Paris, December 1908. WB Yeats had waited a long time for this moment. After years of hurt and rejection, Maud Gonne, the woman of his dreams, his lifelong muse, lay beside him, their physical love consummated at last. She was 42 years old, recently divorced, a mother of two (with a third child, deceased). A year older, Yeats was on course to become one of the foremost literary icons of his age.
However, any hopes that this union between poet and muse would conclude in a happily-ever-after scenario quickly faded, as Adrian Frazier reveals in his fascinating and pacy 2016 book, ‘The Adulterous Muse: Maude Gonne, Lucien Millevoye & W.B. Yeats’. Paradoxically, Maud’s submission unleashed an unexpected outpouring of anger and resentment from Yeats, both against the toll time had taken on her beauty, and against the Arthurian role he had played as her chivalrous suitor since they first met in 1889. He would express this poisoned love through a new and intense reality that was injected into his subsequently poetry.
Maud Gonne, actress, revolutionary and proto-feminist, would later recount her memories in her auto-biography ‘A Servant of the Queen’ although, as Frazier observes, much of the text is a rather romanticised interpretation of her life.
Her parents married a day before her birth in England in 1866. It is unclear why they left it so late; the marriage should have been perfectly acceptable to both families. Her father Tommy Gonne, a talented army officer, was heir apparent to a fortune computed at €70 million in today’s money. His ancestors were alleged to have been Scots who settled in Ireland in the 16th century. One of the Gonnes started anew as a port trader in Portugal where Tommy’s father and grandfather were born.
Edith Cook, Maud’s mother, was the heiress of an immensely wealthy linen magnate; her dowry brought in the equivalent of €650,000 a year. Maud’s fun-loving ‘Aunt Mary’ was wife to the fabulously rich Comte de Sizeranne, a close friend of Napoleon III, while her uncle Francis Cook owned various mansions stuffed with Old Masters and invaluable antiques.
Maud was three years old when her father was appointed brigade major to the Curragh camp in County Kildare. She and her younger sister Kathleen spent the next six years living between a racing lodge at the Curragh (Athgarvan), a house in Donnybrook (Floraville, on Eglinton Road) and, their most treasured home, the village of Howth in north Dublin. In the midst of this era, Maud’s mother died giving birth to a third daughter, who also did not survive.
The Gonne’s Irish adventure was interrupted in 1874 when Tommy was sent back to England and given command of the 17th Lancers. His daughters were fostered out to various relatives and raised by governesses in England and Provence, France, until Colonel Gonne, as Tommy had become, was sent back to Dublin as Deputy Adjutant General in 1885.
The following year, the beautiful, blonde, six-foot-two-inch-tall Maud Gonne was presented at Dublin Castle to be kissed by the Viceroy. Frazier notes how her ‘knee-weakening beauty, great height and magical wealth’ entranced many of those present but, while Maud relished the opportunity to be belle of the ball, her close up view of Ireland’s elite at the height of the Land Wars showed her ‘the ugly side of colonialism’.
In any event, an enormous blow came when Tommy Gonne fell victim to typhoid in 1886. Frazier describes Maud’s intense love for her father as ‘decidedly strange’. It transpired the colonel had fathered an illegitimate daughter in Dublin some months before his demise. Traumatised by his passing and sent to live with a despised uncle in London, Maud’s antipathy to the English upper class hardened. In 1888 she clambered onto the speaker’s platform at a trade union rally in Trafalgar Square and gave vent to her animosity.
At the age of twenty-one, Maud inherited a trust fund from her late mother’s estate, equivalent to €23 million today. While this gave her considerable freedom, Frazier points out that even with an independent fortune, ‘all the odds were against a woman on her own’ in the 19th century.
At this time, she met young W.B. Yeats. In part because of her refusal to be seduced by him, she was to become his muse. As Frazier remarks, Yeats ‘was willing to be possessed of what he could not possess’.
France was her primary residence from the age of twenty until she was in her early fifties.
It began with her lengthy affair with Lucien Millevoye, a fiery French Catholic journalist and a married man. Millevoye was one of the principal supporters of General Boulanger, a blustering military figure who became the pin-up boy of the French right-wing in the late 1880s.
Maud and Millevoye were bonded by a mutual desire to bring about nationalist revolutions in Ireland and France. Millevoye’s darker agenda was revealed when he co-founded the French Anti-Semitic League, complete with the slogan ‘France for the French, Down with the Jews’. Maud shared his views on Jews, parliamentarianism and the necessity of physical force in politics. She started to carefully cultivate her image as Ireland’s Joan of Arc, hosting pro-Irish salons in Paris and donating money to support Parnell.
However, Millevoye’s fantasies of a right-wing coup were shattered when Boulanger fled into self-imposed exile and suicide.
In 1890 Maud gave birth to Millevoye’s son, Georges, but the boy died aged two from untreatable meningitis. Frazier casts doubt on the legend that Maud had intercourse with Millevoye in the crypt next to Georges’ coffin in a bid to reincarnate their deceased son. Their daughter Iseult was born in 1894.
Maud kept both children secret from her Irish friends, including Yeats, although the latter’s suspicions were probably one reason why he became ever more concerned for her future welfare.
Jilted by the caddish Millevoye in 1900, Maud returned to Ireland with Iseult. The Anglo-Boer War was in motion and Maud espied an opportunity to cement her role as Queen Victoria’s nemesis. She had already used her rabble rousing prowess to organise protests against the ‘Famine Queen’, as she named her, during the Jubilee year of 1897. She did so again during the Queen’s otherwise successful three-week visit to Dublin in July 1900.
She also hosted a ‘Patriotic Children’s Treat’, a pro-Boer fête, in Clonturk Park, Dublin, on Easter Sunday 1900, attended by nearly 30,000 children. Gonne addressed the crowd, giving it her anti-imperial all, urging the children to never take a job in the British Army.
That same year she founded Inghinidhe na hÉireann (the Daughters of Ireland), the forerunner of Cumann na mBan, which organised anti-recruitment rallies and dissuaded Irish women from stepping out with members of the British Army, while also promoting education for working class children.
In 1900 she met Major John MacBride, a fiery nationalist and hard-drinking redhead from County Mayo. During the war, he had raised the Irish Transvaal Brigade, later known as MacBride’s Brigade, comprising some 500 Irish and Irish-Americans who fought for the Boers against the British.
Tiring of her letter-writing suitor Yeats, Maud opted for this man of action instead and joined him on a lecture tour of the USA in 1901. They both attended Tom Clarke’s wedding to Kathleen Daly in New York, at which MacBride was best man.
Gonne’s thespian passions were never better harnessed than in her performance as ‘Cathleen Ní Houlihan’ in the play written by Lady Gregory and, to a lesser extent, Yeats. She stunned audiences with her portrayal of the ‘old woman of Ireland’, who mourns for her four provinces, unjustly seized by English colonisers. The play was an instant sensation and made Maud Gonne a bona fide star of Irish nationalism.
In early 1903 she converted to Catholicism and married MacBride. They honeymooned in Spain, during which time they conspired to assassinate Edward VII in Gibraltar. The plot apparently unravelled when MacBride went boozing with friends instead, prompting a massive bust-up between the newly-weds. The marriage collapsed soon after the birth of their son Seán in 1904, amid accusations of violence, drunkenness and, most damagingly, allegations that MacBride had molested Iseult, or attempted to do so. Frazier counters that Maud may have simply employed this charge to gain custody of Seán in the French divorce trial.
While Major MacBride returned to Dublin, Maud remained in Paris where, in December 1908, she treated Yeats to the consummation he had so long yearned for.
She remained in Paris for a decade, serving as a nurse in French military hospitals during the early years of the First World War. Meanwhile, MacBride was second in command to Thomas MacDonagh at the Jacob’s Biscuit factory during the Easter Rising, for which he was subsequently shot by firing squad. Maud returned to Ireland after his execution and worked with the Irish White Cross during the War of Independence. Like many republican women, she took the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War.
Maud Gonne died in Clonskeagh in 1958 at the age of eighty-six and is buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. Her last recorded words were ‘I feel now an ineffable joy’.
Seán MacBride, the only child of John and Maud, became a prominent human-rights activist, co-founding Amnesty International in 1961. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974. Iseult married the novelist Francis Stuart. Both the MacBrides and Stuart families have manifold descendants living today.