A forgotten patriot

Eva Gore Booth: An Image of Such Politics

by Sonja Tiernan

(Manchester University Press, £17.99)

J. Anthony Gaughan

It was inevitable that Eva Gore Booth should be over-shadowed by her famous sister Constance, the Countess Markievicz. They were immortalised for many by Yeats’ lines: “The light of evening, Lissadell, / Great windows ope to the south, / two girls in silk kimonos, both / beautiful, one a gazelle.” One was Constance, beloved of Dublin’s poor. The other was Eva, now alas an almost forgotten patriot.

Eva, nonetheless, was a remarkable woman in her own right. She was born on May 22, 1870 at Lissadell, Co. Sligo. Her father, Sir Henry Gore Booth, was a conscientious landlord and was actively involved in the distribution of relief during the 1879 famine. Seemingly Eva’s early experiences of her father’s attempts to help the starving tenants on his estate stimulated her life-long commitment to assisting the poor and the disadvantaged.

Following her education by a governess, who was a Cambridge graduate, she attended Trinity College, Dublin. Soon afterwards with her sisters she was running the Sligo branch of the Irish Women’s Suffrage and Local Government Association.

Social campaigner

In 1896 she met Esther Roper, a Manchester-based social activist and suffragist, with whom she formed a life-long friendship. With Roper she embarked on a career as a social campaigner. Her social work focussed primarily on the concerns of women.

In 1898 she and Roper became joint-secretaries of the Women’s Textile and Other Workers Representative Committee and in 1900 she became co-secretary of the Manchester and Salford Women’s trade-union council. She edited The Women’s Labour News, contributed to other labour journals and published pamphlets on women’s issues.

As a member of the executive committee of the North of England Society for Women’s Suffrage she believed strongly in linking the suffrage issue to women’s trade unionism. With Roper she succeeded in gathering 30,000 signatories for one suffrage petition.

She befriended Christabel Pankhurst and supported her in the national suffrage campaign. To this end she addressed meetings and organised workers throughout England and regularly joined deputations to cabinet ministers and MPs.

Eva was an inveterate campaigner on other issues. For many years a vegetarian, she supported animal rights. Opposed to militarism, during World War I she was actively involved in the Women’s Peace Crusade and the Non-Conscription Fellowship and supported conscientious objectors.

Following the Rising she travelled to Dublin to campaign for a reprieve of her sister’s death sentence and improvement of her prison conditions, she attended the trial of Roger Casement, lobbied for a stay of execution, and campaigned against capital punishment and for prison reform.

It is as a prolific writer that Eva should be remembered. A significant poet, her work was published in prestigious collections. Her poetry was commended by Yeats, even if the line from his poem, used as the subtitle of this book, reflects his dismay at what the beautiful girl had become: “When withered old and skeleton gaunt”. The range and quality of Eva’s own evocative poetry is to be seen in Esther Roper’s The Collected Poems of Eva Gore Booth, published in 1929.

Aside from this, Eva contributed to a wide selection of literary journals on a variety of topics. Her plays drew from the Red Branch cycle. She examined Christian mysticism and Islamic themes. Most of her writing was prompted by her social concerns and campaigns. Before she died on June 30, 1926 she studied Greek, the scriptures and theosophy and these interests are reflected in much of her later writings.

Above all Eva, apart from her life-long campaigning on social issues, was an important contributor to the Irish literary revival. Happily this is emphasised in Sonja Tiernan’s exemplary biography as she sheds light on a truly remarkable woman largely over-looked by the chroniclers of our times.