Wednesday, 27 May 2020

The colourful Polish
painter who wanted to
be a count in Ireland

Constance Markievicz … her husband claimed he was a Polish count (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I should be in Warsaw today [27 May 2020] on the second full day or a three or four-day city break. But for the second time in just over two years, I have been forced to abandon plans to visit the Polish capital.

The package to Warsaw, with Ryanair flights and Airbnb accommodation, was a Christmas present, and I was due to fly out on Monday and return tomorrow. But the travel restrictions introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have cancelled all these arrangements.

So, despite having read the guidebooks and planned the sites I was going to visit – including the former Warsaw ghetto, the synagogues and the museums – I am still in Askeaton, Co Limerick. And I am still wondering about Ireland’s most famous Polish ‘in-law’: Casimir Dunin Markievicz, the husband of the suffragist and revolutionary Constance Gore-Booth.

Casimir Joseph Dunin Markievicz (1874-1932), who styled himself Count Markievicz, was a playwright, painter and theatre director. He died in Warsaw on 2 December 1932. But was he really Polish? And, was he ever a count?

The Markievicz family held land in Malopolska Province, now in Ukraine. Casimir was born on 15 March 1874 and grew up on the family farm near the small town of Zywotow. He went to the secondary school or state gymnasium in the Black Sea port of Kherson, where a quarter of the population was Yiddish-speaking Jews, and a quarter to one-third of emigrants with the name Markievicz from these parts of Poland and Ukraine were Jewish.

Casimir Markievicz studied law at the University of Kyiv (Kiev), before moving in 1895 to Paris, where he studied at the École des Beaux-Arts. There he met and married Jadwiga Splawa-Neyman, and they were the parents of two sons, Stanislas and Ryszard. But the marriage did not last, and Jadwiga returned to Ukraine, where she and Ryszard died in 1899.

That year, Casimir met Constance Gore-Booth in Paris, where the two mixed in student society and Bohemian circles. Constance was born in London in 1868, the eldest child of Sir Henry Gore-Booth (1843-1900) of Lissadell House, Co Sligo, and his wife, the former Georgina Hill. She wanted to study art and persuaded her parents to send her to the Slade School of Art in London in 1893. From there she moved to Paris, where she and the recently-widowed Casimir Dunin Markievicz met at a student ball in 1899.

Eight months after her father’s death, the couple married in Saint Marylebone Church, London, on 29 September 1900 – he was 26 and she was 30; he gave his name as Casimir Joseph Dunin de Markiewicz, and described himself and his father as Polish nobles, but while he dressed in formal court uniform he did not use the title count. The wedding was conducted by the Revd Frederick Sheridan Le Fanu.

Her brother, Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth (1869-1944), asked the British ambassador in Russia, Sir Charles Scott, to look into background of his future brother-in-law, the soi-disant count. The ambassador reported back that Casimir had taken the title of count ‘without right’ and that ‘Poland never had a count of that name.’ The police report wondered whether the Markievicz family, who were landowners, had bought the title at the Vatican or in the Habsburg empire.

Their daughter Maeve was born the following year, when the father’s name at the baptism is given as Cassimir de Markie. But Constance had a strained relationship with her daughter, and when the couple returned to Paris in 1902, their daughter was left in the care of her grandmother, Lady Gore-Booth, at Lissadell House.

When they returned to Ireland, the couple lived at a house on Leinster Road, Rathmines, bought by Lady Gore-Booth, and they were part of the literary circle in Dublin that included WB Yeats, Lady Gregory and the Abbey Theatre. According to his biographer Patrick Quigley, in The Polish Irishman: The Life and Times of Count Casimir Markievicz, the high point of Casimir’s career as a public painter in Ireland came in 1905 when he was commissioned to paint the investiture of the Earl of Mayo as a Knight of the Order Saint Patrick, a major work that captured 68 members of the Irish aristocracy at the ceremony.

He formed his own theatre company, the Independent Dramatic Company, in 1910, which staged plays written by Casimir and starring Constance. But the marriage did not last long. Markievicz left Dublin in 1913, perhaps unenamoured with his wife’s fast-developing political radicalisation, and returned to live in what is present-day Ukraine. A year later, he was one of the many Poles living in the Russian Empire who joined the Tsar’s army at the outbreak of World War I. He never returned to live in Ireland, although he continued to write to his wife in Dublin.

Constance Markievicz was elected to the House of Commons in 1918 and to the Dail for Fianna Fail in 1926. Meanwhile, Casimir Markievicz had moved to Warsaw, where he continued to write and paint. When she was taken to hospital in 1927, he rushed from Warsaw to be by her bedside, painting her picture on her deathbed.

Casimir survived Constance by five years, but he lived with constant ill health and financial difficulties. He lived out his last years in Warsaw, sending freelance contributions to London magazines and newspapers, writing a screenplay for a Polish film that had limited success, and painting portraits and landscapes.

Some of his paintings are in Dublin, some are in the National Museum in Kraków. He died in Warsaw on 2 December 1932, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Nowe, a small town 80 km south of Gdansk.

Casimir used the style and title of count in Paris and in Dublin. But was he ever a real count? Did Constance pretend he was a Ukrainian count to win approval for her marriage from her widowed mother and her brother who had succeeded to the family title?

Despite her revolutionary politics, she liked to be known as Countess Markievicz or Madame Markievicz. But, historically, there were no men in Polish or Ukrainian history with the title Count Markievicz. Eamon de Valera was discreet enough to refer to this founding member of Fianna Fai, as ‘Madame Markievicz.’ He extended similar courtesies to ‘Madame’ Maud Gonne and to ‘Madame’ Charlotte Despard, neither of whom claimed to be a countess.

Poland was notable throughout its history for not granting titles of nobility. There are no counts, barons or nobles with the name Markievicz in the standard lists of Polish counts of the Holy Roman Empire, Polish nobility, Prussian and Austrian nobility in Poland and Ukraine, Russian noble families or Russian nobility of Polish descent, nor did Casimir ever apply for a licence or permission to use the title in Ireland, Britain or France.

The closest he ever got to being a count is through his descent from the Dunin or Duninowie family, also known as Łabędzie. But this was a Polish knightly family of możnowładcy or magnates in mediaeval Poland. One line of descent, the Dunin-Borkowski family, were recognised as counts in Austrian Poland, but this was not the Markiewicz family.

Donal Nevin, in his biography James Connolly, a full life (2005) concludes:

In fact he was not a Count. At least his son, Stanislas, emphatically denied that his father was a Count. Before he left Ireland moved to London, later to America, in the 1930s Stanislas left a sealed letter with John McCann which was not to be opened until after his death. Stanislas died in San Diego in October 1971. The sealed letter read: ‘Dear John, My father was not a Count – Yours – Stasco.’

The colourful Polish count who swept Constance Gore-Booth off her feet at a ball in Paris may have been a romantic rather than a fraud. He was never a count and is virtually forgotten as an artist.

Strolling around the grounds of Lissadell House, Constance Gore-Booth’s ancestral home in Co Sligo, before Leonard Cohen’s concert in 2010 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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