Maud Gonne: the ‘Irish Joan of Arc’, not just an Easter widow
Gonne viewed the press as her battleground as English newspapers demonised the Irish
Maud Gonne: As an English-born nationalist, even seen by her close friend Eileen O’Brien as part of the ascendancy, her intentions were subject to suspicion throughout her life. Photograph: Yeats Society of Sligo
In 2016 commemorations of the Easter Rising highlighted the significant role of a number of women of the Rising, notably Kathleen Lynn, Constance Markievicz, Helena Molony, Elizabeth O’Farrell, Mary Perolz and Margaret Skinnider. At the time of the Rising Maud Gonne was residing in France, where she had been primarily domiciled since her separation from John MacBride, and as a result she was largely omitted from these centenary commemorations.
Recent scholarship on Gonne has tended to maintain the image of her as an “Easter Widow”, her significance contingent on that of her husband, John MacBride, one of the 16 men executed in the aftermath of the Rising.
My recently published monograph, Maud Gonne (UCD Press, 2019), emphasises that her absence from the Rising commemorations is in part due to the fact that the British war office refused to grant her a passport so that she could return to Ireland in 1916; she was deemed too dangerous a political influence. Examining Gonne’s influence on nationalist politics through philanthropy, activism and journalism before and after the Rising, my study reclaims Gonne as an influential figure who played an important role in the formation of the Irish state.
In 1895, in an article on nationalist politics after the death of Parnell, William T Stead wrote of Maud Gonne that “although she is hardly likely to be successful where Wolfe Tone failed, her pilgrimage of passion is at least a picturesque incident that relieves the gloom of the political situation”. Little was Stead aware as he wrote his patronising editorial comment that when he first met Gonne in the late 1880s she was undertaking a secret mission to deliver documents to the head of the Holy Synod in St Petersburg for the Boulangiste Party. This was a venture undertaken for her lover Lucien Millevoye in the interests of their anti-British alliance. By 1892 Gonne was well-known in the press as a prominent Irish nationalist who provided food and shelter for evicted tenants in Donegal.
By 1900 Gonne was under close surveillance by Dublin Castle, having taken a central role in staging a counter-demonstration to protest against the Dublin celebration of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. The police also knew Gonne through her journalism, notably her incendiary Famine Queen article that resulted in the seizure of all copies of United Irishman in which it was published. She also came to the attention of British prime minister Herbert Asquith on account of her articles that had been published in French newspaper, Le Figaro. All of this is revealed by Gonne in her memoir, A Servant of the Queen, which ends at the time of her ill-fated marriage to John MacBride, and therefore fails to do full justice to her contribution to Irish politics.
My study of Gonne’s life puts Gonne back at the centre of the action by drawing attention to her political activism and acumen, the significance of her journalism and publishing to further the republican cause, as well as her unrelenting fight for the marginalised who were suffering under British rule, particularly evicted tenants, the Boers, children and prisoners. In addition, Gonne tirelessly campaigned for the recognition of political status for republican prisoners.
At a time when the English newspapers expressed hostility towards Ireland with descriptions and cartoons of the Irish as monkeys, drunks and terrorist leprechauns, Gonne viewed the press as her battleground. She turned to writing, seeing the “pen as her only available weapon”.
When a parliamentary report on the use of the battering ram in evictions held that it was “only used for the purpose of self-defence”, she published articles with photographic evidence of the battering ram demolishing homesteads as elderly evicted tenants looked on helplessly, highlighting that evictions were a “one-sided battle”. When Gladstone stated that the treatment of Michael Davitt, a prominent nationalist prisoner sentenced to hard labour in Portland Prison, had been “in point of decency and indulgence, everything that could reasonably be desired”, Gonne uncovered the harsh conditions endured by Irish prisoners in English prisons, drawing public attention to the unsanitary conditions and the prevalence of mental health problems among those in solitary confinement.
When Gonne contacted Davitt to offer her help for the cause, he initially suspected that she was an agent provocateur. “What is this little game?”, he wrote on a letter she sent to him. “Probably a Times plot.” As an English-born nationalist, even seen by her close friend Eileen O’Brien as part of the ascendancy, Gonne’s intentions were subject to suspicion throughout her life. But she committed her energies to the public world and to countering British propaganda.
The American press took their information on Irish affairs from English news agencies and Gonne complained that “American accounts of events in Ireland [are] so distorted that none would recognise them, and the distortion is always to the disadvantage of the nationalists.” In her self-styled role as the Irish “Joan of Arc”, Gonne used her natural theatrical talents and embarked on gruelling lecture tours in America. There she courted the press and featured prominently in American newspapers that printed carefully staged, full-page photographs of her visiting the graves of nationalist heroes, alongside articles and interviews on the suffering of the Irish under British rule.
The San Francisco Call noted: “The beautiful patriot is a distinctly modern product. She believes firmly in the axiom, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ and it is to the press and the lecture-platform that she looks to for the liberation of Ireland rather than to deeds of physical prowess.”
On her return to Ireland, following in the footsteps of Lady Jane Wilde, Gonne became “The New Speranza”, establishing and funding newspapers and writing tirelessly to publish on Ireland under British rule.
Having trained as an actress Gonne turned her attention to the stage upon her return to Ireland, directing the romantic interests of the young poet Yeats instead toward her nationalist propaganda campaign. This culminated in Yeats and Lady Gregory writing a play for Gonne’s nationalist society, Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), on Yeats’s condition that Gonne would play the title role in Cathleen ni Houlihan.
While the impact of the play on men has been well documented, less has been said about the effect of the play on its female audience and players, and on their political involvement in the Rising. Placing women centre stage, Cathleen ni Houlihan galvanised to action a number of members of Inghinidhe na hÉireann. Máire Comerford recorded that the night it premiered “my fate was sealed, my course in life set in the direction it was to take”. She also recognised the play’s pervasive impact on her contemporaries, noting that “Helena Molony, a founder member, and Maeve Cavanagh MacDowell went on to join the Irish Citizen Army.” Furthermore, she notes Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grennan, who distinguished themselves as dispatch carriers from the GPO in Easter Week, had both been with Inghinidhe in the audience at the first performance of Cathleen ni Houlihan.
Gonne had established Inghinidhe na hÉireann because nationalist societies often excluded women and she felt that “this Irish anti-feminism was a handicap to the National Movement”. Her unflinching confidence and charisma drew women formerly on the margins of Irish nationalism and placed them centre stage upon the outbreak of the Civil War, when she formed the Women’s Peace Committee. Gonne also established the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League, publishing a monthly newssheet under the pseudonym “a woman of no importance”, and through the pages of Prison Bars she decried the patriarchal limitations imposed by Article 41. In 1937 as the Irish State ratified the current Irish Constitution, Gonne committed her memoirs to posterity to record her achievements. Her tentative thoughts on her legacy expressed in a letter to Yeats in 1915, that “Perhaps when we are dead, I shall be known by those poems of yours”, remain too true.
Trish Ferguson is a senior lecturer in the English department of Liverpool Hope University. Her monograph, Maud Gonne, is published by UCD Press, at €17