Fr Kevin Hegarty
The recent death of Michael Yeats severs the last immediate link with the poet William Butler Yeats. Born in 1865, he married relatively late in life at the age of 52 and Michael was born in 1921. Yeats’s delay in marrying was partly caused by Maud Gonne who refused his offer of marriage on three occasions. She remained the love of his life. In one of his poems, he tells us that a friend informed him that Miss Gonne had got old. There are shadows about her eyes and her hair has ‘threads of grey’. The poem concludes with a poignant couplet:
“O heart, Oh heart if she’d but turn her head,
You’d know the folly of being comforted.”
Maud Gonne was the great beauty of that revolutionary age between the fall of Parnell and the 1916 Rising. Even Douglas Hyde who, despite a lifetime’s immersion in the ancient glories of Gaelic civilisation always retained the air of a staid country squire, was captivated by her. In his diary he records that she was “the most dazzling woman I have ever seen…She was wonderfully tall and beautiful. We stayed talking until 1.30am. My head was spinning with her beauty.” She wanted him to teach her Irish but it did not work out. His avid contemplation of her beauty kept getting in the way:
“I went to Miss Gonne at 11am to give her her first lesson in Irish. She received me graciously. I stayed for lunch with her and we toasted cheese together by the fire. We talked about all sorts of things. We did not do much Irish.”
What hope for the ‘tuiseal ginideach’ in such a rapture!
Maud Gonne married a Mayo man, Major John MacBride of Westport, whom Yeats depicted, in a wounding phrase, as a ‘drunken, vainglorious lout’ in his poem ‘Easter 1916’.
Her marriage was not her only connection with Mayo. She visited the county in 1897 to take part in the preparations for the centenary celebration of the 1798 Rising. She found north Mayo in the grip of famine. In Ballina she learned that there were ten unfinished graves in a little cemetery between Ballycastle and Belderrig; the people were too weak to complete the burials.
To see the situation for herself she went to Belderrig, where she stayed with the Kelly family who ran a general store in the village. By the Kelly fireside, as she recalls in her autobiography, ‘A Servant of the Queen’, she heard grim tales of fever and death from a ‘few famine-stricken women with shawls over their heads, 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 equally bleak; the food shortage was so extreme that people had to eat the seed potatoes, so diminishing the prospect of a new crop in the summer.
In response Maud Gonne managed to organise a rudimentary system of nursing care for the fever victims, provided some basic food supplies, publicised the famine in articles in ‘The Freeman’s Journal’ and promised to lobby the Congested Districts Board for a fish-curing station at Belderrig.
From Belderrig she moved majestically to Belmullet, draped in a dramatic green cloak, observing along that desolate road the despair of poverty on the listless faces of men employed on the relief works. She organised a big meeting on the square of Belmullet, chaired by the Parish Priest, Monsignor Hewson, to agitate for higher wages on the relief works, emergency supplies and the free distribution of seed potatoes.
Armed with the resolutions passed at the meeting, she went to meet government officials at the courthouse. The officials, aware that a desperate people, when mobilised, can quickly resort to violence, gave in to her demands. In her autobiography she claims that ‘she stopped a famine in Mayo’. Monsignor Hewson accurately summed up her contribution when he said that she had put ‘new life in the people’.
If Maud Gonne was to visit Belmullet today she would not know it. The site of the hotel where she stayed is a shopping mall, there are four supermarkets and a new hotel, a civic and arts centre are about to be opened and housing estates are sprouting along its environs. The only reminders of poverty are the Trócaire posters in the church porch.