Stopping a famine: Maud Gonne in Mayo

Second Reading

STRENGTH IN EMPATHY When Maude Gonne witnessed starvation and suffering in north Mayo in 1898, she was moved to act.

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

She was William Butler Yeats poetic muse, the inspiration for over 50 of his poems. She was married to Major John MacBride, who was executed for his participation in the 1916 Rising. She was the mother of Seán MacBride, the human rights lawyer who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.
It is the fate of Maud Gonne that she is often defined by the men in her life. She was, however, in her own right, a significant figure in Ireland for over 60 years as a political activist and writer.
A new book, ‘Irish Famines before and after the Great Hunger’, edited by Professor Christine Kinealy and Dr Gerard Moran, outlines her involvement in alleviating social distress in Donegal and Mayo during the 1890s.
It concludes that “Maud Gonne was part of a generation of remarkable nationalist women who not only acted autonomously from their male counterparts but did so in a visible way. Being frequently defined by her appearance and her exoticism, rather than by her activism, disguised the fact that for many decades Gonne was at the forefront of political and cultural debates in Ireland, especially during the pivotal period between the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell and the Easter Rising. She combined nationalism and feminism with a demand for social justice, repeatedly showing by her actions that they were not incompatible.”
Maud Gonne was an English woman who fell in love with Irish nationalism. Born in Surrey in 1866, she belonged to a wealthy family. She came to Ireland as a child when her father was appointed brigade major of the cavalry at the Curragh Camp. So began her Irish odyssey that ended only with her death in Dublin in 1953.
She was a stunning beauty. Douglas Hyde, after meeting her for the first time at a literary party in Dublin, wrote ecstatically in his diary entry for December 16, 1888:
“I saw the most dazzling woman I have ever seen: Miss Gonne who drew every male in the room around her. She was wonderfully tall and beautiful. We stayed talking until 1.30am. My head was spinning with her beauty.”
She visited Mayo in March 1898 in connection with the centenary celebration of the 1798 Rising. She found the north of the county in the grip of famine. Hearing in Ballina of acute distress in the village of Belderrig, she travelled there by mail car. The haunting beauty of the coastal scenery contrasted with the dismal reality of a broken people.
The landlords still held tyrannical sway. Evictions were frequent. Government help was paltry. There were outbreaks of dysentery and typhoid.
At a cemetery between Ballycastle and Belderrig she noticed several fresh half-filled graves. People were too weak to complete the burial of their loved ones who had succumbed to famine and fever.
In Belderrig she lodged with the Kelly family, who ran a general store in the village. By the Kelly fireside she heard grim tales of hunger and disease from a few women who had come to fetch little bags of meal or sugar for which they had no money to pay. “But for Mrs Kelly we would  all be dead,” was the refrain.
The future looked even more bleak. The food shortage was so extreme that the people had resorted to eating the seed potatoes, so diminishing the prospect of a plentiful new crop in the summer.
The following day, one of the women, Peggy Hegarty, brought her on a tour of the community, and Gonne saw for herself the havoc wreaked by hunger.
In response, Gonne managed to organise rudimentary nursing care for fever victims, provided some basic food supplies and publicised the famine conditions in articles for the Freeman’s Journal. She also promised to lobby the Congested District Board for a fish-curing station at Belderrig, where families could preserve their catches.
From Belderrig she travelled to Belmullet, where she met with the parish priest, Monsignor Henry Hewson, who had been impressed by her articles in the Freeman’s Journal. She agreed to chair a big meeting in the town square to agitate for higher wages, relief works, emergency food supplies and the free distribution of seed potatoes.
Armed with the resolutions passed at the meeting, Gonne went to meet Government officials at the courthouse.
The officials, aware that a desperate people, when mobilised, can quickly resort to violence if thwarted, acceded to her demands.
In her autobiography ‘A Servant of the Queen’, Gonne wrote that she had ‘stopped the famine in Mayo. Talking in the House of Commons would never have done it’.