Gonne, Edith Maud (1866-1953)

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Gonne, Edith Maud (1866-1953)

Edith Maud Gonne, a social activist and devotee of ritual magic, was born in Tongham, Surrey, England, into a wealthy family of wine merchants. In 1868 she moved to Ireland where her father was stationed with the British Army, and she developed a lifelong identification with her new home. In 1874, however, several years after her mother's death, she was sent to England to be cared for by relatives. The arrangement did not work out, and a short time later she wound up in France in the care of a very independent-minded governess. She grew into an attractive young woman and was the subject of constant male attention. Her father moved her several times to keep her from the notice of the Prince of Wales, a royal heir who had a reputation for womanizing.

One of the determining events in her life occurred in 1886 when one evening she quietly made a pact with the Devil. She agreed that in return for the ability to control her own life, the Devil could have her soul. Coincidentally, a few weeks later, her father passed away. Gonne decided to become an actress, but an illness prevented her debut on stage. She retired to France to recover and while there she met Lucien Millevoye, a French political activist who sought to win back Alsace-Lorraine, which France had lost in the Franco-Prussian War. Their relationship solidified Gonne's anti-British sentiment and transformed her into an activist for Irish independence. She also had a child with Millevoye in 1890, though the child died a year later.

In 1889 Gonne met William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (HOGD). In 1891 she joined the HOGD and over the next few years became an accomplished magician. She settled in Paris in the mid-1890s and in 1896 worked with Samuel L. MacGregor Mathers and his wife Moina Mathers in 1896 in their exploration of the Celtic magical tradition. She also began L'Association Irlanaise to work for Irish independence. Yeatsjoined her in several lecture tours, including one in America.

In December of 1898 Gonne had an unusual experience of a dream in which she was carried into the spirit realm where she was married to Yeats. That same evening Yeats had a dream in which she kissed him. They would come to describe this experience as a spiritual marriage that would never be consummated on the physical level. They remained close friends and coworkers for the rest of their lives. In 1903, Gonne joined the Catholic Church and married John MacBride, but the marriage lasted only two years. In 1908 she again found herself working with Yeats. In 1917 he finally asked her to marry him, but she turned him down and he married another. The following year she went to Ireland but was arrested and returned to England, where she was imprisoned for six months as a member of the Sein Fein Party. Following her arrest, her son Sean (the second child born of her relationship with Millevoye) joined the Irish Republican Army.

Gonne's experience in prison diverted her activism to the cause of jail reform and the plight of the wives and children of political prisoners. She also served in the Irish White Cross, a relief organization. She remained active in pro-Irish causes. In 1938 she completed her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen. She died on April 27, 1953, near Dublin.


Gonne, Maud. "Yeats and Ireland." In Stephen Gwynn, ed. Scattering Branches: Tributes to the Memory of W. B. Yeats. London: Macmillian, 1940.

Greer, Mary K. Women of the Golden Dawn: Rebels and Priest-esses. Rochester, Vt.: Park Street Books, 1995.

King, Francis. Ritual Magic in England. London: Neville Spearman, 1970.

McBride, Maud Gonne. A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences. 1938. Reprint, Woodbridge, Surrey, UK: Boydell Press, 1983.