Maud Gonne was born in Tongham, near Surrey, England in 1865 to Captain Thomas Gonne of the 17th Light Dragoons and his wife Edith Firth Cook. Edith belonged to the wealthy Cooke family, manufacturers of silk, linen, and cotton goods. Her Grandfather was also head of a prosperous firm with houses in Oporto and London. She always spoke about her Father being detained to take charge of the foreign business. He was educated abroad and spoke several languages. Having little or no desire to become a business man, he got a commission into the English Army.
Some sources suggest that when Gonne’s parents married, it was only a day before she was born. In that era, this would have been shameful for the family, so her birth went unrecorded. Since it was illegal at the time not to registrar a birth, it has been assumed over the years that her family and parents on both sides wanted to hide the date of birth. Maud was always vague about her birthday and was quoted in an unpublished Dublin newspaper article as saying, "I was born in Aldershot Camp, 1865." This is a Military Camp some 40 miles from London where her father was stationed.
Captain Gonne was posted to Ireland where the family lived in a fishing village North of Dublin Bay, away from the dreary streets of Dublin. Edith was suffering with tuberculous, and the air was said to be cleaner there. The Gonne children did not attend school as they had a Nurse to educate them. They spent their days climbing the rocks around the coast, and swimming, a world away from the local children’s own poverty stricken world. Some sources say that "this was the happiest time in the Gonne family; Maud accrediting this time as very special in her life."
In 1871, they were moved to Donnybrook (a wealthy suburban area of Dublin) where the Gonne family did not feel out of place. By this time Edith had become so ill with tuberculous that Captain Gonne made the decision to move his wife to Italy. However, her illness had progressed too far and she died during the trip. Later Maud Gonne would reflect on a comment that her Father made at her mother’s wake in London: "You must never be afraid of anything – not even death." This had a profound effect on her for the rest of her life
For a time, Maud and her sister were cared for their mother's Aunt Augusta. Later, Captain Gonne made a decision to find suitable accommodation for them in the South of France while he was posted to India. When the girls were settled he then hired a nanny who taught them the history, literature, and language of France along with cooking skills. She also imbued them with an interest in radical politics.
Maud was a very independent young woman, and as she matured, she wanted to experience life outside the constraints of living with a nanny. She would spend her winters in Switzerland and her summers in Italy. When her father became a military attaché, travelling throughout Europe, Maud would make it her business to meet up with him in the various cities where he had military business. Her independence and her defiance of social norms were most probably rooted in her unconventional upbringing. Travelling through Europe and other cities while still a young teenager exposed her to places, ideas, and people that those other young ladies of her social status and background would rarely experience.
Maud Gonne was six feet tall with a figure and face to match, and golden crown of red hair. She was classed among the great beauties of her era. One of her aunts, Comtesse de la Sizeranne, took great pride in showing her off and introducing her to Parisian high society. Some sources have recorded that by the time she was 18 years of age she had numerous marriage proposals. King Edward VII (then Prince of Wales) is said to have seen her at a dance and immediately wanted to marry her. At 19 years of age, Maud's cosmopolitan experiences meant she was well place to become her father’s hostess; taking her mother’s role when her father was permanently posted to Dublin. She was such a success in this role that high ranking officers and their wives sought out her company and lavished praise on her.
This part of her family life was not to last because her father contacted typhoid fever in the winter of 1886 and died within a week. His body was taken back to England for burial next to his wife. Both girls, Maud and Kathleen, were devastated. Now officially orphans as they were both under 21 years of age, relatives took care of them. This was not an altruistic act of kindness as the relative were very aware of how rich the girls would become. They desperately tried to become their guardians, while telling the girls that their father had left them nothing. Being high spirited and independent, both young women decided to earn their own living; Kathleen became a nurse and Maud trained an actress. When their father’s was probated a year later, he had left them both financially independent, so they rid themselves of their greedy relatives. Maud returned to live with her Aunt Comtesse de la Sizeranne in France for a time.
It was in France that she met Lucien Millevoye, who was highly involved in French politics. Not only that, but he was married. Millevoye shaped Gonne’s political ideas, encouraging her to get involved in Ireland's Independence. His deep passion for his homeland was only upsurged by his hatred of England. She took his ideas forward and moved back to Ireland. Their relationship continued and they would meet up whenever they could. By 1889, she had borne Millevoye a son named Georges. Tragically, this child lived for only three years. Devastated by her son’s death, she threw herself into her work in Ireland. She opened up lending libraries in remote areas of Ireland as a means of promoting the culture and language of the native people that had been suppressed under 700 years of English rule. In 1891 she briefly joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn- a magical organisation of which W.B Yeats was a member.
By 1896, Gonne had a second child by Millevoye, although the relationship had by this time faded somewhat. She had been determined to have a second child by her first child’s father. Some sources say that, so determined was she to have this second child by Millevoye, that in 1893 she arranged to meet him at the mausoleum in Samois-sur-Seine and that, next to her diseased baby's coffin, she seduced him.
She called this child Iseult and raised her as her niece. The relationship with Millevoye which was tenuous at best, fell apart quite quickly after this. Gonne found out that not only was he intent on remaining with his wife, he had fallen in love with someone else. By 1899, her relationship with Millevoye was over.
Left: Iseult Gonne as a young woman
With her affair now over, she immersed herself in Irish political life. Travelling around Ireland, she observed landlords evicting their tenants and starvation brought on the by famine and the greedy landlords. She quickly realised that the only way to help these people was to become involved in the Land League, an organisation dedicated to reforming tenancy laws. She travelled all around Ireland giving speeches, rallying the Irish tenants and influencing law-making of their English overlords. She organised famine relief and quite quickley was recognised as a woman who was on the side of the Irish people, and not the wealthy landlords and their ilk .
Of course, becoming involved in Irish politics meant that she was now mixing with quite a wide circle of Irish revolutionaries including Countess Markieviz and W.B. Yeats whom she had met on a number of occasions at the magical society. Yeats became totally smitten with her. Still in the throes of a broken heart over Millevove, all she would offer was friendship. She found his passion for Ireland endearing, and it must have reminded her or Millevove, whose passion for his mother country was all consuming. Butler wrote poems about her, which she found thoughtful. In April 1902, she took a leading role in Yeats's play ‘Cathleen Ní Houlihan.‘She portrayed Cathleen, the "old woman of Ireland," who mourns for her four provinces, lost to the English colonizers. That year she converted to Roman Catholicism.
Galvanised by the sights of the poverty and hungry people who had no hope of a future in Ireland, she, along with other volunteers, held receptions for children. She held a special reception on the day that Queen Victoria sailed into Kingstown Port and made a statement to the press in which she said: ”The children of Ireland are better off learning their native tongue, rather than having to watch a foreign Queen sail into their country.” She founded Inghinidhe na nEireann (Women of Ireland.) twenty nine people turned up for the first meeting. Their aim was to "combat in every way English influence, doing so much injury to the artistic taste and refinement of the Irish people".
She was a member of several Irish voluntary rebel movements, mixing with Patrick Pearse, James Connelly, Arthur Griffiths, and Tom Clarke. All of these people shared her inspirations for the love of Ireland and its freedom from British rule. With the able assistance of like-minded volunteers, she set up soup kitchens for schoolchildren in and around the poverty stricken areas of Dublin.
Immersing herself in all the Irish Revolutionary movements, she travelled extensively throughout the United States, England, and Wales in an effort to raise money for Irish causes. She joined with international orginisations in the total condemnation of England’s rule in Ireland. During one of these speaking tours in the United States, she met John MacBride, an Irishman from Co. Mayo who had led the Irish Transvaal Brigade against the British in the second Boer War. A heavy drinker, he too was travelling through the United States on behalf of the Irish. After turning down W.B. Yeats proposals of marriage at least four times, it was a huge surprise to him and the world that, in1903, she married MacBride. This was seen by many as a terrible mistake. They were mismatched by social class: he was from a rural Irish background and a heavy drinker. This clashed with her cosmopolitan and genteel lifestyle. The following year their son, Seán MacBride was born. Not long afterwards, Gonne and MacBride agreed to end their marriage. Gonne went on record to demand sole custody of their son. MacBride refused and so the case went to court. Rumours spread wildly that she was an abused wife. None of this however was mentioned in the divorce papers submitted by Gonne, nor Iseult's own writings. A divorce was not granted, and MacBride was given access to his son twice weekly. He visited Seán in Paris where Gonne was living for some time, but then returned to Ireland and never saw his son again.
After the marriage ended, Gonne made allegations of domestic violence. According to W.B. Yeats however, other reasons were at play; he spoke of the sexual molestation of Iseult. Some critics suggest that MacBride may have found out that Iseult was in fact Gonne’s daughter. The rumour around Dublin was that Yeats’s was Iseult’s father. Birth records, however state otherwise. Some even suggest that Yeats’s may have fabricated these allegations about MacBride because of his jealousy and hatred toward MacBride! Gonne remained in Paris with Iseult and Seán. When MacBride was executed in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising, she felt it was safe to return to Ireland.
Gonne remained very active in Paris. In 1913, she established L'Irlande Libre a French newspaper. That same year, Cumann Na mBan was founded in Dublin and so devoted to Ireland's cause was she, that she wrote about it often, and wanted Cumann na mBan to be considered seriously. Her idea was to get affiliation with the English Red Cross, and she wrote to Geneva to gain an international profile for the new nationalist organization. In 1918, while in Ireland on one of her speaking tours, she was arrested in Dublin and imprisoned in England for six months; charges were never filed. During this period in prison, she became desperately ill. She suffered with tuberculosis like her mother. When she was released, she was warned not to return to Ireland, but of course she did.
On her release from prison; she once again immersed herself in Irish causes, working with the Irish White Cross for the relief of victims of violence. In 1920, Charlotte Despard, a famous suffragist and also a Sinn Feiner, arrived in Dublin to stay with her brother. Despite the fact that her brother was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in this era, she accompanied Gonne on one of her touring speeches to Cork in 1920. Cork was the seat of some of the most fervent revolutionary activity at the time, and Gonne wanted to speak there. Cork however, was under Martial Law and were prohibiting Irish men and women from outside the zoned areas to enter. However, the Lord Lieutenant’s sister Charlotte Despard had a pass, and Gonne got to do her speeches!
By 1921, she was well established as the a woman of courage and organisational ability and openly opposed the new treaty that had been established between England and Ireland, taking the Republican side. That same year the White Cross to which she was affiliated asked her to help distribute funds to victims, which she took on willingly. In 1922, during the numerous street battles that took place between the Pro and Aniti-Treaty members of the Volunteers, she headed up a delegation called ‘The Women’s Peace Movement’ with her old friend Arthur Griffiths. They then approached the Dáil leadership with this proposal. They were, however, unable to stop the indiscriminate shootings of civilians.
Not once stopping to consider herself in all these battles, she then went on to found a similar organisation called the Women’s Prisoners Defense League. The prisons were brutal and many women were locked up in men's prisons. The League supported families wanting news of inmates so she would provide a way in which this could be done They worked for prisoners’ rights, began vigils, and published stories of tragic deaths.
Gonne continued her friendship with Charlotte Despard and during their opposition to the government they were labelled “Mad and Madame Desperate.” Gonne and Despard shrugged off the name-calling, already having endured more intense abuse in their lives. During these turbulent times, Gonne’s home at 75 St Stephens Green was ransacked by the now newly founded Irish Free State Army. Gonne was arrested and taken to Mountjoy Jail. By November 1922, they had also ransacked the Sinn Féin Offices in Suffolk Street. The Free State, in their hurry to stamp out all opposition that the Anti–Treaty movement would engender, swept the capital city of Dublin to try and rid themselves of the rebels and interred them in prisons. It was Margaret Buckley who provided this evidence, who as Secretary of Sinn Féin, acted as legal representative for the ladies and told how there was nothing prudish about their concerted opposition to civil rights abuses.
By this time Iseult was married to a novelist: Irish-Australian Francis Stuart. Prior to her marrying Francis Stuart, Isuelt had been proposed to by W.B Yeats who was 53 years old at this time, and told him that she would consider the proposal. Once she had considered it, she turned him down. She said that he did not really love her, but her mother, and second: it would distress her mother too much.
By 1923, Maud Gonne MacBride was still highly active and was once again arrested with her daughter Iseult Stuart. She was charged with painting banners for seditious demonstrations and preparing anti-government literature. Apparently Gonne was allowed to keep her dog with her in prison and every morning she would pass by the other cells leading her dog outside. The dog was called Wuzzo-Wuzzo. Gonne, Iseult, and the two other women arrested with them were released on 28th April. This did not stop her crusade for justice and she was outside Mountjoy Prison again on the 1st June, supporting Marie Comerford who was on a hunger strike against the appalling conditions in which women were held .
Over the next 10 years, Gonne continued to support all Irish causes and was a fixture in Irish Politics. Whether it was speaking out at differing forums, or writing letters on behalf of prisoners, or visiting prisoners, she was always approachable for any nationalistic cause.
By 1932, De Valera and his government had been elected into office. The government and the country as a whole honoured her for her services to the cause of Irish nationalism; a fitting tribute to a person who had done so much to achieve Irish Independence over a 40 year career. .
Gonne continued to work tirelessly for Irish causes despite her chronic illness. The ultimate success of her campaigning for Irish causes, was when De Valera abolished the oath of allegiance to the British Crown. That was of huge significance for her and she gladly celebrated this momentous occasion.
Originally, she had always supported DeValera in all his efforts and policies, but eventually she came to the conclusion that his policies were not radical enough. She started speaking out against him, despite the fact that her son Sean Mac Bride had worked hard toward De Valera’s election and was now his secretary. Gonne continued in her tireless work for the Woman Prisoners' Defence League and campaigned for free lunches for children in school.
By 1949, the long, drawn-out process of wrestling the whole freedom of the twenty six counties, piece by piece from British Rule was over. Fittingly, on Easter Monday of that year, the formal process of an Ireland free from all ties to Britain began. Ceremonies in Dublin began to mark the occasion. Gonne was invited as she was one of the great nationalists of her time, and one of the last survivors of her generation. She attended with her son Sean Mac Bride – who was by now an active figure in Irish Politics.
She struggled through the next several years, old age and illness taking their toll. She wrote her memoirs during this period, gave several interviews about the glory days and the struggle for Irish Freedom. She was always gracious; always remembering those who had died in the struggle for Irish Freedom and who not lived to see Ireland as a Free State (James Connelly, Patrick Pearse, Joseph Mary Plunkett) She also honoured Michael Collins and all the unknown Volunteers who gave their lives for the same cause that she had supported. In August 1953, Gonne died quietly in her own home with her son Sean and her daughter Iseult beside her.
In her autobiography she wrote: "I have always hated war and am by nature and philosophy a pacifist, but it is the English who are forcing war on us, and the first principle of war is to kill the enemy."
Mary Thorpe is the author of "That's Just How it Was," available on Amazon, Kindle, Gardner's Wholesale Books UK, Bertems, and Ingrams.
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