A writer selects one image from our current exhibitions and responds to it. For our Winter 2016 programme, we have invited six students on the MA Critical Writing in Art and Design course at the Royal College of Art, London. Here, Niamh McCooey selects an image of Countess Markievicz from the Sean Sexton collection, which features in our current exhibition The Easter Rising 1916.
Countess Markievicz, c. 1915 © Sean Sexton Collection
I’m writing this from London, the place in which you were born. Instead of growing up here you were reared in the West of Ireland, but I just don’t know, Markievicz, when you made your first journey over there to County Sligo. I also just don’t know, Markievicz, when you moved to Dublin. And it was almost a hundred years ago when you died in that city; the place in which I was born, but what could this mean for us—you and I? Is it ok that I call us, us? You probably wouldn’t like it, but I just can’t help myself. Already you’re standing there with your right leg bearing less weight than your left as if you’re about to leave—and so soon, wouldn’t you say?
Let’s not be ridiculous and say that we’ve met somehow by way of this image. This portrait is my only piece of you, taken in Dublin the year before all hell broke loose. That’s how I pictured it, the Easter Rising. I might have exaggerated it over the years of course, you know how the mind swells these historical stories and they become all the more glorious and confused when you leave them be in the back of your cornea and suddenly they’re flung forward again at a chance encounter—ours, for example.
In school I learned about the Easter Rising as if it was a swift and righteous affair—six days is all it took, can you just believe it Markievicz!—as if the rebels simply went and took it all back from the British. But of course that’s impossible really, the simplicity of it all, when you think about it. You know better anyway, you were there. Yes, the Irish rebels leapt out of the city’s shadows that Monday morning, but didn’t they fail to hammer it home, as they say? Didn’t you, is what I mean, since you were the one who was second in command of the Irish troops in St. Stephen’s Green. You: born into a wealthy, British family. You: dying poor and almost Irish.
Is this the revolver, the one in the picture? I read somewhere that when you were forced to surrender on the sixth day and you stood above the crowd at St. Stephen’s Green and kissed it—the gun, with passion apparently—before handing it over to a British soldier, a distant cousin of yours. Oh, you were something else all together. I hate to talk about this Markievicz but I can’t help but bring it up, this was the hat wasn’t it? I read somewhere else too that you wore this outfit during the Rising. I know you’d hate for me to speak about your clothes (the way I hate it too, we have that in common you see) but what I read was that you wore a hat with feathers stuck into it along with a uniform that sounds, from the descriptions, just so like this outfit in your picture. You with your feathers just striking the air above your head, I can picture you now amongst the bushes and gunpowder, receiving your death sentence with some wild finesse.
I suppose you mustn’t have minded that they had mercy on you though, only because you were a woman. Instead of execution they sent you to gaol, and the lines on your neck became something fierce after that, or so I recall. How can I even recall at all Markievicz! And yet here you are in front of me, your lines looking so tender in that beautiful letter Y wrapped around the shape of your thyroid. Your lips are parted just enough to breathe softly out onto that dagger of a crease.
These contours of yours, the kind that stem out from your jaw and onto the paper only appear, I think, once you’ve spent some holy amount of time sacrificing so much of your person for others. You did so much of that, like when you fed those hundreds and hundreds of families in the slums of Dublin during the lockout of 1913.
You look different from how I expected you. As if I was even expecting you! How is it, I wonder, that you make me believe in some earlier want for you? How you trap my desire in retrospect. How, Markievicz!
Anyway, this is hardly the time at all—let’s not do this now.
Niamh McCooey is an Irish writer based in London.