WB Yeats described Maud Gonne MacBride has having “beauty like a tightened bow, a kind/that is not natural in an age like this”. At 6 foot tall, with masses of auburn hair and fiery eyes, she was considered majestically beautiful and would spend her life fighting tirelessly for the cause of Irish Independence.
Maud Gonne was born near Surrey in England on the 21st of December 1866 and was the eldest daughter of Captain Thomas Gonne of the 17th Lancers and his wife Edith Frith Gonne. Maud’s mother Edith died from tuberculosis when she was 4 years old, and from then on she and her sister Kathleen were mostly reared by governesses. When she was 16 her father was posted to Ireland and the family settled in Kildare.
Captain Gonne died from typhoid when he was 51 and his dying wish, according to his daughter, was that he could have done more to redress some of the injustices he could see around him in Ireland. Maud vowed to take his place, and so began her lifelong affair with revolutionary politics.
After a bout of tuberculosis, Maud was sent to France to recuperate. Now a financially independent young woman, following the death of her father, she divided her time between France and Ireland. During this time she met and fell in love with the right wing politician and journalist Lucien Millevoye. She soon became his mistress, and he proposed that they work together for Irish freedom and to regain the Alsace-Lorraine region for France. Maud and Millevoye had two children. Georges was born in 1891, but died aged 18 months from meningitis. Maud carried a pair of his bootees with her for the rest of her life and they were placed in her coffin on her death. In 1895 their daughter Iseult was born. As the children were illegitimate, Maud never publicly acknowledged her daughter or mourned her dead son. She always referred to Georges as her “adopted” child and to Iseult as her niece or “kinswoman”. Her relationship with Millevoye ended after Iseult’s birth.
Maud returned to Ireland and led protests against evictions in Donegal. She helped to secure the release of Irish political prisoners from Portland Jail in England. She lent her support to many causes and was known to physically help in the rebuilding of burned-out houses. Maud threw herself into the Irish nationalist movement and, although blocked by Michael Davitt, who did not trust women in politics, she managed to earn the respect of the Fenian leader John O’Leary and Sinn Féin founder Arthur Griffith. She conducted lecture tours of Europe and the USA, promoting the message of Irish independence. By 1890 she was living in rooms on Nassau Street, Dublin and was presiding over a group of young nationalists.
“More and more I realised that Ireland could rely only on force, in some form or another, to free herself”
In 1889 she met the man with whom she would be forever linked. Poet William Butler Yeats was overwhelmed by her when he met her, and for years to come she would be his muse and his great unrequited love. Many of his poems and plays were inspired by her. She was his Countess Cathleen and his Cathleen Ní Houlihan, she was his Rose, his Helen of Troy and his Deirdre. He proposed marriage to her many times, but she always turned him down. The first proposal came in 1891, when Maud travelled back to Ireland on the shame ship that was carrying Charles Stewart Parnell’s coffin. She was met by Yeats at Dun Laoghaire.
In 1900, having been excluded from joining existing nationalist groups in Ireland because she was a woman, Maud Gonne founded Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) with the aim of securing complete independence for Ireland, the popularization of Irish manufactured goods, the revival of the Irish language and the restoration of Irish customs, games and dancing. One of its first activities was the “Patriotic Treat”, a huge children’s party to coincide with the visit of Queen Victoria to Ireland in 1900, successfully upstaging the government-sponsored festivities.
In 1903 Maud had married Major John MacBride, a veteran of the Boer War. Although their marriage was short lived, they had one son, Sean. Maud obtained a civil dissolution after 2 years and she spent much of her married life in France. Sean was brought up in France, and became IRA Chief of Staff in 1936. He founded Clann na Poblachta in 1946, served as Minister for External Affairs from 1948 to 1951 and was one of the founders of Amnesty International.
In 1910 Inghinidhe na hÉireann battled malnutrition among Dublin’s poorest children by setting up a school dinner committee to ensure that poor children got a plate of hot stew every day. They founded Bean na hÉireann, the first ever women’s paper to be published in Ireland, which ran until 1911. Newspaper sellers joked that it was “the women’s paper that men buy”. Countess Markievicz designed the masthead for the first issue.
In 1914, Inghinidhe na hÉireann merged into the newly formed Cumann na mBan, the female wing of the Irish Volunteers. The members adopted a green uniform with a slouch hat. Their banner and badge carried the motif of a rifle with the initials of the organization intertwined. The aims of Cumann na mBan were to advance the cause of Irish liberty, to assist in the arming and equipping of a body of Irishmen for the defence of Ireland and to raise money by organizing céilís, concerts and other social events for the purchase of arms and ammunition.
Maud was in France during the Easter Rising of April 1916. Her former husband was one of the leaders, and was executed for his involvement. Maud returned to Ireland in 1917, started to use her husband’s name and insisted on wearing black for many years.
In 1918 Maud was arrested and imprisoned in Holloway along with Countess Constance Markievicz. They were accused of being involved in the “German Plot” when it was alleged that they were in league with Germany against Britain.
Following her release Maud continued her public life. During the War of Independence she was instrumental in publicizing atrocities carried out by the English forces. She worked for the White Cross supplying financial relief to the families of victims of violence.
She was against the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, but as a loyal supporter of Arthur Griffith, who supported the treaty, she remained uncharacteristically quiet on the subject. Following his death in 1922, her position hardened, particularly as she disliked William Cosgrave’s Free State government.
As Civil War broke out in 1922, she founded the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence league with Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and Charlotte Despard “for the help, comfort and release of” Republican prisoners. The organization of “mothers” as Maud called them, was banned a year later. The group also introduced the lily as a symbol of the Rising of Easter 1916. The lily is still used today to remember the rebellion and those that died.
In 1923 she was arrested for having paraded peacefully down a street carrying Anti-Free State placards. Maud was imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol and, along with 91 of her fellow inmates, she started a hunger strike, which she continued for 20 days until her release due to ill health. Outside the gates of the gaol, her dear friend Charlotte Despard, now an elderly lady of 79 years, staged a solitary protest against her imprisonment. She waited on a chair, day and night until Maud was released.
In the years that followed the Civil War, Maud continued to support the Republican side and maintained her efforts on behalf of political prisoners. She did not stop her agitation until Eamon De Valera began to release prisoners on his accession to power in 1932.
In 1938 she published her autobiography A Servant of the Queen, a vivid account of her life until her marriage. She outlived all her old friends and comrades and, in her old age, described herself as “a prisoner of old age, waiting for release”. She died on the 27th of April 1953, aged 87, and is buried in the Republican Plot in Glasnevin.
Maud Gonne was described as a “beautiful wild creature” and, as well as her ceaseless efforts on behalf of the nation of Ireland, she inspired some of the most beautiful poetry ever written in the English language
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great.
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done, being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
(“No Second Troy” WB Yeats)