Maud Gonne (1866- 1953)
Irish Revolutionary, Patriot, Suffragette & founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann
Maud Gonne, the eldest of two daughters, was born on December 20, 1866 to Thomas Gonne and Edith Frith Gonne, nee Cook, in the village of Tongham in Surrey in England. At the time of her birth her father, Thomas, was a British Army officer stationed at the Aldershot military garrison, located close to the village of Tongham. Her mother, Edith, was a member of a wealthy textile manufacturing family with a transgenerational history of government and military service.
In 1867, when Maud father's regiment was transferred to the Curragh army base in Co. Kildare, to quell ongoing Fenian activity and prevent another Rising, the family followed, taking up residence in Donnybrook, a suburb of Dublin city.
When Maud was six years of age her mother contacted tuberculosis. Before she could be moved to Italy, where it was believed the dry air would help in her recovery, her condition worsened, resulting in her tragic and untimely death.
After her mother's death, the family moved to a cottage in Kildare, close to the Curragh army base. After a year in Kildare, Maud suffered a severe bronchial attack. When her doctor recommended sea air to help her cope with the illness, the family moved to Howth, a small coastal village north-east of Dublin city where Maud and her sister, Kathleen, were placed in the care of an English nanny. While living in Howth, Maud came to know and play with Irish children and, from their parents conversations, learn of Ireland's woes and its long quest for freedom from the Empire her father served --- out of earshot of their English nanny of course.
In her sixth year and of school age, Maud and her sister were sent back to London where they were placed in the care of their maternal grand-aunt. Unable to cope with two wild and unruly girls, the grand-aunt sent them to other family members who fared no better. The miserable situation the children found themselves in changed for the better when their father was transferred to India, and Maud and her sister were sent to France to be educated and cared for there. Their French based education exposed them to all aspects of the French experience, including its language, literature and history. Their caregiver instructed them in social roles and norms and in basic domestic skills. Over time, they were exposed to the manifestations of radicalism and republicanism, the dominant political movements that defined the French experience throughout the nineteenth century.
In 1879, her father returned from India and took up a post as a military attaché in London; a post that entailed extensive travel throughout Europe, the middle and far east. Maud accompanied him on many of the assignments where she met royalty, politicians, diplomats and luminaries in the many countries they visited. That experience, coupled with her unique educational experience and furtive exposure to radical politics, set her apart from her peers who received a tradition upper-class English education.
In 1882, Maud's father returned to Ireland as the Assistant Adjutant-General at Dublin Castle. He was brought back to help control wide spread unrest brought-on by a number of events including the Land Wars, Land League agitation, Home Rule politics, landlord evictions and an Irish Republican Brotherhood dynamite campaign in England.
Within a year of his return, Maud and her sister were brought back to Dublin from their studies in Rome. Maud was happy to be back and pleased to assume the role of hostess at parties and functions hosted by her father, mostly for staunch unionists and loyal servants of the British crown. Once, as a guest of a function hosted by an English landlord in the midlands, Maud overheard him describe how he had just evicted some of his tenants who were in arrears with the rent. He ended his diatribe with; they deserved whatever ill-fate befell them. The callousness of his attitude towards the families he had evicted and dumped on the side of the road, left an indelible mark on her psyche.
Like many of her English-born contemporaries who embraced Irish Nationalism, Maud came to the realization that colonialism was an evil that bred greed, cruelty and inhumanity, as evidenced by the merciless nature of its application in Ireland. Despite the prevailing patriarchal mentality that set her boundaries, she was not afraid to discuss her misgivings with her father, including his role in enabling the ongoing ill-treatment and oppression of the Irish people by the government and system he so faithfully served. To that end, she implored him not to use soldiers to help the police breakup Land League demonstrations or to help landlords evict tenants. Shortly before his sudden death in 1886 from typhoid he had resigned his commission in the military and was preparing to announce his intention to run as a Home Rule candidate for parliament.
After her father's death Maud and her sister became wards of her maternal uncle in London. She was distraught at having to return to a Victorian type existence and dependent on her uncle for spending money. In order to gain a modicum of independence she took a job with a travelling troupe of actors, a job she was ill-suited for. Sick with a lung infection and desperate to escape her life of drudgery and dependence, she contacted a grand-aunt for help. The wealthy grand-aunt took responsibility for her and her sister and was pleased to show off her beautiful grand-nieces to her high society friends in London and Paris.
It was while convalescing with her grand-aunt in France that Maud came of age and gained control of the sizable inheritance that her uncle tried to cheat her out off. It was also during that period that she first met Lucien Millevoye, a French journalist, political operative and a passionate nationalist, who harbored a deep hate for England.
During their ensuing dalliance, that lasted through the 1890's, Maud became aware of the intrigue and political alliances at play in Europe. She learned that a French-Russian alliance would weaken the British Empire and, as a budding Irish Nationalist, was eager to do what she could to make that happen. That opportunity presented itself when she was tasked to carry a secret communiqué from the French Boulangists to the Russian Czar in St. Petersburg, containing proposals for such an alliance. Consequential or not, a Franco-Russian alliance was formed in 1891.
In January of 1889, on a stopover in England enroute to Ireland, Maud was introduced to William Butler Yeats at his father's home in London. Although lacking a classical education, Maud was not shy about expressing her opinions on a range of subjects including the evil of British rule in Ireland and her admiration for the work of the Irish Land League on behalf of tenant farmers. From their very first meeting, Yeats was smitten by her beauty and friendly disposition and during their subsequent life-long 'spiritual friendship" proposed marriage to her on several occasions, all to no avail.
Back in Dublin she was invited by Charles Hubert Oldham, a renowned economist, to a meeting of the Contemporary Club, a discussion group that included such luminaries as John O'Leary, Douglas Hyde, Dr. George Sigerson, T. W. Rollerson and a several other eminent individuals. At the end of evening, O'Leary told her "to study Irish literature and history and then go out and lecture". He believed she would be an excellent propagandist for Fenianism.
After that first meeting with O'Leary, Maud spent many hours at his home reading through his 'must list' of Irish literature and history books. She listened to his fist-hand accounts of the deeds and genius of the men and women of the Young Ireland movement of the 1840's. She also asked Douglas Hyde to teach her Irish, a task she failed to master. Reluctantly, she gave up on after a few months, settling instead for mastering some useful Irish phrases.
Anxious to became involved in a more hands-on way with Ireland's many-faceted struggle for independence, she met with Tim Harrington, the secretary to the Irish National Land League to whom she offered assistance to propagate the League's 'Plan of Campaign'. A misogynist by inclination, as were the Leagues other leaders, Harrington, more out of necessity than a sense of inclusiveness, saw her value and sent her north to Donegal to lead the campaign there. She succeeded beyond all expectations even though the 'Campaign' was opposed by Parnell and other nationalist leaders, mostly for self-serving reasons.
Combined with her Donegal assignment were side trips France to England. While in England, she campaigned for a Liberal Party candidate who supported Irish home rule, who won the seat, in the 1889 Lancashire by-election. The win was generally attributed to her persuasive performance.
She also visited Portland jail where she met with eight Fenian prisoners including James Egan and John Daly. As each prisoner were brought forth from his cell, he was placed in a cage across a guarded passageway from where she was seated. The prisoners were forbidden to ask question about the outside world. Before leaving she promised each one of them that she would do her utmost to bring about their release. In keeping with that promise, she setup amnesty committees, spoke to various groups, pleaded with politicians, doggedly persisted until her promise to them was fulfilled. She continued to campaign for the release of other Fenian prisoners into the late 1990's.
On her return to Donegal in 1890 to continue with the campaign for the tenant farmers, she learned that a warrant had been issued for her arrest under the Perpetual Crimes Act of 1887; another in a series of Coercion Acts aimed at preventing boycotts, demonstrations or incitement, any action or speech critical of the landlords or the government's participation in the evictions of tenant farmers. Before she could be arrested she fled to France.
Back in France Maud took up residence with Lucien Millevoye with whom she had two children. The first child, who was born in 1891 died from meningitis some months later. Despondent, she returned to Ireland in October of 1891 on the same ferry that was carrying the body of Charles Stewart Parnell who had died of a heart attack in Brighton. Her solace in Ireland was Yeats, with whom she shared a sense kinship and trust, yet, she did not, nor could not, tell him about her affair with Millevoye nor the child she lost to meningitis.
During the decade of the 1890's, Maud remained fully engaged in Ireland's quest for independence. She continued to travel back and forth between Ireland, England and France raising money and campaigning for the release of Fenian prisoners. She also helped Yeats and Dr. Sigerson organize and promote the National Literary Society, an endeavor she believed essential to de-anglicize Ireland. Although a diehard Irish Republican, Maud marched with James Connolly, a die-hard socialist, in an anti-Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee protest in Dublin in June of 1897. After the march she addressed the largely socialist leaning demonstrators. She admired Connolly who became one of her close friends, for his gender equality advocacy and for his courage and tenacity in fighting for the rights of working men and women. She also believed that despite his socialist beliefs that when push came to shove, he would not forsake the Irish Republic. She was right, he died by firing squad with the other Irish Republican martyrs of 1916.
In 1896, Gonne had her second child with Millevoye, a daughter whom she named Iseult. Shortly afterwards her relationship with Millevoye ended.
In the lead-up to the Wolfe Tone Centennial Commemoration in 1897, Maud undertook a fundraising tour of the United States sponsored by the Sullivan faction of Clan na Gael. John Devoy, the leader of the other faction, refused to meet her and urged his followers not to attend her lectures. Despite being caught up in the Clan's infighting, she prevailed and invited James Egan, the exiled Fenian she had met some years earlier in Portland Jail to accompany on the tour. They lectured to large crowds in many cities, including New York Philadelphia, Washington Chicago, Minneapolis, St Louis, and Denver. By the time their tour ended, they had collected $5,000 equivalent to approx. $105,000 today. Jeremiah 'Donovan Rossa came to the dockside to see her off.
By the dawn of the 1890's, Maud was one of the most admired activists and speakers in Ireland. She spoke at functions throughout Ireland and England, advocating for issues close to her heart including the rights of tenant farmers and marginalized working families living in tenements in deplorable and subhuman conditions. She also contributed articles to Arthur Griffith's weekly newspaper the 'United Irishman'.
During the second Boer War (Oct. 1899 - May 1902) Ireland was, once again, fertile ground for British army recruitment. Realizing what happened during the Crimea War when 130.000 Irishmen joined the 110,000 already serving in the British army, Author Griffith, together with Maud, W. B. Yeats, James Connolly and John O'Leary founded the Irish Transvaal Committee to oppose the recruitment of Irishmen for the British army, and to support the peoples of the free Boer Republics in their war to stop the expansion of the British Empire into their diamond and gold rich territories.
The Transvaal Committee undertook several initiatives including holding anti-war demonstrations, posting anti-recruitment poster on wall and buildings and distributing leaflets informing potential recruits of their rights. In January of 1900, Maud undertook another fundraising tour in America to help finance the pro-Boer Campaign and the United Irishman newspaper. As before, during her first visit, Maud drew large crowds to see her and hear her message. Her fundraising effort paid-off, yielded an amount equal to what she did on her first tour. In addition to her fundraising effort, she met with and updated Irish-Americans activists on the situation in Ireland and interceded with Clan na Gael to lend support the Boers against their common foe(1).
On Easter Sunday 1900, after her return from America, Maud and fifteen other women activists met in the Celtic Literary Society headquarters in Dublin to decide on an appropriate gift for Arthur Griffith who had defended Maud Gonne from an accusation that she was a British spy. After agreeing on Griffith 's gift, the women continued on with plans for the Patriotic Children's Treat and from there went on to found Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland) with Maud as its first President.
The organization's agenda was political, social and feminist. It opposed Home Rule for Ireland, opting instead for full independence. It promoted national self-awareness and organized and taught Irish language, literature. history music and art classes. In 1908 it published Bean na hÉireann (Woman of Ireland).
In 1914, when the strands of history began to converge and compete for relevance and survival in a fast changing and dangerous political arena where Ireland's fate would be determined, Inghinidhe na hÉireann morphed into Cumann na mBan to accommodate the expanded role women would play going forward, in determining Ireland's future. The values and principles that the 'Inghinidhe' had advanced for the previous fourteen years would constitute an integral element of Cumann na mBan's guiding principles.
In November of 1900, Maud was introduced to John MacBride by Arthur Griffith in Paris. MacBride had returned from the Transvaal where he had assumed command of the Irish Brigade who fought alongside the Boers against forces of the British Empire. As MacBride could not return to Ireland where he would be arrested, the Transvaal Committee decided that he should go to America to raise money for the pro-Boer Campaign and the United Irishman newspaper as Maud had done on her earlier visit.
In January of 1901, MacBride left for America. Some weeks after arriving there he wrote to Maud, pleading with her to come to America as he was floundering and lacking confidence in his ability to effectively articulate his message. In late February she joined him there, and together toured the country lecturing until May when she returned to Paris. Having gained a degree of confidence under Maud’s tutelage and encouragement, MacBride continued the tour through the end of 1901 when he too returned to Paris. Although he wanted to resettle in Ireland, he could not do so as he was branded a traitor by the British for his actions in the Transvaal on behalf of the Boers.
In April 1902, Maud acted the part of Cathleen in Yeats one act play Cathleen ni Houlihan. The play, that depicted Ireland as a wronged old woman calling on her children for help, was viewed by Irish Republicans as a call to arms. Constance Markievicz, who was in the audience on opening night, later referred to the play "as gospel" from her cell in Kilmainham jail shortly after the 1916 Irish Easter Rising
In February of 1903 Maud married MacBride to the consternation of her friends and especially Griffith who warned her not to marry MacBride, stating: "you so unconventional; John so full of conventions. You will not be happy for long"
As predicted by Griffith the marriage did not last. They separated in 1904 after having given life to a son, Sean.(2)
During the separation proceedings that took place in France, Maud endured one of the most difficult and agonizing periods in her life. Castigated and blamed by former colleagues for the failure of her marriage to a “war hero”, she endured the chastisement with dignity and grace while caring for her children. Although shunned by the “purists” she was not alone, for the women of Inghinidhe na hÉireann stood by her as did many of her literary and enlightened colleagues including such luminaries as Yeats, Griffith, Markievicz, Helena Molony, Alice Milligan and Ella Young.
Although her separation from MacBride was finalized under French law in August of 1906, she was still wed to MacBride under English law, therefore, could not bring their son to Ireland where MacBride, who had returned to live there, could be granted custody.(3)
Despite her own problems, Maud remained engaged in Ireland’s struggle for independence in both the cultural and political arenas. She continued to write political articles for the United Irishman and numerous other publications. In 1903, during one of her many visits to Ireland, she helped form a Citizen’s Watch Committee to protest the visit of George VII to Ireland. After speaking before a rally of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) wherein she lambasting their support for the visit, an hour-long melee broke out between Maud’s nationalist supporters and loyalist supporters of the IPP. That melee was one of the first nails in the coffin of the IPP.
In 1908, together with Helena Molony, Maud launched a monthly journal for Inghinidhe na hÉireann titled Bean na hÉireann that advocated for the ‘freedom for Our Nation and the complete removal of all disabilities to our sex’.
In 1910, concerned with infant mortality rate in Dublin, one of the highest in Europe, and the rampant poverty in its teeming tenements, Maud, Markievicz, Helena Molony, James Connolly, James Larkin and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington Women’s Franchise League, set-up school canteens to feed malnourished schoolchildren in the worst areas in Dublin. The program expanded to other schools when Madeleine ffrench Mullen, Kathleen Clarke and other activists became involved.
Her continued work for Irish independence, coupled with her advocacy for the poor, disenfranchised and marginalized victims of oppression and, above all, her ability to rise above pettiness and aggrievement, overcame any lingering disapproval of former comrades, however misdirected, for the breakup of her marriage. By the end of 1910, her Special Branch shadow, who was absent for several years, was back on the job, a sure sign that, once again, she was a threat to British rule in Ireland.
After 1910, Maud spent most of her time in France with her children. After the onset of the First World, she could not leave France as the British government would not issue the required travel documents. Together with her daughter, Iseult, and Helena Molony, who also found herself marooned in France, she worked as Red Cross nurses caring for the unending stream of wounded soldiers pouring in to hospital and shelter from the Western Front.
Early in 1915, Helena Molony managed to make her way back to Ireland and to her work with Cumann na mBan and later in 1916 serve as a volunteer at Dublin Castle during the Rising.
Although aware that the situation in Ireland was dire on so many fronts, including the fallout from the 1913 labor lockout in Dublin, the Home Rule debacle, Redmond’s encouragement of the Irish Volunteers to support the British war effort, Maud was not aware that a Rising was planned but, by the same token, not surprised it happened. She was devastated by the execution of its leaders, many of whom were close friends, including Padraic Pearse, Connolly, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas J. Clarke and her husband and father of her child, John MacBride.
Early in 1917 Maud was informed by the British that she could return to England, but under no circumstances could she set foot in Ireland. Suspecting that her freedom to return to France would also be at risk she, nonetheless, departed for England in September of 1917. On arriving there she was reminded that she could not on to go Ireland and, as she suspected, was also told that she could not return to France.
Despite the treats and warnings, she appeared in Dublin in February of 1918, having escaped England dressed up as a poor Irishwoman with a shawl, carrying two old cardboard suitcases tied up with string.
Back in Ireland Maud wasted no time getting involved, as best she could, in the much-changed post-Rising Ireland that she had returned to. Redmond’s Irish Parliamentary Party was in ashes and Sinn Fein was on the rise even though hundreds of its members were in English jails. To that end, Maud focused her efforts on helping Sinn Fein organize and select and canvass for candidates to contest by-elections and, secondly, raise funds to support the fatherless children of the Rising.
In the meantime, WWI dragged on, costing the lives of 35,000 of Redmond’ National Volunteers on the Western Front and Gallipoli. In the Spring of 1918, a German offensive pushed allied forces back to within forty miles of Paris. British forces took heavy losses, losses that need to be replaced with more Irish lads. To do so, the British government, knowing that the voluntary recruiting of more Irishmen had run its course, passed the Conscription Act for Ireland in April of 1918. To quell opposition from American political leaders who opposed such a move, and from a broad coalition and religious bodies in Ireland, the British concocted the “German Plot” to hoodwink the Americans and justify the wholesale arrest of the leaders of the anti-conscription movement in Ireland.
Maud was one of the 73 men and women arrested without charge during the night of May 17, 1918. Markievicz, and Kathleen Clarke, were her cellmates on a heavily guarded landing in Holloway prison in London. Three months later, Hanna Skeffington Sheehy, who had returned from a lecture of America, was arrested and placed in same cell. Hanna, a seasoned suffragette and the widow of a murdered human rights activist, immediately went on hunger strike forcing the British to release her after two weeks.
Hanna was released in late October after she was diagnosed with a recurrence of the lung infection she contacted many years earlier as a young woman. Still barred from entering Ireland she, nonetheless, made her way back there in late November of 1918, dressed as a frail Red Cross nurse accompanied by her children.
After her return to Ireland, Maud took up residence at her home on St. Stephen’s Green. She went to work for the Sinn Fein Press Bureau whose task was to explain to the people what Sinn Fein stood for and how they could govern after their overwhelming victory in the 1918 General Election.
Maud was present in the Mansion House for the first meeting of Dail Eireann on January 21, 1919. On that very same day two members of the RIC were killed near Tipperary Town by members of the Irish Volunteers in what became known as the Soloheadbeg Ambush. That action heralded the start of the War of Independence. For the duration of the war, Maud worked with Erskine Childers at the Sinn Fein Press Bureau countering British propaganda and with Cumann na mBan to care for wounded volunteers and harbor volunteers on the run.
Although Maud believed that terms of the ensuing Anglo-Irish violated everything sacred that she and her Republican comrades worked so hard for over the decades she, nonetheless, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the war it spawned. After the onset of hostilities, Maud headed a delegation to the Provincial Government headquarters where they presented a peace proposal that was rejected by Collins, Griffith and Cosgrave. After the rejection, she asked Griffith to treat their Republican prisoners humanely, to no avail. She was astounded that Griffith, a man she knew and worked with for decades, had forsaken his earlier nationalist beliefs for a position of power in a government structure fashioned and supported by his former enemy, and his willingness to mistreat and execute former comrades who choose to defend the Proclamation of 1916.
After that encounter Maud went to establish the Women’s Prisoners Defense League (WPDL). She led demonstration, visited jails and assisted families find out where their loved ones were held. At one such demonstration, outside General Mulcahy’s residence, she defied an officer who ordered soldiers guarding the residence to assume a firing stance, by mounting the railing parapet and smiled contemptuously at him until he backed down.
In January of 1923 the Free State government had enough of the WPDL. Along with 91 other women, Maud was arrested and lodged in Kilmainham jail where she went on a hunger strike with the other women. After 20 days she was freed in a weakened state and had to be carried out on a stretcher.
In 1927, after the assassination of Kevin O’Higgins, Maud organized and led a huge demonstration in Dublin in support of several Republican men who were indiscriminately arrested. By then, the tide was turning on the Free State. The tactics that worked so well for them during the Treaty War, were by then an anathema that would surely have backfired. Without the backing of the British military, combined with the size and belligerent nature of the demonstration, was enough to secure the release of the men. For the rest of her life Maud continued to support the Republican cause.
Maud Gonne MacBride died on April 27, 1953. She is buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, a fitting final tribute to the woman who was referred to as the “Irish Joan of Arc”
1. Although the Clan managed to recruit and send 40 or so men to assist the Boers, their task was a delicate one as they did not want to directly challenge the United States government who was supplying the invading British forces with horses, mules and vast quantities of hay and oats and preserved meat.
2. As a young man, Seán fought on the Republican side in the Treaty War and later in 1936 became Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army. In 1937 after being called to the Bar he resigned his membership in the IRA. For the rest of his life he worked for the fair treatment of political prisoners throughout the world. He went on to become Chairman of Amnesty International, Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists, Chairman of the Special Committee of International Conference on Human Rights, and Nobel Peace Prize Recipient in 1974.
3. MacBride’s return to Ireland was possible because the British government did not want to draw attention to the Boer War prior to the general election of 1906. Prosecuting MacBride would entail accounting for their own conduct during the war, including their dubious reasons for going to war, their use of concentration camps to imprison Boer women and children and the wholesale destruction of homesteads including livestock and crops, to an already skeptical British public, and to a world audience who viewed their actions as war crimes.
Contributed by; Tomás Ó Coısdealha
Name: Glasnevin Cemetery PHONE NO. 011 353 1 830-1133
ADDRESS: Finglas Road, Glasnevin, Dublin 11, Ireland
GRAVE & HEADSTONE INSCRIPTION