“A Woman In The Garden” – revolutionary advice from an Irish Countess

by Ciaran Burke
Countess Constance Markievicz

Countess Constance Markievicz

Easter 1916 marked a turning point in the Irish struggle for independence. On April 24th, Easter Monday,  Irish revolutionaries took over key sites in Dublin including the G.P.O. and tried to inspire a nation to fight against foreign rule. Although the insurrection was a failure, the subsequent ill treatment and execution of the leaders of the rising, public opinion changed and the subsequent events lead to the war of independence which culminated in a treaty and formation of the Irish Free State in 1922. A prominent figure of the Irish independence movement was one of the most unlikely people; a woman, with a title, born to landed gentry. Countess Constance Markievicz was born in London in 1868 and christened Constance Gore-Booth. She was raised on the family estate, Lissadell, in picturesque surroundings in Co. Sligo, Ireland.

Walled Garden- Lissadell House with view of bay, Co. Sligo, Ireland

Walled Garden- Lissadell House with view of bay, Co. Sligo, Ireland


In 1900 she married Casimir Markievicz who she met while studying art in Paris. He was a wealthy Polish  Count. The Markieviczes settled in Dublin in 1903 and moved in artistic and literary circles, the Countess gaining a reputation for herself as a landscape painter. She became increasingly sympathetic to the cause of Irish independence and in 1908 joined Sinn Fein. In 1909 she started writing for an Irish nationalist newspaper called Bean na hÉireann (Woman of Ireland), her subject each month was a gardening column, “ A Woman In The Garden”. She wrote under a pseudonym but right from the first article where she recollects memories of discovering wild flowers on the mountain of Ben Bulben it is obvious that it is her.

In her first article she  she states “I am going to give a few simple hints to the women who wish to make the most of what little bit of their native land that falls to their share in this life.” 

In her article in April 1909 the Countess advocates shopping locally; “..and here let me impress upon my readers the advisability of buying Irish plants whenever they are procurable; not only from the National principle, that where we can employ irish hands to work for us, either directly, or indirectly, by buying things from Irish firms we must do so; but also for practical common sense reason that plants accustomed to Irish earth and to irish air are more likely to thrive in Irish gardens.  It would seem that things have not changed much in nearly on hundred years, imported plants must have been common then as they are now.

    She reminisces about the roses from Dickson’s Roses, who are still in business, and extolls the virtues of roses cultivars bred and sold by Alex Dickson and Son’s Rose and Flower Farm including the roses George ‘C.Waud’, R. ‘Betty’ and ‘R. Killarney’. the first two are no longer available but R. ‘Killarney’  a mid pink HT bred by Dickson in 1898 and is still available through ing it locally for Irish gardeners.  

Each month she gives tips on growing plants, both ornamentals and food. For April she advises those gardeners that have not yet pruned their roses to do so right away and to pant the late season crops of potatoes. Dahlia roots should be planted out, 3-4 inches deep and 5 feet apart, ten week stock should be planted to the garden air can be filled with scent for summer as well as sowing vegetable crops such as radish, spinach, beetroot, broad beans and slasify.

Constance would have been exposed to gardening and plants while growing up on the Lisadell estate. It was known for its great collection of plants and in later years the Lissadell nursery was famous for its alpine plants and walled alpine garden.

Over the latter part of the 20th century the estate fell into ruin but great restoration work took place when it was purchased by the current owners, Edward Walsh and Constance Cassidy. The gardens were restored and the gates were open to visitors, a coffee shop sold delicious cakes and produce from the bountiful walled kitchen garden was on sale. Sadly, the gardens are no longer open to visitors, the reason being a court case over a disputed right of way, a great loss to all gardeners and visitors to the north west of Ireland.

Countess Markievicz was imprisoned five times, the total duration of her incarcerations totalled over three years, the last time she was imprisoned was by the Irish Free State. Following the signing of the treaty in 1922 there was a civil war and the Countess sided with those who refused to accept the treaty and the partitioning of the island into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. She was released after being on hunger strike. Markievicz was the first female to be elected to the British Parliament in 1918, but she did not take her seat. She was also the first ever female minister in an Irish parliament, she was appointed as Minister of Labour from August 1919 to January 1922. In fact, she was the only female cabinet minister until 1979 when Máire Geoghegan-Quinn was appointed a junior ministerial post. 

Apart from her role in politics she was involved in the arts and she performed in several plays at the newly established Abbey Theatre an institution that played an important part in the rise of cultural nationalism. She was also did a huge deal of work with the poor of Dublin and worked at distributing food and set up soup kitchens, often paying for the food from her own resources.

View from Lissadell House

View from Lissadell House

The garden columns of Countess Markievicz reveal that she was a keen gardener and wrote with love about the subject. through the course of her fourteen articles we can see how she was becoming more involved in politics and the independence struggle. Her first articles are purely gardening advice, progressively her columns become highly flavoured with anecdotes and examples of historical Irish nationalists. She laments that the English occupation cannot be dealt with as one would deal with a snail and just simply crush it under foot. In her article from January 1910 she uses the growth of a snowdrop emerging from the cold and barren earth to flower and bring joy and hope as a simile for the Irish struggle.

    “ The Irishwoman looking at the first tiny spike pushing up from the bulb below, is at once struck by the simile, for what is Ireland but a poor wee bulb buried away in the dust and dirt of English rule and English influence and struggling to gain light and air.

    Should not Ireland take a lesson from the Snowdrop, and gather her forces together for the supreme effort to gain light. The whole forces of the earth are ranged against the Snowdrop, the whole of the British Empire against Ireland, an if our tiny Snowdrop can prevail and force the pass into life, surely the task is not too great for Ireland, and one day we shall see the white flower of Ireland’s beauty shining starlike, pure and free, a star in the garden of the world.” 

It seems once again, that Ireland needs to seek inspiration from the snow drop to break free from the cold economic mud hole and enjoy sunnier times! 

Lissadell House Website  Biographical information about Countess Makiezicz and the Gore-Booth family as well as information about the house and gardens. 

Rosa ‘Killarney’ at Peter Beales Roses

PODCAST: Listen to the radio show: In The Garden with Ciaran Burke on the Johnny Oosten show, CRCFM 102.9  iTUNES PODCAST



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