In spring 1916 as Dublin suffered the British empire’s stern reprisals for an insurgent movement she had helped to lead, Countess Constance Markievicz waited with uncharacteristic passivity in her Kilmainham Gaol cell. The Easter Rising had failed, and with Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, Michael Mallin, and other republican leaders, she had surrendered to the British authorities. Her sister Eva Gore-Booth traveled to Ireland from England and brought Markievicz news of Dublin’s plight as well as of the fates of her comrades. By the end of the spring Markievicz had listened to gunshots that signaled the deaths of insurgent leaders; her own sentence was commuted to life in prison “for the sole reason of her gender.”1
In visits and letters the devotion expressed between the sisters reflected their core beliefs in the causes of Irish independence, labor rights, and women’s equality. Their views about the means of pursuing the first, however, sharply diverged. A skilled sharpshooter, Markievicz became a military leader in the rebellion, whereas Gore-Booth, a committed pacifist throughout her life, believed the Rising and its aftermath a “great tragedy” (Arrington 151). The substance of their 1916 conversation about the means to Irish independence appears allegorically through verse and illustration in their collaborative volume titled The Death of Fionavar from the Triumph of Maeve, published during the summer of 1916 while Markievicz was still in prison.2 Thus in the spring of that year, as the sisters were separated [End Page 80] by the Irish Sea or by prison policy, they engaged in a coded conversation about the ethics and politics of insurgency.3 For both, the Irish mythic tradition provided the allegorical medium through which to explore present concerns.
Richard Kearney observes that “contemporary nations and states invoke indigenous myths which provide a sense of ‘original identity’ for their ‘people’. The symbolic or ritualistic reiteration of the myths is thought to redeem the fractures of the present by appealing to some foundational acts which happened at the beginning of time and harbor a sense of timeless unity.” Kearney cites Mircea Eliade’s claim that myth can “express the absolute truth because it narrates a sacred history; that is, a transhuman revelation which took place in the holy time of the beginning. . . . Myth becomes exemplary and consequently repeatable, and thus serves as a model and justification for all human actions” (87). In pursuing an allegorical conversation on rebellion, Gore-Booth and Markievicz explore their present conditions; by invoking a mythic tradition in which women occupied central roles in political and social arrangements, they produce contesting versions of the legacy of the Irish warrior-queen Maeve. Their elaboration of this figure radically challenges folkloric precedents commonly accessed in 1916, when women from the mythic past could assume the roles of passive emblems for an occupied country—as with the victimized nation symbolized by Dark Rosaleen. Although Gore-Booth’s verse explores the tragic repercussions of Maeve’s military might, Markievicz [End Page 81] offers a seemingly bucolic image of Ireland’s pastoral past that nevertheless justifies current militant action.
As Pheng Cheah observes, “the predicament of decolonization is that there is no preexisting community for the individual to be reconciled to” (243). What political future can Ireland model from a distant, precolonial past? In depicting strife among the Irish in this mythic past when Maeve took on the Red Branch King, both Markievicz and Gore-Booth offer a polity in which women assume central leadership roles—as when a legacy of violence troubles the accession of wisdom. Suggesting that decolonization requires a political ideal, the two sisters present the mythical past as an anticipated future: in Cheah’s words, “a home that is an antidote to colonialism has to be conjured up or created anew” (243).
Born into a life of privilege among the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, Constance and Eva Gore-Booth were unlikely revolutionaries (figure 1). Before her marriage to the Polish count and painter Casimir Markievicz, Constance studied art at London’s Slade School and the Julian School in Paris. Returning to Dublin with her husband, she pursued a successful career as a visual artist...