As we know, Easter was deliberately chosen as the date for the Rising, because of the religious association with both sacrifice and resurrection. Some Catholic commentators have judged this was not appropriate – faith symbols used for a political movement – but be that as it may, it was meaningful to the men and women of 1916 at the time.
And it turned out to be especially meaningful for Constance Markievicz, who is being celebrated this year as the first woman elected to the British parliament.
It was during Easter Week 1916 that Constance experienced an epiphany which led her to becoming a Catholic. She was stationed at the College of Surgeons under the command of Michael Mallin when, during a lull in the fighting, she saw Mallin, and another Citizens’ Army officer, William Partridge, kneel down and say the Rosary. She felt inspired by this example – it was a mystical moment for her.
When she was confined to Mountjoy Jail in May 1916 – she was spared execution because she was a woman (an ironic point for a feminist who demanded equality, perhaps) – she registered as a Catholic, although she was at that time a baptised Anglican (there are some claims that she had really been previously an atheist). A little more than a year later, she was formally received into the Catholic church at Clonliffe, taking the spiritual name Anastasia. She told the priest giving her instruction not to bother going into all the details of doctrine: she’d take them as read!
Her own beliefs
Her biographers say that Constance was herself an unorthodox kind of Catholic and she emphasised the parts of faith that accorded best with her own beliefs. She believed that James Connolly’s socialism was absolutely in alignment with Christ’s teaching – and later wrote a book justifying that belief, led by a passionate reading of Rerum Novarum. Her favourite saints were Joan of Arc and Francis of Assisi.
Yet I believe Constance was sincere in her Catholic commitment. She remained dedicated to the Rosary for the rest of her life, and on her deathbed, Fr Michael Sweetman brought her a special set of Rosary beads which meant a lot to her. Doctrine may not have been her strong point, but she believed very much in in the spiritual life – and that sacrifice is necessary.
Constance was militant in many of her views – and completely uncompromising in opposing the Treaty of 1921 and the Free State that followed – but there was another side to her character which was compassionate, humane, and even humble at times.
In December this year, when her House of Commons victory is celebrated – as a feminist – it should be remembered that she was also a woman of faith.
In our hatless times, I miss the tradition of the Easter bonnet, when women treated themselves to a pretty hat at Easter time. (Listen to Judy Garland singing Easter Parade to get a flavour.) Church-going is now usually bareheaded and the millinery spring showpiece has moved to the racecourse, where headgear has made a welcome return. And truth to tell, perhaps it’s for the best: the church was not necessarily the right location to show off a new Easter bonnet!
April 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, usually described as ‘the American Civil Rights leader’. Indeed, he was that, and an advocate of peaceful civil rights too, whose example had much influence on the Civil Rights movement in Northern Ireland, and, I believe, on John Hume.
Martin Luther King was also a Baptist preacher, and his best-known speeches were inspired and led by his faith, and by his preaching tradition. At the end of each phrase, his congregation would often respond with “hallelujah”. Secular broadcasters thought it made more sense to edit this out – though it was an integral part of the process. When he alluded to “the promised land” it was a Biblical, as well as a civil rights, reference.
MLK was a man of peace, and yet he hesitated to join some of the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations, because he felt it could be denigrating U.S. troops who felt they were doing their duty: and he also did not care to seem anti-patriotic. Jane Fonda’s visit of political solidarity to Communist Hanoi was not what MLK stood for.
He suffered periods of depression, but he said that “the Lord Jesus Christ” would always come to his aid. He suspected that his days were numbered because he received death threats, yet faced such fears bravely. A momentous life, surely.