Maud Gonne was much more than WB Yeats’s muse

Aisling Law, a great-granddaughter of the rebel, feminist and social activist, is opening her doors to the public for the Muse of Yeats weekend festival

Rossnaree House near Slane, Co Meath, is a rambling country pile, with a dog called Rocky and a tabby cat in the porch, and a stop-you-in-your-tracks view of Newgrange a few fields over. Ireland is full of hidden gems when it comes to grand old houses, but Rossnaree is very much a home, laden with art and family photographs, and with a vintage cream Volvo parked under an archway and a pot of something sweet-smelling bubbling away on an old Aga in the kitchen.

This weekend, its proprietor, Aisling Law, the great-granddaughter of Maud Gonne, will open its doors that bit wider for the Muse of Yeats weekend festival, in association with Yeats 2015.

Law is passionate about art; she founded Rossnaree Art School in 2007 and is also a painter, jewellery maker, sculptor and more, and a friendly host, ready with a cup of tea. She also spent eight years in east Africa, designing safari lodges in Uganda.

Her great-grandmother Maud Gonne remains an endlessly fascinating figure in Irish history, and the weekend's programme of talks, readings and music seeks to reveal the person behind the muse. Law's mother, the sculptor Imogen Stuart, will also contribute, in conversation with Stella Mew, the former chief executive of the Yeats Society. The writer John Banville will deliver a talk, and Liam Ó Maonlaí will contribute live music.

Law's parents, Imogen and Ian, met in Germany while they were both apprenticing for the sculptor Otto Hitzberger. At the time, Ian was engaged to Beatrice ffrench-Salkeld, who later married Brendan Behan. Her parents "fell madly in love with each other" and got married. They moved to Laragh Castle in Wicklow, "where [Ian] was with his mother, Iseult Gonne, the daughter of Maud Gonne," Law says. "Iseult was married to Francis Stuart, my father's father, and he absconded and went to Germany, and more or less left my grandmother with the two children for a long time." Law grew up in Laragh Castle before moving to Sandycove when she was seven. She married Robert Law of Rossnaree House, who died in 2004.

As a child, the fact that Maud Gonne was Law’s father’s grandmother was “never made a big thing of”, until one day during a school history class “my teacher kind of turned around and said, ‘And here we have the great-granddaughter of Maud Gonne MacBride’, and I just went red in the face and wanted to crawl under the table. I suddenly realised she was a very important person.”

She read more about Maud after that, and asked her father about her, but the influence of Iseult also shone through. Iseult's father was the French right-wing politician Lucien Millevoye. "Iseult was a very poetic person," Law says, something that was carried on by her own father, Ian. "My father could say any verse just like that. He would come out with poetry all the time, which was lovely to grow up with. She [Iseult] obviously gave him that love of poetry. She was a muse to poets as well: to Ezra Pound and to Yeats."

Yeats’s proposals

WB Yeats also proposed to Iseult, having had multiple proposals to her mother rejected. The importance of Iseult is reflected in the weekend's programme. Irish Times literary correspondent Eileen Battersby will give a talk about Iseult at the festival on Sunday. "She was somebody who lived a little bit in the shadows," Law says. "Not that it was necessarily a dark shadow, but she wasn't a gregarious person like Maud Gonne."

There are artefacts of the Gonne family throughout the house. Photographs of a stunning young Iseult are casually propped on a sideboard. Maud’s long black cloak is draped over a small table in the library. There are drawings and sketches Maud made, too, beautifully romantic things of rabbits and portraits and a couple entwined in dance, as well as drawings of family members.

Strong feminist

“She was a very strong feminist; a natural strong independent woman,” Law says. “She lost her mother when she was very young and her father later, and she was kind of left on her own, and I think they had quite a tough time, herself and her sister. I think she saw, going around the streets of Dublin when she was a young girl, the poverty; she saw the reality very quickly.

"What I admire in her is her generosity of spirit and her kindness, a humanitarianism – to stand out of your background when people are saying, 'Oh, they're just peasants.' She was going to hunt balls and things, and people didn't give a damn about the people being evicted; a lot of the gentry didn't. You know the story of when she was going to a hunt ball up in Donegal and she saw some people at the side of the road who had just been evicted. That's when she was moved by that and decided to spend her life fighting for the cause of Ireland."

Law says her father would speak about how, when Iseult and Maud talked to each other about Yeats, they would refer to him as “ ‘Poor Willie.’ You know yourself, when you have some very nice chap chasing you when you were younger and he was the one that was romantic, he was doing all the right things, he was maybe bringing you flowers or ringing you up all the time or writing little lovely cards to you or poems, it’s not the one you fancy. You fancy the bad one, the bold one, the bad guy. I think it’s a case of that almost with Maud Gonne. There is a letter when she was going to marry [John] MacBride, she said, ‘I really couldn’t marry Willie, he’s just too good of a friend’. In fact, they were so much more suited and deeply connected all the way through, and they kept that connection. She just didn’t fancy him.”

Maud’s devotion to her son, Georges, who died as a baby, is evident from a locket that contains a lock of his hair, which Law points out. Beside that is Maud’s lace fan and a delicate silver belt buckle of hers engraved with a scarab beetle.

“It seems like the feminist movement then was amazing. They really stood out on their own,” Law says, adding that Maud “stood up for the poor and had friends in different societies, and even Yeats couldn’t understand her connection with the ‘ordinary Irish person’.”

Law’s father also greatly admired Maud’s close friend, the feminist and labour activist Helena Moloney. That streak of female power must run through the family? “People have said, ‘You’re all very strong women’, but one doesn’t recognise it in oneself,” Law says bashfully. “That’s often a little scary for men, isn’t it? That kind of thing: when you’re independent.”

The festival should emerge as one of the more unique of this year’s events relating to Yeats. “Really it’s the intimacy of being in a house like this. Seeing her things, and seeing paintings that Maud Gonne actually painted, you get a sense of who she was behind the political person, behind the muse, just a sense of her.”

  • Muse of Yeats weekend festival runs at Rossnaree House, Slane, Co Meath, October 10th-11th. Weekend tickets €45 (€70 including dinner); day tickets €30. Proceeds go to the Irish Red Cross Syria Appeal.