Much more than a muse: biography shows us the Maud Gonne we didn’t learn about at school

Mary O’Rourke

Independent.ei | September 11, 2021

Maud Gonne was just shy of 6ft and her beauty, her quick talk and her comfortable background made her an arresting figure wherever she went

Almost every secondary school student knows that poet WB Yeats had an obsession with the nationalist campaigner Maud Gonne, proposed to her four times and never lost his commitment to her.

Beyond that, surprisingly little is known of her among the public at large. In this biography, the American author Kim Bendheim explores amazing facets of a woman who was far more than a poet’s muse.

Her mother, Edith Cook, died of tuberculosis in 1871 when Maud was just four. She had an inherent sadness from that early motherless life, as she was passed from relative to relative with her sister.

However, through her mother, she acquired a sizable inheritance that gave her an independence and status which eased many a path. Although she was farmed out to different relatives, her father Tommy took a keen interest in her and kept in touch.

Her impressive stature (just shy of 6ft), her beauty, her quick talk and her comfortable background made her an arresting figure wherever she went. Aged 20, she fell for a French journalist and politician Lucien Millevoye, who became her lover for 12 years. There was a meeting of minds.

Gonne was already expressing her strong opinions about the oppression and downtrodden state of Ireland. From early on, she had a longing for a larger purpose. “I think life without a cause to work for would be very dull and meaningless,” she wrote.

She lived her life between Paris, with Millevoye, and Dublin, where she quickly found a role among the nationalists and the writers, and blended easily with the cultural identity of early 20th-century Ireland. She became friends with the veteran Fenian John O’Leary, and met Douglas Hyde, Arthur Griffith and James Connolly.

She went on extensive lecture tours in Ireland, Britain and the US, highlighting the poor conditions in Ireland. Later on, through O’Leary, she met the Yeats family in London, and soon became part of their literary milieu.

As a young man, the poet Yeats was smitten by her and wrote that she had “a complexion like the blossom of apples through which the light falls, and a stature so great that she seems of a divine race”. He later proposed to her daughter Iseult, who also rejected him.

Moving in nationalist literary circles in Dublin, Gonne took up the campaign against Queen Victoria’s visit to Dublin and called for children to be given school meals. She founded Inghinidhe na hÉireann, Daughters of Ireland, and took up the cause of political prisoners.

In 1903, she married Major John McBride, who fought on the side of the Boers against the English. They later broke up but had a son, Seán, who went on to be a major figure in Irish political life as head of Clann na Poblachta, and Minister for External Affairs in a coalition government. Gonne continued with her worthy causes wherever she could lend her voice, her allure and her money to steer the course of history. Speaking and journalistic opportunities increased, and she achieved great fame for her writings. It must be noted that one of her unattractive traits was a lifelong anti-semitism. This, coupled with her propensity for exaggeration, often left her struggling for credibility.

Throughout her varied life, Yeats remained a constant presence. He never got over his obsession, even after marriage and rearing two children. His unrequited love led to the marvellous poetry.

Bendheim shows how Maud was a complex figure and details the lesser-known facts about her life. This is a great read and strongly recommended.

Read the review on Independent.ei