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Maud Gonne: Unlikely Rebel, and a Poet’s Muse

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Irish EclecticBy Brian McGowan

We continue our “Women of Ireland” series, focusing on a distinctly different type of Irishwoman, one born into the very heart of the Anglo-Irish ruling class – Maud Gonne.

Born in 1866 in England, Maud was the eldest daughter of a British officer, Capt. Thomas Gonne, of a family with roots in County Mayo. In 1882 he took a post in Dublin, and 16-year-old Maud accompanied him.

Initially setting her sights on a career in acting, she fell ill with tuberculosis. While recovering at a French spa, she began an affair with a married man. Ultimately, she would bear two children with him out of wedlock.

About this time, she began to show interest in the Irish nationalist cause, which sought to overturn 700 years of British rule in Ireland. Her passion for nationalism was strongly influenced by her introduction in 1889 to the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

In 1900, Maud co-founded an organization called “Inghinidhe na hÉireann,” or “Daughters of Ireland.” The organization was formed to give Irish women a strong voice in Irish affairs. Continuing to hone her nationalist views, Maud moved closer to embracing the violent overthrow of British rule as the solution to Ireland’s condition. In 1903, she co-founded the National Council, which by 1905 morphed into the Sinn Féin party, to this day still a major force in Irish politics.

While involved with political agitation, Maud pursued her ambition to be an actress. Cited by one British journalist as “the most beautiful woman in the world,” Maud took on the lead role in several of her friend Yeats’ plays, including “Cathleen Ní Houlihan.”

Yeats was deeply in love with her, and proposed marriage at least four times. She spurned him on each occasion, yet remained his steadfast friend. She married, in 1903, Maj. John MacBride, a devoted nationalist. They had a son, Seán, born in 1904, who would himself become a major figure in the Republic of Ireland. But the marriage between Gonne and MacBride quickly faltered, amidst allegations of domestic violence. The couple separated, and Maud chose to live in France.

Maud could not take an active role in the 1916 Easter Rising. The British refused to issue her a passport. McBride, her estranged husband, was a very active participant and was executed by the British authorities in May 1916.

Maud’s involvement with the struggle for Irish independence increased in the aftermath of the Rising. She returned to Ireland following MacBride’s death, and actively championed the increasingly violent resistance to British rule. She traveled throughout the South of Ireland, and gave numerous speeches in support of Irish Republican Army (IRA) efforts.

Arrested numerous times for subversive activities, she spent many months in English jails. When a treaty was brokered in 1921 to end the Anglo-Irish War, Ireland was partitioned into the “two-state” structure that exists to this day. Gonne adamantly opposed the treaty, as did many. She strongly favored the treaty opponents in the ensuing Irish Civil War between them and the pro-treaty Irish Free State forces. At one point they ransacked her Dublin residence, and she found herself frequently arrested by them.

Instead of languishing in English jails, Maud now found herself imprisoned in Irish jails, as the Republicans were slowly forced to accept the rule of the Irish Free State, a bitter pill to those who had never given up hope of achieving a united 32-county Irish Republic. Over the next three decades, she continued to champion the marginalized and the oppressed.

Maud Gonne died in Dublin on Apr. 27, 1953, at age 86, a victim of the tuberculosis she had first contracted more than 60 years earlier. She is remembered today as a dedicated patriot and muse to one of the world’s greatest poets, William Butler Yeats. His work often revealed the pain of his unrequited love.

“The world should thank me for not marrying you,” she once said. Yeats’s “unhappiness,” she claimed, was the very thing that allowed him to “make beautiful poetry…poets should never marry.”

Longtime Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at brian.m.mcgowan1952@gmail.com. He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the Battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.


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