Not many people live for their country. Very few die for their country. One Westport man who has died is Major John MacBride. Born at the Quay (the Helm) in 1868, he died looking down the barrels of an English firing squad in 1916.
John MacBride was the youngest of five brothers born to an Antrim man, Patrick MacBride and a Westport woman, Honoria Gill. John’s brother Patrick took over the business, Anthony became a doctor, Joe worked with the Harbour Commissioners (and a TD) and Francis emigrated to Australia. John became an apprentice draper with John Fitzpatrick in Castlerea, where he sowed his Republican seeds, moving to Dublin to work in a wholesale chemist company. In Dublin he cultivated his membership of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the GAA and his admiration for Michael Davitt and Charles Stewart Parnell, both of whom he heard at a public meeting in Westport in 1879. IRB business saw him visit America in 1895 and 1896 before he emigrated to South Africa to work as a gold assayer.
The Dutch, settlers in South Africa since the 1650s, felt the pinch of British colonialism in the country. A battle occurred with the Boers defeating Jameson. John MacBride arrived amidst the smoke. He organised the Irish Transvaal Brigade. It was ready on October 6th 1899, the anniversary of Parnell’s death. The second Boer War loomed five days later.
John MacBride wrote: “At the head of the Brigade a green flag specially made for the expected revolt in Connacht in 1867 was held proudly aloft.” Many Irish were also enlisted in the British forces and when they were captured they were encouraged to change sides and join the Irish Brigade! At the time Roger Casement was the British representative in Portuguese Lourenco Marques and reported on the war back to London, citing a certain Irishman who headed up the Irish Brigade, Major John MacBride. Casement and MacBride were to become firm friends later in Dublin.
The Brigade was supported from Ireland by Arthur Griffith (editor of the United Irishman) and Maud Gonne, the daughter of a British Army officer who was stationed at Dublin Castle and the Curragh. It was also reported that the Major had a son, Robert John, with a Malaysian woman while in South Africa. “A great-grandson of that man, another Robert MacBride, visited Westport some years ago when he was Chief of Police in Johannesburg.”
While still in South Africa the Major was nominated to contest the South Mayo by-election after Michael Davitt resigned. However, the Irish Parliamentary Party refused to withdraw its candidate and a bitter campaign was fought with MacBride still overseas. It was hoped that MacBride would be elected but would be unable to take his seat in the House of Commons because of Boer connections. His abstention was to have sent a message to the world about Irish opposition to British rule.
The British overpowered the Boers who then adopted guerrilla tactics. The Irish Brigade was disbanded in 1900 with letters of thanks to the Major from the Boer Government who chartered a vessel to take the Irish men to Trieste. The Major moved to Paris.
There he met Arthur Griffith and Maud Gonne, who described him as a “wiry, soldierly-looking man with red hair and skin, burnt brick red.” Maud Gonne was a society beauty, wealthy and a committed Republican. She had a liaison with a Frenchman, Lucien Millevoye, with whom she had two children, George and Iseult. She was also a close friend of WB Yeats and was the inspiration for much of his love poetry. Major John went on another lecture tour of America and was eventually joined by Maud Gonne. Against advice from many quarters, including close friends and family, Major John and Maud were married in 1903 in Paris. Seán was born the following January. A year later Maud applied for a divorce in what was to become a bitter battle widely reported in Ireland and England. No divorce was granted, only a separation.
Major John returned to Ireland. He eventually got work as a water bailiff with Dublin Corporation. He was also elected on to the Supreme Council of the IRB for Connacht.
During the Easter Rising he was second-in-command to Thomas MacDonagh at Jacob’s Factory. They were the last soldiers to surrender. He was shot on May 5. Major John MacBride lived and died for Ireland. Fr Augustine, who accompanied him to his execution, wrote to the Major’s mother: “… He was a gentle noble character and his last thoughts were about you, God’s poor, his friends and God whom he went to meet in a most beautifully Catholic spirit…”
A radio documentary, The MacBrides, will be broadcast on Midwest Radio this Sunday, August 1 at 9.00am.