Major John MacBride

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Letters, Letters, Volume 5

Sir,—I agree with your reviewer of Roy Foster’s The Apprentice Mage (Eve Patten, HI Summer 1997), that ‘the detail of Foster’s work is important’. As a biographer of John MacBride (Major John MacBride [Westport Historical Society 1991]), I looked forward to the publication of The Apprentice Mage. Eve Patten also writes that ‘this is a biography rooted in history’. I regret that, as far as Foster’s treatment of John MacBride is concerned, this is not the case. Instead Foster reiterates all the hackneyed, one-sided and unhistorical condemnations of MacBride.
According to their families and friends, the 1903 marriage between Maud Gonne and John MacBride was doomed from the start. Though their son, Seán MacBride, was born in 1904, the marriage was already in a terminal state. Divorce proceedings were initiated by Gonne, when MacBride refused to accept her terms for separation, which mainly concerned access to their son. Willie Yeats had of course beseeched Maud to marry him over many years, before she caused him devastation, by becoming a Catholic and marrying a penniless Irish soldier. But now he again became her confidant, as the divorce case ran for some years. She wrote regularly to Willie, naturally giving her side of the affair, which he was only too willing to accept. These letters have been published and have thus been available to successive biographers of both Maud Gonne and Willie Yeats. The fact that the latter accepted their validity, naturally added weight to them for biographers. But they surely do not deserve to be treated as infallible. These writers, including Foster, have not given enough, if any consideration to the fact that charges and counter-charges flowed freely in the bitterly contested Parisian divorce case.     Foster writes that Yeats had long been hearing rumours about the marriage—some true, some not. But the truth was spectacularly shocking. On 9 January, having had an interview with May Bertie-Clay, WBY wrote to Gregory. He was still reeling at the catalogue of MacBride’s crimes: violence, sexual abuse, threats to the children. Two days later he wrote in even greater shock, having heard details of MacBride’s seduction of the seventeen-year-old Eileen Wilson (Gonne’s half-sister) and his molestation of the eleven-year-old Iseult, the blackest thing you can imagine.

Foster purports to speak of the ‘truth’ and of MacBride’s ‘crimes’. MacBride faced these charges in the French divorce court and they were not upheld. As Maud Gonne herself put it so coyly to Yeats in one of her letters, ‘the court thinks the charges of immorality are not sufficiently proved’. Maud did not get a divorce. MacBride retained continuing rights to his son, which was the whole basis for the case. There is much evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, that MacBride was innocent of these charges, accepted as ‘truth’ and ‘crimes’ by Foster. Here I mention two. Eileen Wilson, whom he was charged with seducing, travelled from Westport to Paris to give evidence to the contrary. She honoured the memory of John MacBride for the rest of her long life, as her children and grandchildren testify. She died in 1972. The charges against MacBride concerning Iseult could have been settled summarily, had Maud allowed Iseult to take the witness stand, which she did not. MacBride himself wrote a six page letter for one of his IRB colleagues, Fred Allen, explaining his version of events. Yet Foster’s only reference to this important document is relegated to his voluminous footnotes: it is given no consideration in his text.
Much of the unjust comment about John MacBride, of course, stems from his public denigration by Yeats in his memorable poem, ‘Easter 1916’. Major MacBride’s six page letter will be published, in the winter edition of Cathair na Mart, journal of the Westport Historical Society.—Yours etc.,

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