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CULTURE Biography uncovers MacBride’s complexity

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BIOGRAPHER Donal Fallon.

New book is part of the 16 Lives series to mark next year’s centenary of the Easter Rebellion

Áine Ryan

JUST two days before his 48th birthday, Major John MacBride, a native of The Quay, Westport, was executed in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Eleven days earlier he had been holed up in Jacob’s biscuit factory, alongside 1916 Proclamation signatory, Thomas McDonagh, fighting for the freedom of his country.
MacBride was a veteran of the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and the one-time husband of Maud Gonne, the famed beauty, Irish nationalist campaigner and muse of poet William Butler Yeats.
Indeed, MacBride’s reputation has often been tainted by the famous poem ‘Easter 1916’, in which Yeats – who, certainly, couldn’t be called objective when it came to his lifelong muse – dubs him ‘a drunken vainglorious lout’. MacBride’s much-publicised divorce case had left his reputation somewhat in tatters with claims of violence, drunkenness and sexual impropriety. Ultimately, ‘drunkenness’ was the only charge that withstood the scrutiny of the court.

‘Complex figure’
NOW, a new biography, which is part of the O’Brien Press, ‘16 Lives’ series to mark next year’s centenary of the rebellion, shows that he was ‘an altogether more complex figure than the caricature of the man depicted in both the poetry and studies of the period’.
As biographer Donal Fallon notes in the book’s introduction: “In recent years the discovery of John MacBride’s papers in the collections of Fenian leader Fred Allan has enabled historians and biographers to re-examine the disastrous marriage [to Maud Gonne] and the separation that followed.”
Fallon first contextualises MacBride’s nationalism by examining his family heritage, which will be of particular interest to readers from Westport and Co Mayo. He opens this first chapter, entitled ‘The Development of a Young Fenian’, with some background notes MacBride gave his legal team for his bitter divorce proceedings.
MacBride wrote: “His great-grandfather took part in the insurrection of 1798; his grandfather followed the fortunes of the Young Irelanders who first struggled for the establishment of an Irish parliament and ultimately drifted into revolution; his father and uncles were members of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood of 1867 … Irish patriotism was therefore, so to say, in his blood.”
While MacBride focussed here on the male line of his family, it was, in fact, on his mother, Honoria Gill’s side that ‘the blood of Fenianism flowed’. His father, Patrick MacBride, of Ulster-Scots Protestant heritage, was a captain of a merchant schooner, whose berth was at the bustling Westport harbour.
The biography traces John MacBride’s politicisation during a seismic period in Irish history; his emigration to South Africa and ‘the emergence of a separatist Irish nationalist community there’; his disastrous marriage to Maud Gonne and the birth of their son, Seán, in France. Finally, the book examines ‘the testimony of the men and women who were there in 1916 and fought alongside MacBride’.

The ‘16 Lives’ series is edited by Lorcan Collins and Ruán O’Donnell. It also examines the lives of: James Connolly, Michael Mallin, Joseph Plunkett, Edward Daly, Seán Heuston, Roger Casement, Seán MacDiarmada, Thomas Clarke, Éamonn Ceannt, Thomas MacDonagh, Willie Pearse, Con Colbert, Michael O’Hanrahan, Thomas Kent and Patrick Pearse.