ONE OF the most striking personalities in the 1916 Rising was Constance Markievicz, the Anglo-Irish aristocrat who became a militant nationalist and was among the rebels who fought in the vicinity of St Stephen’s Green.
The events which transpired there during Easter Week gave rise to a persistent story that Markievicz was personally responsible for the shooting dead of a policeman and the truth of this incident has long been debated. Ann Matthew’s play, Madame de Markievicz On Trial, scrutinises the evidence around that fateful occurrence and invites the audience to reach their own verdict.
The play, which comes to the Town Hall Theatre on Saturday March 28 at 8pm, will be staged by Dublin’s New Theatre and directed by Anthony Fox. It is set in a courtroom and prison cell during the autumn of 1917 and the dialogue is largely based on actual speeches made by Markievicz during this time. It features a cast of six actors with Barbara Dempsey as Madame de Markievicz and Neil Fleming as Prosecutor William May. May, the sole fictional character in the play, trawls through all aspects of Markievicz’s life and times to challenge the misinformation created by post-1916 hearsay. Completing the cast are Amy O'Dwyer, Siofra O'Meara, Ian Meehan, and Galway actress Andrea Rawat.
Playwright Matthews is also a historian and this very much informs her approach to Constance Markievicz’s story. “As a historian, going into her personality is tricky,” she observes. “There is so much out there, and people keep telling us what kind of a person she was, and we can’t know that from reading documents and so on, we can only assess the level of her intelligence based on the things she did. On a personal level you can’t decide what she was like as a person. I get people criticising me who say I don’t like her but my reaction to that is that this woman died long before I was born, I have no feelings about her. Anything I say or write about her is based on the research I’ve done.”
'It’s not a courtroom drama – I hate courtroom dramas'
“The play came into being was when I was doing my PhD,” Matthews continues. “I came across the material on the killing of the policeman, Michael Lahiff, who was in his twenties. As I was doing my research and the story unfolded I found a witness statement from somebody who saw the shooting and I realised that if you take the two sides, it would make an interesting drama. When I wrote my first play Lockout a couple of years ago I realised I have the ability to write dialogue. I told the director Anthony Fox this story and he said to give it a go.”
“It’s not a courtroom drama – I hate courtroom dramas!” Matthews stresses. “Markievicz is onstage in her cell talking about the criminal court - though she was never tried in a criminal court in reality. There are seven people in the play only one of whom, the barrister, is fictional. He is the man who brings it all together, he asks the questions and probes the answers and so on, he enables the evidence to emerge. The audience is the jury and can then decide for themselves if she did or didn’t do it.”
Matthews describes several of the supporting characters in the story: “One of the characters is Mrs Lahiff, the policeman’s aunt, she was a witness; it’s one of those interesting small world stories, Dublin was so small. Another one is a district nurse who saw the shooting. Then there are friends of the countess. The play goes through her life, we see her life through the witnesses who were her friends and comrades and also through her own eyes.
"Her life is explained and then what happened that Easter Monday is explained through the two witnesses who are called by the prosecution. In the discussion of whether or not she shot Lahiff a lot of material emerges. All the material I have used comes from historic documents, and I have just put it into a verbal setting. The countess herself made all kinds of wonderful speeches and the speech she makes at the end of the play is also from her own words.”
Aside from the facts of Constable Lahiff’s shooting, the play also casts light on some of the issues of class that were prevalent at the time. “I’m a social and political historian not a feminist/gender historian,” Matthews explains. “Throughout the threads of the play class is there because all the characters come from different classes. When Markievicz is called to account for herself in the trial, the barrister takes her through all of that and then he takes some of the witnesses through it. When the nurse is called in, Markievicz dismisses her as a nobody. In her actual court martial one of the witnesses against her was a boy of 16; in her own testimony – which I use in the play - she dismissed him as of no account because he had grown up in an industrial school, as the attitude at the time was you can’t possibly trust someone who has grown up in an industrial school.”
Originally from Dublin, Matthews now lives in Kildare. She lectured at NUI Maynooth on women and war and republican women and iconography. She is the author of the books Renegades and The Kimmage Garrison 1916: Making Billy Can-Bombs at Larkfield and the 2013 play Lockout.
Ann’s abiding interest in the history of the period may have stemmed from childhood stories she heard from her mother; “My mother was born in 1909 and has very clear memories of 1916 because she lived around the corner from O’Connell Street. When we were growing up she was always telling us these stories.”
Matthews is full of praise for the cast of Madame de Markievicz On Trial; “Barbara Dempsey is excellent as Constance. She channels all her different aspects, her ups and downs, ins and outs, and nuances. All the cast are terrific, they all avidly researched the characters they are playing, I really admire them for that. I’ve been going to theatre all my life and it feels wonderful to be part of something where the team is working together. It gives the play a great buzz at the end when everyone in the audience can decide for themselves whether Markievicz is innocent or guilty.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or www.tht.ie