Edith Maud Gonne has been hailed as one of the greatest activists and fighters of her time. Her beauty has been recorded and immortalized by one of Ireland’s greatest poets. History has compared her to Joan of Arc and she’s one of the best known women in the books, in no small part due to her own inflated memoirs and creative storytelling. She is largely considered to be an Irish hero—which is a great feat for a woman—particularly one who wasn’t Irish born and who grew up as a member of a wealthy, loyal, British family. So was she a true revolutionary, or a fraud in it for the fame and her own idea of who she wanted to be? Either way, she did enough to leave her mark on Irish history and one thing is undisputed – Maud Gonne chose the green and was most certainly not born to it.
Maud was a privileged child born on Dec. 21st, 1866 in England. She later claimed an Irish heritage but that remains a bit murky and was used primarily to further her own legend. She did live in Ireland briefly as an infant and again as a young child but it was not where she was born, nor did she have any real draw to it until she was in her twenties. It was only after her father died that Maud got interested in any political ideals, and that may have had more to do with her revolutionary French lover than anything else.
Maud was willful as a child and continued to buck the system as a young adult. Instead of a respectable marriage, Maud had a long and torrid affair with a married Frenchman named Lucien Millevoye that ultimately produced two children, only one of whom survived. Lucien was a right wing rebel and occasional journalist who was a member of the Boulangerist party in France. His hatred of the English rubbed off on Maud, and it was he who first suggested that she transform herself saying, “Why don’t you free Ireland as Joan of Arc freed France? You do not understand your power…let us make an alliance. I will help you free Ireland and you will help me regain Alsace Lorraine.” An alliance was just what she wanted and the added thrill of espionage and underground politics kept them both going for a long time. The distance between them and the impossibility of marriage gave the presumably unattached Maud the freedom to use her beauty and charm to convince others to join her and soon she left the debutante socialite behind and became an Anti-British political force.
One of her first and most devoted disciples was W.B. Yeats. He was unabashedly in love with Maud, who refused his physical advances and marriage proposals but relied heavily on him for emotional support and his social connections. He wrote countless poems about her and his most famous play, Cathleen ni Houlihan was written with her as its inspiration. She starred in the production of it despite her original refusal to do so and it is said that she didn’t really act the role out, as much as she lived it. In either case, given that throngs of people had to be turned away by the end of the short run, it is safe to to say that Maud Gonne already knew how to work a crowd.
Regardless of the origins and reasons why she became involved in the Irish struggle, she definitely furthered it in many ways. She was known as the most beautiful woman in Ireland, which contributed in no small part to her popularity. She became a political contributor in the papers, a fiery orator, and she was instrumental in many organizations and charities. She founded Inghinidhe na hEireann, the first ladies’ Nationalist group in Ireland and was elected its President. It is amazing that despite her rise to stardom in the political arena, she was still able to keep her personal life private. Her daughter by Malevoye was publicly known as her niece. Her affair was so secret that “Willie” (Yeats), one of her nearest and dearest, only learned of it years later when it imploded. This kind of double existence must have been very hard on Maud, but it is one that she tried to maintain throughout her life.
At the age of 36, Maud decided it was time to quell any rumors that may have surfaced and get married. She also converted to Catholicism. John MacBride was a convenient solution to the question of respectability, even though he was in exile and couldn’t return to Ireland. Everyone in both their lives was against the marriage. Yeats was devastated and wrote some of his most bitter poetry during this time. Both families tried to intercede and stop the wedding, warning that they would never make it work. Maud and John were hastily married despite the objections and their relationship soured rather quickly as everyone predicted. She was eager to return to her political aspirations in order to avoid the ugliness that was developing in her marriage, and frequently checked in on her organizations and charities from afar, since she had left Ireland to be with her husband. However bad it got between them, their union did produce her only legitimate child and she was thrilled to finally be able to claim one of her children. She sneaked back in to Ireland to have him christened but left immediately after so no one would know they were there. In those days, the courts usually sided with the father in custody battles, so Maud did not feel safe in Ireland since John had returned so she stayed in France. A few months later she was able to finally bring her ten year old “niece” Iseult into the family home as well, finding the girl easier to explain now that she was married. She went back to maintaining a sort of double life, fending off questions about her husband and hiding how abusive the marriage had become. Bucking the system once more, she filed for civil dissolution in Paris in 1905.
This time her personal life could not stay private. The details of their separation were plastered on the front pages of many newspapers in many countries. Maud gained a sort of notoriety that she was unfamiliar with and her speaking dates and articles were cut drastically due to the scandal. Her public appearances dwindled. She turned to Yeats for the comfort he had always given her. It is still a question whether or not they ever had a physical affair, but if they did, it was during this time. Maud had a lot of free time since she dared not return to Ireland with her children and she watched from afar as the organizations she founded became increasingly both powerful and beyond her control until she couldn’t stand it anymore. She traveled to Ireland alone on several occasions, leaving her children to the care of hired help. Ironically, she temporarily abandoned her own children in order to start an organization that would feed the poor schoolchildren of Ireland. This charity may have been her most altruistic venture, even though she still received great praise for it. She remained in exile for 10 long and frustrating years but continued her jaunts into Ireland and back until her estranged husband was executed in the aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916.
When Maud learned that the English had martyred her husband, she immediately started using his last name for the first time. She moved back to Ireland and wore black for many years, using her widow status to its utmost advantage. It was an edge she needed, as her popularity had waned greatly in the years that she’d been gone. She went from being seen as Ireland’s virginal savior to an older woman with two children and a scandalous reputation. Her warrior persona had been replaced by the likes of Countess Markievicz and other women who had actually taken part in the Rising. This took her by surprise but made her no less ferocious in speech or deed. She continued to be a political agitator, a proud Nationalist woman, and a seditious icon. Eventually, many of the organizations she had founded became illegal and because of her continued activity in them Maud found herself imprisoned along with the other leading women of the time.
She was not suited to prison life. For such a wild woman, the confinement was unbearable and her looks and demeanor suffered. She did not go on hunger strike, but her intake of food was drastically cut. She constantly complained of real or imaginary ailments to the doctors and the authorities while her children began a relentless letter writing campaign for her release. Eventually they succeeded and her relative freedom was granted on the basis of ill health. Even her fellow prisoners and close friends couldn’t determine whether she was faking her illnesses or not. She was sent to a nursing home in London but left only a few days later to return to her family. Once she was well enough, she put on a disguise and they journeyed to their home in Ireland once more.
Those in charge of the Nationalist movement when they returned had been involved in the Rising and its immediate aftermath – a claim that Maud could not make. The other widows had been in mourning while she had to admit that she was not. Things in Dublin were becoming more militant at the same time that Maud was becoming less so. She did not pursue a roll in Cumann Na mBan or Sinn Fein, instead she began working for the Irish White Cross and advocating on behalf of female Nationalist and Republican prisoners. She seemed to know that her time had passed and while she remained a staunch supporter of Irish Nationalism, she also stepped out of the spotlight for the most part, content to spend time with her growing children and in her new roles as an occasional judge and a peaceful activist.
By then her aging appearance and constant widow’s garb had become so odd that people began secretly calling her Gone Mad, a cruel twist of her name. Her longtime companionship with Yeats had ended and though she still led placard marches through Dublin, most of her previous fire had been extinguished. She was arrested again in 1923 for her work with the outlawed Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League and promptly went on hunger strike to garner her own release, which occurred 20 days later. Though she still wrote angry letters to the paper, her time in politics was done and she could only stand by while her son picked up that mantle and rose to power in the IRA.
So was she a fraud or a warrior in her own right? I believe she was both. Maud Gonne did nothing that didn’t benefit her in some way, but throughout her selfish journeys, she helped many people. She believed her own hype from the time she was a young girl and continued to expand it throughout her entire life in everything she did, including her memoirs. She was a hopeless romantic, a bit of a narcissist, and a woman who would give herself wholeheartedly to whatever cause grabbed her attention and furthered her own agenda. Luckily for Ireland, it was that whim that she obsessed over. She holds a vaulted place amongst the suffragists and Nationalist women in Irish history, which she deserves…. but Joan of Arc she was not.