Gonne, Maud (1866–1953)

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Gonne, Maud (1866–1953)

Irish activist, journalist and feminist who devoted over 50 years to Irish political, cultural, and social causes. Name variations: Maud Gonne MacBride. Pronunciation: Mawd Gone MAK-bride. Born Maud Gonne on December 21, 1866, near Aldershot, Surrey, England; died at her home Roebuck House in Dublin, Ireland, on April 27, 1953; eldest daughter of Thomas Gonne and Edith (Cook) Gonne; educated at home; married John MacBride, on February 21, 1903; children (with Lucien Millevoye) Georges (1890–1891) and Iseult Gonne Stuart (b. 1894); (with John MacBride) Sean MacBride (b. 1904).

Became involved in Irish nationalist cause (1880s); met with W.B. Yeats (1889); founded L'Irlande Libre, Paris (1897); co-founded Irish Transvaal Committee (1899); founded and served as president of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland, 1900); co-founded Women's Prisoners' Defence League (1922). Publications: Dawn (1904, reprinted, Proscenium Press, 1970); A Servant of the Queen (Gollancz, 1938); Yeats and Ireland (Macmillan, 1940).

Maud Gonne's long public career has been overshadowed by her role as the muse of William Butler Yeats, who immortalized her in his poetry. The process began, to her annoyance, while she was still alive. More than a poetic allusion, Gonne devoted over 50 years of her life to Irish political, cultural, and social causes.

She was born on December 21, 1866, near Aldershot, Surrey, England, into a privileged background. Her mother Edith Cook Gonne came from a wealthy family, and her father Thomas Gonne was an officer in the British army. He was an excellent linguist and took a keen interest in the arts, especially music and the theater. The family had no connections with Ireland until the year after Maud's birth, when her father's regiment was sent there. In 1868, her sister Kathleen Gonne was born. Edith Gonne died of tuberculosis in 1871, but her husband was determined to rear their daughters himself. He was an unusual father for his time; he was affectionate and easy-going, and his daughters, especially Maud, adored him. Thomas Gonne was one of the greatest influences in her life.

In the 1870s, while Thomas was serving as a British military attache in Eastern Europe, India and Russia, his daughters stayed with their mother's relatives in London and then spent several years in Europe. The family returned to Ireland in 1882 when Thomas was given a senior position in the army. Maud Gonne was presented at the viceregal court in Dublin the following year, and, with her striking height (she was nearly six feet tall) and red-gold hair, her beauty made an immediate impression. She had a busy social life and acted as her father's hostess. But the 1880s also witnessed the Land War in Ireland, a concerted campaign by tenants to reform the system of land tenure. This led to conflict with the landlords, and there were many evictions. It was the sight of these evictions which first interested Maud Gonne in Irish nationalism.

Her life changed with the sudden death of her father in November 1886. She and her sister went to live in London with a guardian, their father's brother William, but they were at odds. William was dismayed when Maud attended demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and horrified when she gave help to her father's mistress, Margaret Wilson , who arrived at their door with the news that she had given birth to a daughter Eileen six weeks previous and was now penniless. (Maud's illegitimate half-sister Eileen Wilson would later live with Maud for a time.) When William told Maud that her father had left little money, her immediate response was to look for a job as an actress. Gonne performed with a small theatrical company but had to give it up when she fell ill with a lung hemorrhage. She then discovered that her uncle had made up the story about her poverty as a means of exerting control over her.

To recover her health, she journeyed to Royat in France, and it was there she met Lucien Millevoye who was her lover, off and on, for the next 13 years. Millevoye was separated from his wife, but the fact that he could not marry her was of little concern to Maud who was always wary of marriage. A prominent journalist and politician, Millevoye was closely associated with General Georges Boulanger's National Party which was conservative and nationalist in ethos and also had a marked vein of anti-Semitism. In her memoirs A Servant of the Queen, Gonne did not reveal her physical relationship with Millevoye and described it instead as an "alliance" against the British Empire. However, her relationship with him, the most important of her life, blinded her to the contradictions between his conservative nationalism and her revolutionary nationalism, although the implications of this were not apparent for some years. For the next 13 years, she divided her time between Ireland, France, and England.

I had made it a rule of life never to ask any man to do a thing I was not ready to do myself or take a risk I was not ready to share.

—Maud Gonne

In spring 1888, Gonne went to St. Petersburg on a mission for Millevoye and the Boulangists, carrying a secret document asking for Russian assistance to overthrow the French Third Republic and bring Boulanger to power. On her return, she visited London and met Michael Davitt, the radical Irish member of Parliament, who was skeptical of her wish to work for Ireland, suspecting that she was an agent provocateur. She was more successful in Dublin where she met John O'Leary, a prominent member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the painter J.B. Yeats (father of W.B. Yeats), and Arthur Griffith, who was to found Sinn Fein in 1905. Gonne's apartment in Nassau Street became a meeting place for nationalist politicians, writers, and academics. She was invited to do publicity work about evictions in Donegal and helped to organize accommodation for evicted tenants. She also became involved in the campaign for the amnesty of Irish political prisoners and visited some of them in Portland Prison in England.

Gonne met W.B. Yeats in January 1889 when she called to see his father in London. Yeats fell deeply in love with her and so began a long and what he called "perplexed wooing." She had affection for Yeats but regarded him as a friend, never appreciating the misery he suffered in loving her. She did not tell him about her relationship with Millevoye, and it took him years to realize that they were seeking different things. Gonne's "alliance" with Millevoye was also running into trouble. He followed her to Donegal in 1889 where she was again helping evicted tenants and told her she was wasting her time on a group of peasants. She refused to go back to France with him but had no choice when a warrant was issued for her arrest.

In January 1890, she gave birth to their son Georges, and the following summer Yeats proposed to her but was rejected. She was in Ireland in summer 1891 when she was summoned back to Paris where her son was ill with meningitis. His death on August 31 caused her great grief and guilt as she had been away for much of his brief life. She considered leaving Millevoye but decided against this when Boulanger committed suicide just a month after their son's death. Gonne returned to Ireland and became interested in reincarnation, a belief which later attracted her to Buddhism. She had psychic faculties and experimented with marijuana for out-of-body experiences. In her memoirs, Gonne referred to the presence in her dreams of a dark, beautiful woman whom she called the "Grey Lady." Yeats interested her in theosophy and initiated her into an occult society, the Order of the Golden Dawn, which she later left because it smacked too much of freemasonry. She served on the National Literary Society's library committee, of which Yeats was secretary, but they disagreed over literary criteria, a recurring argument between them.

On her return to France in 1892, Gonne persuaded Millevoye, who was still depressed by Boulanger's death, to take up the editorship of La Patrie, a move which restored his political fortunes. Although much of the physical feeling had gone from their relationship, Gonne was anxious to have another child, and their daughter Iseult was born in August 1894. Gonne resumed her lecturing and writing career and in 1897 started her own journal L'Irlande Libre. She and Yeats dreamed of creating a mystical order for Irish men and women, "the Castle of Heroes." They also worked together on the centennial of Wolfe Tone, the Irish republican leader and thinker who died in 1798, and in October

1897 she spent three months in America raising money for a Wolfe Tone memorial. The tour was a financial success, but she experienced problems with some of the Irish-American leaders. On her return, she became involved in land agitation in the west of Ireland, but the pressures of her life soon caused strain. Her relationship with Millevoye was failing, and in November 1898 she finally told Yeats about him and Iseult. He was stunned, but when she told him of her distaste for physical love they embarked on a "mystical" marriage which lasted until 1903 and which was resumed in 1908.

When the Boer War broke out in 1899, Maud Gonne, with Yeats, Arthur Griffith, James Connolly, and others helped to organize the pro-Boer Irish Transvaal Committee and addressed antiwar meetings in Ireland and Britain. The war also temporarily patched up her relationship with Millevoye, and they organized pro-Boer meetings in France. On her trips to Paris, she organized passports for Irish militants who wanted to fight in South Africa. The peak of her antiwar activities came in April 1900 when Queen Victoria visited Ireland to rally Irish opinion behind the British war effort. Gonne's article "The Famine Queen," attacking Victoria's neglect of Ireland, caused a sensation and led to copies of the newspaper, Griffith's United Irishman, being seized. Pro-British newspapers called for her arrest. To counter a children's treat arranged to celebrate the royal visit, she organized a "Patriotic Children's Treat."

For some years, Gonne had expressed annoyance at the exclusion of Irish women from so many of the political and cultural movements which had sprung up in Ireland since the 1890s. To remedy this she, Jennie Wyse Power, Annie Egan, Alice Milligan, Anna Johnston (Mac-Manus) and others set up Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) in October 1900. Its aims were (1) to reestablish the complete independence of Ireland; (2) to encourage the study of Irish literature, history, and the arts; and (3) to discourage the circulation of English culture in Ireland. The women pledged themselves to mutual help and support and to protect themselves from possible victimization in employment. Drama proved to be one of the most successful activities of the Inghinidhe. They performed tableaux vivants, and the actors included such later luminaries as Sarah Allgood, Maire O'Neill, Maire Quinn and Maire nic Shiubhlaigh . They scored one of their greatest triumphs in Cathleen Ni Houlihan (claimed by Yeats although written by Lady Augusta Gregory ) in which Gonne played the title role (a metaphor for Ireland). Maire nic Shiubhlaigh, who later performed the part, wrote that by watching Gonne it was easy to understand how she had become the inspiration for the Irish revolutionary movement: "Her beauty was startling. In her the youth of the country saw all that was magnificent in Ireland." Yeats referred to her "weird power." In 1902, Gonne joined the board of the Irish National Theatre and, as before, argued with Yeats that art should serve propaganda, and should not be art for art's sake. She deprecated Augusta Gregory's influence on Yeats which she thought weakened his interest in the national struggle and finally resigned from the board over Synge's In the Shadow of the Glen of which she disapproved because of its portrayal of a loveless Irish marriage.

John MacBride was one of the leaders of the pro-Boer Irish Brigade fighting in South Africa. He first met Maud Gonne in Paris in 1900, and in 1901 she joined him in America where he was on a lecture tour. Her relationship with Millevoye had ended not only because of political differences but also because of his affair with a singer. The English liberal journalist H.W. Nevinson had predicted that Gonne's longing for action would impel her towards a certain kind of marriage: "The first man of resolute action whom she meets will have her at his mercy." She had told Yeats that poets should never marry and that the world would thank her for not marrying him. MacBride was a man of action, but he depended on Gonne for support in a way that Yeats never did. Despite warnings from friends and relations about their mutual incompatibility, Gonne recognized the risks involved in the marriage but wanted stability for herself and Iseult. She converted to Catholicism, although with her eclectic beliefs in mysticism and reincarnation was hardly an orthodox Catholic. She and MacBride were married in February 1903. Their son Sean MacBride was born in January 1904, but by the summer of 1904 the marriage was over. John MacBride was insecure and jealous, and this aggravated his drinking problem. Iseult disliked MacBride, but the final break came when he allegedly assaulted Maud's half-sister Eileen, who was living with them. In February 1905, Gonne filed for a French divorce, citing MacBride's drinking and adultery.

Because of legal difficulties over custody of Sean and MacBride's domicile, the divorce did not go through, but it caused a considerable scandal in Ireland, Britain, France and the U.S. where it was extensively reported and did Gonne much harm. Friends in Dublin took sides, and, when she returned to Dublin in 1906 and accompanied Yeats to the Abbey Theatre, she was hissed. Gonne's visits to Ireland over the next ten years were sporadic because of the reaction to her separation and the fear that MacBride might claim their son. She became close to Yeats again, and it is probable that they finally became lovers in 1908–09, although the relationship was over by the end of 1909.

Despite living in France, Gonne remained president of Inghinidhe na hÉireann and wrote regularly for its journal Bean na hÉireann (Irish Woman). She was particularly interested in the provision of school meals for poor children in Dublin which had some of the worst slums in Europe and the highest infant mortality rate in the United Kingdom. The labor leader James Connolly, her friend and colleague from the Boer War, secured trade-union support, and, with the help of Constance Markievicz, Helena Molony, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington , and Muriel and Grace Gifford , the first meals were provided in 1910 and the scheme was gradually extended. However, Gonne was regarded with more suspicion in the suffrage movement and was not invited to take part in their meetings; the separation from MacBride still cast long shadows.

When the First World War broke out, Gonne worked as a Red Cross nurse near the Pyrenees. She was appalled by the carnage and told Yeats in November 1914 of her "wild hatred" of the war machine. Her feelings about the war intensified after the death of her sister's son. Gonne returned to Paris in January 1915 and continued to work in hospitals there. The news of the 1916 Easter rebellion in Dublin and the subsequent execution of John MacBride for his part in it came as a shock, but she was moved by reports of his bravery, especially for their son's sake: "He has died for Ireland and his son will bear an honoured name. I remember nothing else." She was also much concerned for the Inghinidhe members who had been arrested after the rebellion, among them Helena Molony, Kathleen Lynn , the Gifford sisters, and Maire nic Shiubhlaigh, but when she arrived in London she was refused a passport to go to Ireland.

After MacBride's death, Yeats renewed his proposal, but she refused. He was increasingly attracted to 23-year-old Iseult as well, but Iseult also rejected Yeats when he proposed to her in August 1917. Two months later, he married Georgie Hyde-Lees . In February 1918, Gonne finally reached Ireland in defiance of the passport ban and rented a house in Dublin. There was criticism of her for wearing widow's weeds, considering the state of her marriage to MacBride, and there was also skepticism that Iseult was, as she claimed, her adopted niece. But she was active in the anti-conscription campaign and was arrested in May 1918 and sent to Holloway prison in London where she shared a cell with Constance Markievicz and Kathleen Clarke . All three were in poor health, and it was while she was in prison that she learned of the deaths of Millevoye and her sister Kathleen. Gonne was released in November on health grounds and was joined at her house in Dublin by Charlotte Despard who became a close friend and colleague.

During the Irish war of independence (1919–21), Gonne worked as a judge for the new Irish republican courts. She also did publicity work and served on the American Committee for Relief in Ireland. To her dismay, her son Sean had joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and in 1920 Iseult married Francis Stuart who was eight years her junior. When the treaty which ended the war of independence and set up the Irish Free State was signed in December 1921, it caused dissension between Gonne and her son Sean who considered it a betrayal of republican ideals. Gonne thought that the treaty, though imperfect, was a basis for progress. However, when civil war broke out in June 1922, she was horrified. Sean was arrested and narrowly escaped execution while Francis Stuart was interned. Gonne nursed wounded republicans at her house and at the end of 1922, with Charlotte Despard, founded the Women's Prisoners Defence League. The League protested at the treatment meted out to republican prisoners and their families, and its members demonstrated, visited jails, and sought legal aid. Her house was watched constantly by the police, and she and Despard decided to move to a suburb of Dublin, Clonskeagh. In January and April 1923, Maud Gonne was arrested but was released, on the second occasion after 20 days when she went on a hunger strike. In November 1923, during a raid by government forces, many precious papers, including correspondence from Yeats, were burned.

With the gradual release of republican prisoners, Gonne's Roebuck House became a refuge for many of them. To help them secure employment, the outbuildings were turned into small shops for piece work. Gonne also canvassed for the republicans in various elections in the 1920s. In 1926, she and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington became embroiled in the public debate over Sean O'Casey's The Plough and the Stars. Although he disagreed with her, O'Casey respected Sheehy-Skeffington but he was scathing about Maud Gonne in his autobiography: "a sibyl of patriotism from whom no oracle ever came … the colonel's daughter still."

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Gonne continued to work for the republican cause, especially republican prisoners. When the movement split in 1926, she was skeptical of the new party founded by Eamon de Valera, Fianna Fáil, which came to power in 1932. Her son Sean remained close to the IRA but left in 1937 when the organization was riven by splits. He became a distinguished lawyer and defended republican prisoners in the 1930s and 1940s. He and his family lived at Roebuck House and his wife, Catalina Bulfin , was close to Maud. Gonne had not spoken to Yeats for many years because of his decision to accept a seat in the Free State senate. She also deeply disapproved of his support for the quasi-fascist Blueshirt movement, but they met again in the 1930s.

Maud Gonne started writing her memoirs in 1936 and received encouragement from Dorothy Macardle who put her in touch with the publisher Victor Gollancz. A Servant of the Queen was published in 1938 but needs to be treated with some caution. Gonne was over 70; many of the people she was writing about were dead; and she was seriously handicapped by the destruction of her papers during the civil war which meant that a lot of the chronology and details were vague. There were other pressures. Sean did not want her to discuss the more scandalous parts of her private life, including her relationship with Millevoye and her children with him. She was forced to refer to Iseult as "the charming child I had adopted." Only 1,500 copies were sold of the book; the rest were burned in the London Blitz. However, it was reprinted in 1950, 1974, and 1994. Gonne started work on a sequel, The Tower of Age, but did not complete it. As with Servant, there was much that she could not write about.

Yeats had generously told her to quote what she wanted from his poems for the book, and they met for the last time in August 1938. After his death in January 1939, she wrote a tribute to him in Scattering the Branches: Tributes to the Memory of W.B. Yeats (1940). During World War II, she opposed de Valera's crackdown on the IRA and worked for IRA prisoners interned by the government. After the war, she supported her son's new political party, Clann na Poblachta (Followers of the Republic), which took part in the coalition government which won power in 1948. Sean was appointed minister for external affairs. In her last years, Maud Gonne did recordings for Radio Éireann for the 50th anniversary of Inghinidhe na hÉireann and other reminiscences. She died at Roebuck House on April 27, 1953.


MacBride, Maud Gonne. A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences. London: Victor Gollancz, 1938 (new edition, Gerrard's Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994).

——. "Yeats and Ireland," in Scattering the Branches: Tributes to the Memory of W.B. Yeats. Edited by Stephen Gwynn. London: Macmillan, 1940.

White, Anna MacBride, and A. Norman Jeffares. The Gonne-Yeats Letters, 1893–1938. London: Hutchinson, 1992.

suggested reading:

Balliett, Conrad A. "The Lives—and Lies—of Maud Gonne," in Éire/Ireland. Vol 14, no. 3, 1979.

Cardozo, Nancy. Maud Gonne: Lucky Eyes and a High Heart. London: Gollancz, 1979.

Levenson, Samuel. Maud Gonne. London: Cassell, 1976.

Ward, Margaret. Maud Gonne: A Life. London: Pandora, 1990.

Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in History at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland