owned over 100,000 acres in northwest Ireland. She broke with her family and her class to study painting in Paris and espouse socialist views. Her radicalism grew as she witnessed the ruthless violence of big bosses and their thugs during the 1913 Lock Out (after a transit worker’s strike), when she and hundreds of other innocent people were attacked and beaten. In response she helped found the Irish Citizen’s Army for protection of workers, and it later merged with two other nationalist armies to fight the British in 1916.

As a second lieutenant, Constance showed bravery and skill while leading the men and women of her brigade in urban warfare and the occupation of buildings throughout Dublin. They survived a week of battle with British snipers, tending the wounded, scavenging for food and medical supplies, setting up a morgue for their dead comrades, and an altar for praying nightly together. One night as she knelt and prayed with the rest, Constance had an epiphany — a vision of healing and inner peace under fire that was never to leave her. When the rebels surrendered, she was incarcerated in solitary confinement, dragged through two sham trials and then condemned to death. She endured terrible conditions of filth, cold and starvation, and heard the firing squads killing her friends every morning at dawn. She clung to her sanity and whatever solace her creativity as an artist and the vision she had seen could afford her. And indeed, both did.

The prison diaries of Constance Gore Booth Markievicz are now preserved in the Irish National Archives and have been published. Her heartfelt poetry and mystically symbolic drawings have been treasured and analyzed by scholars, yet they remain a legacy for all. I believe the images of angels and outcasts, winged horses and mythic Celtic queens and goddesses hold an energy beyond frail attempts to maintain ego under duress. They are expressions of the divinity that sustained her and empowered her to survive and continue her work for Ireland when her sentence was commuted and she was finally released.

That work brought more arrests, but included being minister of labor for the new Irish government, and becoming the first women ever elected to Parliament. She also became an orator at rallies, wrote petitions and pamphlets, cared for slum-dwellers and even hauled peat up flights of tenement stairs to save freezing people during coal shortages. Her death at 59 caused a flood of shock and grief throughout Ireland, with mass tributes of processions, gun salutes, and a lying in state. But it is her legacy of spirit that remains most important to admirers like myself, who see Constance as one of those rare human beings who possessed the physical courage, compassion and faith to transcend her time, class and gender with a kind of spiritual devotion that gave her peace under fire.

Karen Austen is a retired professor of literature and creative writing who recently returned from a two-year sabbatical in Ireland. Her book, “Three Plays for Ireland,” is available online and in local bookstores. She will give a reading at 7 p.m. Monday, March 16, at Bloomsbury Books.

Email 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Sally McKirgan at innerpeaceforyou@outlook.com.