Major John MacBride
A Review For 2016
Anthony J. Jordan
“The veracity of the charges against MacBride, has attracted some historiographical attention in recent years, largely as a result of the energetic writings of Anthony Jordan, The target of Jordan’s argument has been a number of biographies of W. B. Yeats, particularly Roy Foster’s… The most recent analysis of the divorce refrains from overt judgement on these difficult questions, but appears to endorse Jordan’s position1”.
I was acquainted with WB Yeats’ poem Easter 1916 since my days in St. Jarlath’s College, where our teacher of English P.V. O’Brien used to recite it. The epithets ascribed to Major John MacBride in the poem were disconcerting but never elucidated upon. Nor was the Major ever included in any history class. After reading a biography of Maud Gonne by Margaret Ward I sought a biography of John MacBride. To my surprise there appeared to be little if anything written about him. Eventually I found a book titled Devoy’s Postbag 2, which indicated that the Major was a significant figure in Irish history. His activities in the Boer War placed him amid those valiant Irishmen who had organised and fought in Irish Brigades on foreign fields over the centuries. His army commission of ‘Major’ came directly from President Kruger of the Transvaal. He stood as a candidate in absentia for election to Parliament in South Mayo in 1900 with the backing of Arthur Griffith, John O’Leary and Maud Gonne. He was an IRB man with good contacts with Irish America. He was Tom Clarke’s ‘Best Man’ in New York and a close colleague of Arthur Griffith, Padraig Pearse, Sean MacDiarmada and W.T. Cosgrave. Roger Casement acknowledged that MacBride, a kinsman from the Glens of Antrim, had been his inspiration for converting to Irish nationalism3. His role in the Easter Rising was filled with mystery, romance and heroism. The only blot on his name was linked to his marriage and separation from Maud Gonne, the muse of WB Yeats. I was then engaged in writing another biography but it did not take me long to leave that aside and try to write a biography on MacBride for the 75th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1991. I realised that the material available to me and the timespan would mean that the completed work would be rather short. I was also aware that on the section relating to the contentious marriage breakup I would have to rely on the only material then available, that of the negative contemporary newspaper reportage of the Court Case in Paris in 1905-6. I submitted the manuscript to Jarlath Duffy, Chair of the Westport Historical Society. His Committee offered to publish it for 1991 and I accepted. The book was published under the title, Major John MacBride 1965-1916. ‘MacDonagh & MacBride & Connolly & Pearse’. It was launched at the MacBride birthplace, the Helm Bar on Westport Quay by Paul O’Dwyer of New York. Among the attendance was Tiernan MacBride, grandson of the Major and son of Seán MacBride. The book received much publicity including an interview with Pat Kenny on RTE. An Irishman’s Diary in the Irish Times said, “MacBride’s life and the manner of his leaving it are the stuff of Hollywood epics; a powerful tale of love, lust and intrigue spanning three continents and starring a lovesick poet, a tall, mysterious woman and the man Yeats described as ‘a vainglorious lout’”. I promised some who disputed the accuracy of the contemporary reportage of the trial that if new material became available, I would return to the subject.
That same year of 1991 read an intervention by Paul Durcan in an interview he gave to the Boston Irish Literary Supplement. Paul was a family relation of the MacBride and the Gonnes. He expressed shock that “no evidence had been offered by anybody” concerning allegations made against the Major in the Court Case. He speculated “that the source of all this pain I have been talking about in the last while may be in the letters from Maud Gonne to Yeats”. This documentation had been referred to back in 1979 by Conrad Balliet in an essay called The Lives – and Lies of Maud Gonne”4. He had been trying to write a life of Maud Gonne but wrote that he “had been unsuccessful in getting access to the papers in possession of the MacBride family”.
In 1992 the Gonne-Yeats Letters was published, authored by Anna MacBride White and A. Norman Jeffares. The latter was a biographer of Yeats, while Anna MacBride was a daughter of Sean MacBride and granddaughter of Maud Gonne and the Major. The authors wrote “on the whole Maud’s letters give a reasonable account, allowing for a certain obvious one-sidedness”. Here at last, in the public domain, was the documentation that hitherto had only been made available to selected scholars. I studied the book in fine detail and found it illuminating. It clearly gave Maud’s and Willie Yeats’ views on the causes for the marriage breakup, but it brought vital new material to light. The most important was, as Maud wrote to Yeats, “The Court thinks the charges of immorality are insufficiently proved, but the charges of drunkenness are manifestly proved”. The fact that MacBride left the court with only a verdict of being drunk on occasion against him was new and of vital importance. I knew Anna MacBride quite well at that stage and she kindly gave me permission to use the Letters in a new book I proposed to write. This book was published in 1997 titled Willie Yeats & the Gonne-MacBrides. Based on the Court judgement, the fact that Eileen Wilson contradicted Maud’s allegation concerning her in Court, Maud’s refusal to allow Iseult give evidence and much circumstantial evidence detailed in that book, I concluded “Major John MacBride was a maligned man in the proceedings”. That book again was launched under the auspices of the Westport Historical Society.
The Fall issue of the Irish Literary Supplement contained a long essay from me titled John MacBride’s Good Name5. Paul Durcan wrote “surely, it is the DEFINITIVE statement of the MacBride-Gonne-Yeats Triangle”.
Professor Roy Foster’s authorised biography of WB Yeats was published also in 1997. I had expected that he would treat the Gonne/Yeats/MacBride controversy historically. I was disappointed as he merely regurgitated what had passed between Maud and Willie as the truth. He even wrote about ‘MacBride’s crimes’ and ignored the verdict delivered by the Court. I wrote one of my many letters to the Irish Times on 25/3/1997 saying:
“Roy Foster, the revisionist historian, has regurgitated the shocking accusations/allegations made against Major John MacBride by Maud Gonne during their bitter divorce case in Paris in 1905-6. Maud Gonne’s version was accepted by Yeats, who in turn is treated as an unbiased authority by Professor Foster. All this, despite the fact that MacBride successfully rebutted the charges in court. The Irish Times by publishing extensive extracts from Foster’s book is an accessory after the fact”.
In May of that year the Irish Times published a substantial article from me titled:
In defense of a national hero
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart
Yet I number him in the song.
A terrible beauty is born.
When the poet W.B. Yeats sent his poem Easter 1916 to Maud Gonne MacBride within months after the Rising, she quickly informed him that she did not like the poem and that it was not worthy of him or its subject. She had earlier told Yeats that “Major MacBride, by his death, had left a name for Seán to be proud of. Those who die for Ireland are sacred.”
Yet, for successive biographers of Maud Gonne and W.B. Yeats, this same poem appears to be the starting point in their continuing demonization of MacBride. Roy Foster, in his recent biography of Yeats, is but the latest writer to uncritically accept Yeats as an authority on John MacBride. Unfortunately Maud Gonne had earlier provided Yeats with her own black version of her husband’s alleged misdeeds.
Major John MacBride of Westport, Co Mayo became a national hero due to his organization and co leadership of an Irish Brigade which fought against the British during the Boer War in 1900. Afterwards, unable to return in safety to Ireland, he decided to become an emigre in Paris. There he was introduced to Maud Gonne by his good friend Arthur Griffith.
Over a period of three years, MacBride succeeded where many others had failed in wooing and marrying the English beauty. This marriage was attractive to Maud, because she was intent on establishing a career in Irish nationalism and the MacBride name would facilitate that. She also dearly wished to see the reincarnation of her dead infant son. All the friends and relations of the couple advised against the marriage. They claimed that it was doomed from the start, due to the vast differences between the pair.
The chief objector to the marriage was the poet W.B. Yeats. He had invested many years of his life as well as much poetical output, in a public pursuit of Maud. To add injury to insult, she was to convert to Catholicism, a religion of the masses, much despised by Yeats.
Within one year of marrying, Maud had her baby boy (the future Seán MacBride) and she had decided that her husband was to be removed from their lives. She had also become reconciled with W.B. Yeats.
Efforts to arrive at an agreed separation between Maud Gonne and John MacBride foundered on custody, access to their baby and plans for his future life. A bitterly contested divorce case ensued in the French courts which lasted for up to two years.
Each party mustered support from France, England, America and Ireland. James Joyce, writing from Trieste, ridiculed the pair, dubbing them Joan of Arc and Pius the Tenth. An American friend of Maud’s, John Quinn, hired private detectives to investigate MacBride’s time spent in America. W.B. Yeats got his English theatrical sponsor, Miss Horniman, to travel to Westport to trawl for derogatory information at the MacBride family home.
Maud asked Yeats to approach the poet, Tom Kettle, to seek information on MacBride about his time spent in Dublin.Most of nationalist Ireland remained supportive to MacBride, though desperately embarrassed by the affair. But Maud’s own group, Daughters of Erin, remained faithful to her.
W.B. Yeats wanted to travel to Paris to support Maud but she warned against this. She told him that MacBride was insanely jealous of her male friends and had once threatened to kill Willie. She added that her husband had earlier removed all of Yeats’s books from her house. Maud was dependent on Yeats to a great extent all during the period, writing to him on a regular basis.
As the legal case gathered its own momentum, charges and counter charges were levelled by both sides. Maud accused John of drunkenness as well as serious sexual improprieties against female members of her household. He countered with allegations of drug addiction, being an English spy and the mother of an illegitimate child.
Both parties called their own witnesses. One notable witness was Eileen Wilson, a half-sister of Mauds and then married to a brother of John MacBride in Westport. She travelled to Paris to refute a charge that John MacBride had committed adultery with her. One potential witness, who did not take the stand at her mother’s decision, was Maud’s daughter, Iseult Gonne. It had been alleged that John had indecently assaulted her.
During this entire episode, Maud was detailing her side of the story in letters to W.B. Yeats. He was, naturally enough, susceptible to accept all these shocking accusations, in support of the muse. These letters are all extant and have been used by several writers who wrote about both Maud Gonne and W.B. Yeats. They were published in a volume in 1992 under the title The Gonne – Yeats Letters. Unfortunately almost all those who have written about Maud and Yeats appear to have accepted the contents of these letters concerning John MacBride as factual. They have neglected to advert to the fact that the charges about sexual improprieties were not upheld by the French court. MacBride left that court retaining the contested rights to his son along with his wife. No divorce was granted. As far as the French court was concerned the only accusation upheld against MacBride was that of drunkenness. Otherwise he was an innocent man.
But successive biographers armed with Yeats’s poem, Easter 1916, and Maud Gonne’s letters to Yeats have, to their shame, besmirched the good, name of John MacBride and that of Eileen Wilson MacBride.
EASTER RISING 1916
On his return to live in Ireland from Paris, John MacBride played an integral part with other leading advanced nationalists on the path to Irish freedom. As a public figure closely watched by the police, he could not be a part of the inner conspiracy by the IRB on the precise timing of the Rising. He was employed as Water Bailiff by Dublin Corporation where he was responsible for collecting dues from shipping using Dublin Port. He lived with Fred and Clara Allan at Spencer Villas in Glenageary. Allan was a veteran nationalist. John was to be ‘Best Man’ for his brother, Dr. Anthony in Dublin on the Wednesday of Easter Week 1916. Anthony travelled from Westport by train to meet John on Easter Monday. They were to meet at the Wicklow Hotel off Grafton St. John was early and strolled up to St. Stephen’s Green where he encountered the Irish Volunteers mobilising under Thomas MacDonagh. The latter invited John to march with him, as second in command, to nearby Jacob’s Factory. John acted most bravely during the week of the Rising. He became the de facto military commander of the garrison during the week in recognition of his military experience. Several participants of the Rising have commended his bravery6. After the surrender was agreed but before it came into effect, MacBride could have walked free from Jacob’s Factory. He choose not to do so, despite advising others to leave. John called Clara Allan as a witness at his trial by court-martial, as the last opportunity he would have to see the woman he loved7.
John MacBride’s extensive papers remained in the custody of the Allan family until the 1970’s when on the advice of Leon O’Broin, they were donated to the National Library. The name they were given there was ‘The Fred Allan Papers’. When I discovered this, I attended the Library and discovered much hitherto unseen documentation, letters, notes, much of it in John’s own hand and documentation presented to the court in Paris from both John and Maud’s legal teams. It was very sad material dealing with the trauma suffered by both parties, but I knew that another book was called for to put the full story into the public domain. That book’s title derived from Paul Durcan’s earlier comment and was called, ‘The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle., published in 2000. [Again launched in Westport]
In that book I wrote that Yeats’ hatred for MacBride endured and the Yeats’ industry consistently sought to demean MacBride as if he was not worthy of associating with people of the stature of Willie Yeats. I wrote,
“This is not in accordance with the facts. The MacBride’s were a prosperous and sophisticated family. Their children were all well-educated going to Belfast for secondary education and some attending university. The eldest, Patrick, was the first Chairman of the Westport Urban District Council. Anthony MacBride became County Mayo Surgeon. Joseph was a Sinn Fein T. D. for ten years. He became Chairman of the Westport Harbour Commissioners. John’s mother, Honoria Gill, came from a respected nationalist family. The flag made for the Fenian Rising of 1867 was later given into the care of Bridget Gill, who gave it to her nephew John MacBride, as he set out for the Transvaal”.
Caoimhe Nic Dhaibhid8 published a long article entitled The breakdown of the MacBride-Gonne marriage 1904-08 in no. 144 November 2010 issue of Irish Historical Studies. She wrote:
“The veracity of the charges against MacBride centring on the crucial issue of the alleged molestation of Iseult, has attracted some historical attention in recent years, largely as a result of the energetic writings of Anthony Jordan, who has been anxious to correct what he views as ‘the easy acceptance of other people’s prejudices and errors [ Irish Literary Supplement 1998]…that she fabricated a series of fantastic charges that, according to Jordan, were unproved: MacBride emerged [from the divorce court] an innocent man. The target of Jordan’s argument has been a number of biographies of WB Yeats, particularly Roy Foster’s landmark 1997 The Apprentice Mage. The most recent analysis of the divorce refrains from overt judgement on these difficult questions, but appears to endorse Jordan’s position”.
John Waters, a well-known Irish commentator considered the MacBride-Gonne case in 2010. He wrote; “Major John MacBride, executed for his part in the Rising of Easter Week 1916, is remembered mainly by his characterisation by WB Yeats in the poem ‘Easter 1916’ as a ‘drunken vainglorious pout’. These three words have come to outweigh the glories and sacrifices of his life and death. There are many lies in Irish poetry, but this is probably the worst…In addition to Yeats’s writings, published accounts of their relationship by historians and biographers, infatuated beyond reason or fairness by the Yeats legend, repeated the prejudices and untruths arising from Gonne’s version and Yeats’ determination to believe it”9. Senia Paseta of Oxford University has recently researched in great detail the breakup of the Gonne-MacBride marriage. Her measured summary says,
“Maud Gonne’s near-exit from public and Irish life was triggered by her unfortunate marriage in 1903 to John MacBride and, more destructively, by their separation in 1906”10.
The last book I wrote on John MacBride was to edit a collection of his writings. It was called Boer War to Easter Rising – The Writings of Major John MacBride. It was dedicated to Jarlath Duffy, who tragically died at an early age and who was a friend and a staunch supporter of all my writings. After he returned to Ireland in 1905 John wrote a thirty thousand word account of the Irish Transvaal Brigade’s campaign for the Freeman’s Journal. He was a noted public speaker on nationalist themes both in Ireland and Britain. The long speech he delivered in Belfast in 1911 on Robert Emmet, is also carried in the Appendices of above book. He was a particularly close colleague of Tom Clarke and Sean MacDiaramda. A 1912 letter from Pearse to MacBride reads:
“ Sgoil Eanna
17 February 1912.
Could you find time to address the members of St. Enda’s Branch of the Gaelic League in our Study Hall, some Friday evening in the near future? The subject of the address need not be immediately concerned with the work of the Gaelic League – any subject likely to appeal to the imagination of young Gaels would do; history, literature, science, travel, antiquities, industry, even politics in the wider sense, would all be admissible. Neither need the address be in Irish, for we masters and the older boys will see to it, that sufficient Irish be heard by other speeches. If you can come and name your subject, and the most suitable Friday between this and Easter? If Friday does not suit we could perhaps arrange another evening.
The letter, apart from the signature was typed. A postscript, in poor handwriting at the bottom of the page added;
“P.S. What the boys would really like is an account of your experience in the South African War”11.
Of course in the iconic photograph of Pearse’s oration at the grave of O’Donovan Rossa at Glasnevin in 1915, the person standing directly behind Pearse is MacBride.
While MacBride was leading the Irish Transvaal Brigade to fight with the Boer Republics against the British in 1899-1900, Roger Casement was a British official in nearby Portuguese East Africa. On Casement’s return to Dublin in May 1913, he and MacBride had lunch at Baggot St. Dublin, as they discussed their experiences of their time in South Africa. Casement listened enthralled by the exploits MacBride recounted. He wrote to Alice Stopford Green, “Can you imagine the feelings of an English Colonel who had given up his sword to an Irish Rebel”?12 Several Casement biographers write that this meeting, at which they both realised that their respective families hailed from neighbouring Glens of Antrim, provided the impetus for Casement to cut his tie with Britain and later seek to emulate MacBride by forming an ‘Irish Brigade’ in Germany to fight in the Easter Rising. Within a few years both men were executed by the British, MacBride almost certainly for his role in South Africa, and Casement as revenge on a ‘traitor’. Now they both lie a short distance from each other in Arbour Hill and Glasnevin.
WT Cosgrave was in the cell adjacent to MacBride in Kilmainham, both awaiting execution. Cosgrave records
“At daybreak on Friday morning I heard a slight movement and whispering in the Major’s cell. After a few minutes there was a tap on his cell door. I heard the word ’Sergeant’; a few more whispers, a move towards the door of the cell, then steps down the corridor, down the central stairs. Through a chink in the door I could barely discern the receding figures; silence for a time; then the sharp crack of rifle fire and silence again”13.
The sole witness MacBride called to his trial was Clara Allan. They were in love and it was their last opportunity to meet. After his execution, she, a Methodist, converted to Catholicism, to be closer to him14.
I have contributed many articles to Cathair na Mart over the years with Jarlath Duffy as editor and latterly Aiden Clarke. I treasure a letter from the late Sheila Mulloy who wrote to me in 2005 saying, “Many thanks for your support all along the years”. In 2008 I was privileged to give a Memorial lecture in honour of the late Jarlath Duffy titled, ‘Writing Four Books on Major John MacBride’ in the Plaza Hotel Westport. My articles in Cathair na Mart include: 1997 The Case of Maude Gonne versus John MacBride A Primary Document 1998 The Major John MacBride Manuscripts 1999 Boer War Centenary 2001 How Major John MacBride became involved in the Easter Rising 2004-5 Centenary of the Birth of Sean MacBride 2006-7 John MacBride’s account of the Irish Transvaal Brigade 2011 Eamon deValera and John MacBride 2012 Joseph MacBride 1860-1938
Three of Anthony J. Jordan’s books linked to John MacBride are now available on Kindle: The Yeats-Gonne-MacBride Triangle ; Boer War to Easter Rising – the Writings & Speeches of Major John MacBride; WB Yeats, vain, glorious, lout. A Maker of Modern Ireland.
Anthony J. Jordan will give a lecture entitled Major John MacBride – A National Hero, on Saturday May 7th 2016, in Westport Quay Community Centre at 8pm.
- Caoimhe Nic Dhaibheid Irish Historical Studies No. 144 . 2010.. pp. 64-87
- O’Brien William & Ryan Desmond, Dublin.
- Inglis Brian, Roger Casement Hodder & Stroughton 1992. P. 287. & Reid BlL. The Lives of Roger Casement Yale university Press 1976. P. 172
- Indeed the veracity of Maud Gonne is still being questioned. A reputable academic historian maintains that a forensic study of the dates involved, points to Maud herself being possibly the mother of Eileen Wilson.
- This article is available in my Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle, on Kindle.
- Fr. Augustine, Capuchin Annual 1966.
O’Kelly Sean, Sceal a Bheatha 1963.
Ni Siubhlaigh Maire, The Splendid Yeats.
Peadar Kearney Papers TCD.
William O’Brien Witness Statement [WS} Bureau of Military History.
Fr. Aloysius WS 200 et al…..
- Academia Edu . Clara Allen A paper by Anthony J. Jordan
- Caoimhe nic Dhaibheid is a lecturer at Sheffield University since 2013. From 2010-2012 she was Rutherford Research Fellow at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. Her publications include Sean- MacBride A Republican Life Liverpool University 2011.& From Parnell to Paisley; Constitutional and Revolutionary Politics in Modern Ireland [ edited with Colin Reid ( Irish Academic Press 2010).
Waters John, Feckers, Constable 2010. P. 11.
- Paseta Senia, Irish Nationalist Women 1900-1918. Cambridge University Press 2013. Pp. 92-99.
- MS. 26,755 NLI.
- Reid Bl. The Lives of Roger Casement. Yale University Press.
- WT Cosgrave, Anthony J Jordan Westport Books 2006. P. 36. & WS BMH. 268.
- Cathair na Mart 14. (2014) Clara Allan by Anthony J. Jordan.