Famous for her association with W.B.Yeats, it was the influence of others and a steely individualism that marked out a most unlikely Irish rebel
IT WAS, according to Maud Gonne’s biographer Margaret Ward, a moment straight out of ‘the pages of any Victorian melodrama’. After grieving her deceased father, and while still under the guardianship of her genteel Ascot cousins, Maud made for London in a bid to make it as a West End actress. Her uncle William wrote in a frenzy, begging her to take a stage name to save the family from disgrace.
‘The name belongs to me,’ replied Maud, ‘and I thought I was honouring it by earning my bread’. In any case, while her ‘lowly’ career was cut short with severe bronchitis, it was her correspondence with her uncle which marked her out as someone who differed in thoughts and actions from that of her class.
The spectre of post-Famine Fenian revolution ‘haunted the age into which Maud was born’ noted another biographer, Nancy Cardoza, with Maud’s father ‘Captain Tommie’ summoned to Ireland with the Crown’s expectation of separatist rebellion.
Living in a Dublin ‘enclave of Empire’, with friends like the whiskey Jamesons, the Gonnes became established members of the Anglo-Irish set. Before his untimely death, however, and perhaps influenced by his Celtic lineage, the Captain would declare his support for the Home Rule campaign.
Maud’s own unalterable awakening came at a hunt ball in the midlands when she was nineteen. Her landlord host spat insults at the Land League for ‘laying waste the countryside and interfering with the hunt’. Maud then questioned him for ignoring one of his tenants, who lay starving on the side of the road. ‘Let her die …’ he snapped. ‘These people must be taught a lesson.’ It was this moment that redirected Maud on the road from regal belle to Irish rebel.
While recuperating from her bronchitis in France her new cause was strengthened. Here, during a July thunderstorm, she met Lucien Millevoye. A man of fierce patriotism for his own country, obsessing over its lost territory, and future glory, he was to become the next great influence in Maud’s life.
‘I will help you to free Ireland,’ he later told her ‘You will help me regain Alsace-Lorraine.’
Her belief that such lofty ambitions could become a reality was buttressed by what her father had called ‘the Will’. It was, he said, ‘a strange incalculable force’. If he had willed himself to be Pope, he once told Maud, it would have been so.
With his memory inspiring her, a new love supporting her, and a natural force propelling her, anything seemed possible for Maud in those early summer days.
Jody is a BA History student at NUI Galway.
Cardozo, N. (1978). Lucky Eyes and a High Heart. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Levenson, S. (1977). Maud Gonne. London: Cassell.
Ward, M. (1993). Maud Gonne. London: Pandora.
Dictionary of Irish Biography. (2009). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press