The Times We Lived In: Maud, not gone but very much here at 82 years of age

Published: January 1948

Maud Gonne MacBride with her son Sean MacBride (right) and grandson Tiernan look over ‘an album of photos of Troubled Times in Ireland’

Maud Gonne MacBride with her son Sean MacBride (right) and grandson Tiernan look over ‘an album of photos of Troubled Times in Ireland’

 

We’re so used to hearing about the beautiful, feisty actress who inspired a thunderbolt of love in WB Yeats that it’s almost impossible to imagine the legendary Maud Gonne as an elderly woman.

But in this photograph from January 1948, she is 82 and leafing, so the caption tells us, through an “album of photos of Troubled Times in Ireland”. On her left is her son Sean MacBride; on her right, her grandson Tiernan.

We don’t know why the photograph was taken but it must have been a formal occasion. The men are dressed in the sharpest of suits, with extraordinarily elegant ties. Maud Gonne herself is in black, a modest Celtic brooch her only concession to ornament – although what may be a very fine chain can also be seen around her neck.

Compare those three sets of eyes, those mouths, those cheekbones: the family resemblance over three generations is striking. And what a family it was. Sean MacBride won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, while Tiernan became a highly respected film-maker whose name is enshrined in the Irish Film Institute’s Tiernan MacBride Library, as well as an annual award at the Galway Film Festival.

None of which, presumably, would have come to pass had Maud Gonne MacBride become Mrs WB Yeats.

So here she is, one man’s mammy and another man’s granny, her hair somewhat sparse on top but defiantly ringleted up over her ears. She may be frail, but I’d be willing to bet she was still a feisty lady. She would live for another five years, dying in 1953 at the age of 86.

Yeats was long dead when our picture was taken. But in this Year of Yeats, let’s give him the last word. Half a century earlier, inspired by Maud Gonne, he had written:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire, take down this book And slowly read, and dream of the soft look Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace, And loved your beauty with love false or true, But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face . . .

Arminta Wallace

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