John MacBride (1865-1916)

[Major John MacBride]; b. Westport, Co. Mayo; son of Patrick MacBride, a former ship’s captain from the Glens of Antrim who married Honoria Gill and ran a successful general business on the Quay in Westport; ed. St. Malachy’s, Belfast; briefly attended medical school and then worked at wholesale chemists in Dublin; mbr. Celtic Literary Society; sworn into IRB by Dr. Mark Ryan in London; emig. to S. Africa, became asseyer for Rand Mine in Corp. 1896; persuaded Griffth to join him, 1897; together formed Irish [Celtic] Literary Society in Johannesburg; collected and forwarded money for Amnesty Assoc., London, and organised 1798 Centenary Celebrations in S. Africa; formed plan with Solomon Gillingham and others to organise an Irish Transvaal Brigade to support the Boers, drawing up 300 men from some 4,000 Irishmen living at the Cape; 1899; fought in the Second Anglo-Boer War, 1899-1902;     
the Brigade was led in many important actions by Colonel Blake, an Irish-American cavalry-man, with MacBride as second-in-command but later leader of the MacBride Brigade during the second half of the conflict, while a further break-away brigade opposed to his leadership formed around Arthur Lynch; acted as dynamite squad and wreckers’ corp; commissioned with rank of Major by Kruger; supported by Irish Transvaal Committee, with Maud Gonne - whom he met through Griffith - as fundraiser in America; moneys forwarded from Brussels by a Boer agent and intercepted by Frank Hugh O’Donnell, then an IRB member, [appar.] acting for Mark Ryan; MacBride captures 20 Dublin Fusiliers in one action; shortage of horses led to standing-down of Irish Brigade; crosses with others to Portuguese East Africa, 23 Sept. 1900 in deteriorating conditions while Blake fought on [Irish Brigade casualties were 91 while Irish casualties on the British side totalled 4,452]; interned at Lourenco Marques, but released with assistance of the Boers; received free passage to Trieste;
MacBride stood unsuccessfully for the former seat of Michael Davitt in S. Mayo bye-election; settled in Paris; travelled to America on anti-Boer War funding trip, meeting Tom Clarke whose best man he became was at his wedding to Kathleen Daly there, 1901; accompanied in America by Maud Gonne, whom he married on 21 Feb. 1903, though faced with the near-manic dislike of her dg. Iseult from the start; a son, Seaghan [later Seán], b. 26 Feb. 1904; MacBride’s wish to raise Seaghan in Ireland opposed by Maud; charged by her with drunkenness, violence and sexual assault on her 18-year old half-sister Eileen Wilson, who was subsequently married to his brother Joseph, and afterwards accused of sexual molestation of 11-year old Iseult (‘the blackest thing you can imagine’, in Yeats parti-pris account - letter to Lady Gregory, 9 Jan. 1914);
toured America as IRB fundraiser and to escape domestic unhappiness with Maud, Jan. 1905; [John] Quinn hires detectives to investigate MacBride’s fund-raising tour of 1904, but is stonewalled by patriots; became involved on Máire Quinn’s side in disputes with Irish National Theatre Soc., St Louis, and later repaid by her hostile testimony regarding charges of drunkenness in the divorce hearings, Nov. 1905; Maud Gonne formally petitions for divorce and custody of Seaghan in Paris court, laying charges of drunkenness and assaults on Eileen Wilson (but not the abuse of Iseult - also alleged by her), 3 Feb. 1905; MacBride hires English Embassy lawyer to appear with him in court; travels to Westport at same hour that Maud travelled from Ireland to France, 25 Nov. 1904; presides at Wolfe Tone commemoration at Bodenstown, July 1905;
issues summons against Independent (Dublin) claiming damages of £5,000 for libellous reportage of his divorce proceedings in Paris, 31 July 1905; legally separated from Maud Gonne by judicial hearing, Paris, 8 Aug. 1906, the charges of immorality against him being dismissed; contrib. articles to Gaelic American (ed. John Devoy), from Nov. 1906; contrib. 13 articles to Freeman’s Journal, 13 Oct. 1906-29 July 1907; libel case against Independent heard at Four Courts, 17 Dec. 1906, the jury finding for libel but without malice, and awarding £1 (Yeats predicting that he would ‘gradually sing and disappear’); report of his suicide printed in Australian paper contradicted by Freeman’s Journal, March 1907; among coffin-bearers at funeral of John O’Leary, March 1907; applied unsuccessfully for post at Iveagh Markets, Dublin;
held post at salmon fisher, Castleconor; appt. Water Bailiff with Dublin Corporation, 1910; elected vice-president of Cumann na nGaedhael, and became mbr. of the National Council [of] Sinn Féin; re-joined IRB; co-opted onto IRB Supreme Council; estab. Mayomen’s Association [afterwards the Mayo Assoc. of Muintir Mhaigh Eo] wrote that the British army was ‘of very little account as a fighting force’ (Irish Freedom); started Irish Neutrality League, Oct. 1914; joined the Easter Rising, 24 March, 1916, having gone out on other business; commissioned by MacDonagh and served at Jacob’s Factory under him; sentenced by court martial, and executed 5 May 1916 - reportedly telling the firing-squad, ‘I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South Afircan war to fear death, and now please carry out your sentence.’
Kevin O’Higgins wrote an elegy based on the details of his last moments (‘Let you rest well of nights; myself will do it for one! / And tell them nobody cried.’); a full biography by Anthony [“Tony”] J. Jordan published by Westport Press (1991) using the Fred Allan MSS in the National Library, left by the family in whose house MacBride was staying at the period of his execution, in order to refute charges of immorality promulgated by Yeats scholars. DIB DIH
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Anthony J. Jordan, letter in History Ireland, 5., 4 (Winter 1997), p.11 [see extract]; Anthony Jordan, ed., Boer War to Easter Rising: Writings of John MacBride (Westport Books 2006), 200pp. [extract].

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  • Anthony J. Jordan, Major John MacBride, 1865-1916: ‘MacDonagh and MacBride and Connolly and Pearse’ (Westport Historical Society 1991), 139pp., ill., [ports.].
  • Donal P. McCracken, MacBride’s Brigade: Irish Commandos in the Anglo-Boer War (Dublin: Four Courts Press 1999), 202pp., 16 ills.
  • Donal P. McCracken, ‘MacBride’s Brigade in the Anglo-Boer War’, in History Ireland, 8, (2000), pp.26-29
  • Anthony Jordan, The Yeats-MacBride-Gonne Triangle (Westport Books 2000) [Note: numerous details in this file are taken from Jordan’s book].
  • Donal Fallon, John MacBride  [16 Lives Ser.] (Dublin: The O’Brien Press 2015),  297pp.
See also Jordan, ‘John MacBride’s Good Name’, in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1998) [q.p.] [there is no moral or legal justification for [R. F.] Foster to write, “the truth was spectacularly shocking” and refer to the “catalogue of MacBride’s crimes” - i.e., in Apprentice Mage, 1997.]

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W. B. Yeats
: Yeats calls him a ‘drunken vainglorious lout’, in “Dublin 1916”. On hearing of her forthcoming marriage, Yeats wrote a hysterical letter to Maud Gonne accusing her of debasing her Protestant and English blood line. In an unpublished poem he wrote: ‘My dear is angry, that of late / I cry all base blood down / As if she had not taught me hate / By kisses of a clown’ [See A. N. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats, A New Biography (London: Hutchinson 1988), p.134].

Seamus O’Sullivan [James Starkey]: ‘[...] The brave salute of John McBride, / The quick transforming smile [...]’ (See longer extract under O’Sullivan, supra.)

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Anthony J. Jordan, letter in History Ireland, 5., 4 (Winter 1997), p.11, disputes the charges of sexual abuse and child-molestation laid against MacBride in R. F. Foster’s life of Yeats (Apprentice Mage, 1997), noting that in the acrimonious divorce proceedings in Paris, Maud Gonne was obliged to report that ‘the court things the charges of immorality are not sufficiently proved’; Maud was denied the divorce and MacBride retained rights of access to his son; Eileen Wilson travelled from Westport to Paris to deny the charges and honoured his memory in after years (d.1972). Jordan countercharges that MacBride’s six-page letter of explanation written to Fred Allen is cited only in Foster’s notes and gives notice that the letter will appear in the winter edn. of Cathair na Mart, the organ of the Westport Hist. Society.

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Anthony J. Jordan, reviewing Sam McCready, A William Butler Yeats Encyclopaedia (London: Aldwych Press 1997), notes that McCready makes it clear that Maud Gonne’s charges of sexual abuse were ‘just that - charges - which unfortunately Willie Yeats was all too easily disposed to believe and write about.’ (See Books Ireland, Feb. 1997.)

Anthony J. Jordan, reviewing Donal P. McCracken, MacBride’s Brigade: Irish Commandos in the Anglo-Boer War (Dublin: Four Courts Press 1999), quotes: ‘the importance of the Brigade in the second Anglo-Boer War was that it galvanised nationalist Ireland, dragging it out of its lethargy. It reunited the Irish Parliamentary Party and gave new hope and enthusiasm to the advanced nationalist.’ (Books Ireland, Dec. 1999, p.359.)

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Anthony J. Jordan, The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle (Westport 2000), 154pp. Jordan takes issue with the commonplace allegation in biographies of Yeats and Maud Gonne to the effect that the charges of sexual assault on Iseult Gonne and ‘adultery’ with Eileen Wilson, the illegitimate half-sister of Maud Gonne are based in fact, rather than lies told my Maud Gonne in order to advance her legal right to separation from MacBride in filing for divorce on 25 Feb. 1905. Eileen Wilson denied in court that she had been assaulted, while her husband Joseph said that his wife had been slandered by ‘vile women in the pay of the vilest creature upon earth’. (Jordan, p.91.) Iseult was not made to stand witness but MacBride – who countered the divorce claims with a defamation suit - comprehensively denied the charges, admitting to occasional drunkenness though neither to making ‘filth’ in the rooms nor to kicking his wife, as alleged. Biographers of Yeats who share in this supposition are J. M. Hone, A. N. Jeffares, Keith Aldritt, Brenda Maddox and Terence Brown; those of Maud Gonne, Elizabeth Coxhead and Margaret Ward. Jordan’s chief original source of the Fred Allan Manuscripts, being the papers of John MacBride relating to the divorce, Maud Gonne’s charges and his own suit against the Irish Independent for reported allegations of the same kind. Further, Jordan refers to the ‘long-awaited Gonne-Yeats Letters, ed., Anna MacBride-White & A. N. Jeffares, containing detailed account of the allegations made by Maud to Yeats, held by the editors to be ‘on the whole […] a reasonable account, allowing for a certain one-sidedness’. Jordan sets out to rebut Maud Gonne’s charges chiefly on the basis that MacBride’s rebuttal of them seems more reasonable still and concludes that R. F. Foster’s assertion, in The Apprentice Mage, that ‘the truth was spectacularly shocking’ and that MacBride’s ‘catalogue of crimes’ includes the seduction of the 17-yr old Eileen Wilson and the molestation of the eleven year old Iseult, [‘]the blackest thing you can imagine’ (in Yeats’s words to Lady Gregory – here p.9), is a calumny without foundation in the facts and that, therefore, ‘there is no moral or legal justification’ for Foster to write in such terms (p.141.) In confronting Foster with his challenge, Jordan was told (as he reports) that ‘W. B. Yeats believed it and so do I’. [q.p.; note Foster is omitted from the index.]

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Katie Donovan, feature-review of Anthony Jordan, The Yeats Gonne-MacBride Triangle, in The Irish Times (4 May 2000): Immorality charges against MacBride were not upheld in the divorce case, though charges of drunkenness in the home were. The former included charges of flashing before a friend of Gonne, seducing a cook in her household and an unnamed offence against Iseult. McBride himself raised these charges in court to refute them, asserting: ‘If I wanted a woman I had plenty of money in my pocket and would have no difficulty in making a suitable choice in Paris, without trying to rape a hideously ugly old cook in my wife’s house.’ Of the other he said that he ‘would not be seen dead with her in a five-acre field.’ Jordan draws on the Fred Allan papers to contest interpretations of the matter reached by Yeatsians [Yeats scholars] from the poet’s highly partial standpoint and counter-charges that Yeats concocted the case against him. Eileen Wilson, who he is alleged to have molested and became the gm. of Paul Durcan, made John MacBride the godfather of her first-born. The prosecution case rested on the testimony of an unmarried servant that she had seen sperm stains on Eileen’s linen. Maud got guardianship of Seán [Seoghan] but MacBride was allowed visiting rights, so that she remained in France. In interview, Jordan calls her ‘fundamentally an actress with a starring role in her own drama.’ MacBride ignored a chance of escape and was executed on 5 May 1916.

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Books Ireland review of Anthony Jordan, The Yeats-MacBride-Gonne Triangle (Westport Books 2000), notes that MacBride stayed with Fred Allan from 1914 to 1916 and that the Allan family retained papers; Maud Gonne confided to John O’Leary that in marrying MacBride she felt she was marrying Ireland; Gonne commenced writing to her former lover Millevoye and also to Yeats, placing their photos round the house; honeymooned with MacBride in Spain; sought comfort in drink; he was financially dependent on her; Seaghan [later Seán] b.1904; charge of alleged assault on Iseult raised by defence at trial as being omitted from Maud’s statement; Maud wrote on his execution: ‘He has entered Eternity by the great door of sacrifice which Christ opened, and has therefore atoned for all, so that in praying for him I can also ask for his prayers.’ (Books Ireland, May 2000.)

John Waters (The Irish Times, ?2001) [column]: ‘The immorality charges, including the allegation that MacBride indecently molested his wife’s 11 -year-old half-sister [sic], Iseult Gonne, and committed adultery with another half-sister, 18-year-old Eileen Wilson, are rebutted in MacBride’s version. By his own admission, marrying Gonne was foolish. “I gave her a name that was free from stain and reproach and she was unable to appreciate it once she had succeeded in inducing me to marry her.” Gonne became pregnant soon after their wedding in Paris in 1903 and gave birth in January 1904 to a son, Seaghan, later Sean MacBride, the eminent IRA chief of staff, lawyer and human rights activist. Major MacBride was determined his son should grow up in Ireland, but his wife had other ideas. When things soured, she issued MacBride with an ultimatum: either he would admit the charge of indecency, renounce his rights to his son and emigrate to America, or he would face an action for criminal assault. / There is every indication that, far from the injured heroine of popular mythology, Maud Gonne was a cunning manipulator, who, on deciding to divorce her husband, manufactured the evidence to banish him not just from her own life but also from that of his son, using Yeats as her chief minister of propaganda. Yeats had an obvious vested interest in condemning MacBride: he was in love with Gonne and devastated by her marriage.’ (For full text, see infra.)

Donal McCracken (in correspondence with Patrick Maume and others on the Diaspora website) - writing of the diary of Teddy Luther (d.1900; aetat. 19) which was published by British Intelligence:

‘Luther joined the Colonel Blake/Major MacBride commando in May 1900 after it left Ladysmith in Natal and was fighting in the front line at Brandford in the Orange Free State. The diary chronicles the retreat across the veld to the Vaal River and on to Johannesburg and Pretoria - with Lord Roberts’ army close on its heels. The Irish blew up many of the railway bridges and had several very narrow escapes from British artillery and cavalry. In Johannesburg many of the Irish disappeared into the backstreets of Fordsburg, some being picked up by British Military Intelligence but many quietly making their escape out of the country. The rump of the commando joined the retreat along the railway line eastwards from Pretoria towards the Mozambique border. At this point Blake jumps ship and leaves the commando to its fate and MacBride is in sole command, a job he did extremely well in impossible circumstances. From being 350/400 in strength, they were probably down to about a hundred now, including the Chicago Irish who had travelled out separately from Luther.

‘Luther clearly had great respect for MacBride and the two of them seem to have got on well. There is a lovely entry in the diary when in a thunder storm with the rain pouring down the two men entered the deserted town of Middelburg (where Arthur Griffith had edited a newspaper two year before) in search of food. Eventually, soaked to the skin, they found the Commercial Hotel, where all to be had was a single tin of sardines.

‘The rump of the Irish commando fought at the last formal battle of the war (Diamond Hill) and from then on it was mainly sniper work against the ’khakis’. Food and clothing was short, and many of the horses had died reducing most of the Irish to footsloggers. Luther was lucky in gaining a new horse after his old one, Shorty Kelly, was killed. In the region of the great passes, which divide the high veld from the subtropical low veld, the Irish were left exposed on a ridge when the main Boer force retreated without warning. Some escaped by Teddy Luther and Dan O’Hara from New York were seriously wounded, captured and subsequently died. The site of their capture has changed little in 113 years.

‘The original published diary is only 54 pages in length. All attempts to trace the original have failed. We do not know if it was written in English or German, or if it was interfered with by British Military Intelligence (which incidentally was run by the Irishman Major General Ardagh). However, the diary rings true in many respects: location and dates; named members mentioned; the Boer officers encountered and so on. Luther writes in a lively fashion and there is an immediacy about the entries. It is just a great pity that this young lad got himself killed in a war which had nothing to do with him and which he had no reason to get involved in.

Further [as addendum in response to Bill Mulligan on 15.07.2013): The book is the edited diary of a German-American who at the age of 19 (1900) left New York to travel to the Transvaal Republic to fight for the Boers against the British, and ended up in an Irish commando. He was killed near the Portuguese Mozambique border, probably by Australian colonial troops, in September 1900, less than a week before Major MacBride led his men across the frontier to safety. Two notebooks were found among Luther’s effects by British Military Intelligence and shipped back to their headquarters in London. Within 10 weeks of Luther’s death it had been published for propaganda reasons. Only two copies are now known to exist. It is not a war reminiscence in the sense of something written after the event, but day-to-day notes about what was going on in the Irish commando, where it was, who it encountered and what fighting it did. No other such record has survived.’ (Diaspora Irish Studies List, 16.07.2013.)

[Note: Donal McCracken is Academic Leader of the Research & Postgraduate Studies School of Applied Human Sciences at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Durban, SA. RICORSO copies this message for its brilliant synopsis of the actions of the Irish Commandos in the South African (Boer) War.

See his edition of the diary as Teddy Luther's War: The Diary of a German-American in an Irish-Boer Commando, 30° (South Publishers 2013), 168pp. - details online.]

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MS 29818 NLI, being his account of events leading up to divorce case (from 25 Nov. 1904): ‘[...] The origin of all difference between us was my wife’s efforts to force her ex-lovers on me. She had no conception of delicacy and no idea of truth. / The morning we got married she received a letter from her chief paramour. Before we were two months married, she tried to arrange a meeting between this same paramour and myself at Monsieur le Chanoine Dissard’s house, Laval, Mayenne. She failed of course. She has been constantly sending and receiving messages from him through Mme Avril and Iseult (her surviving [i]llegitimate child). / If my wife wanted to keep up connections with her previous lovers there was no occasion for her to marry me. I certainly did my best to try and prevent her. I knew perfectly well we were not suited to each other. [...]ally in order to avoid the marriage I had decided to leave [...] once. One evening I told her of my intended departure, she burst into tears and said she would place her whole [...] life in my hands to direct as I wished if I would [...] make her my wife; that she had suffered greatly and [...]ted to try and be a good woman. I was moved by her [...] felt very sad for her, and thinking I was doing a good [...] for my country and for herself I married Maud Gonne. The result has been disastrous. Not only is she trying to blacken my name, but she is injuring the Irish Cause and the future of our child. / I was aware that she had led an evil life before our marriage, but was not aware that it was so horrible as I afterwards found it out to be. By her own confession to me towards the end of August 1904, she had been the mistress of three different men. By one she had two illegitimate children [127] and had two or three miscarriages. By the others she had no children. Once she had me talking at the the Gare St. Lazare to one of her ex-lovers and got me to invite him to the house. I did so not konwing of the relationship that had existed between them. To his honour he declined to come. She used to keep his photograph on her writing desk. Again she got me to write to another former lover of hers inciting him to stay with us for a week. I did and he came. In this instance also I was not aware that she had been this mistress of this man.’ [...] ‘She lied so often that I found it impossible to believe a single word out of her mouth unless I knew aboslutely that she was speaking the truth. She could not sleep without having one of her paramours on the bed with her.’ (Given as appendix in Anthony J. Jordan, The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle, Westport 2000, pp.125-29.)

Anti-recruiting: ‘Major M’Bride [sic], reported in the Kilkenny People, Dec. 4th, 1909: ‘I appeal to you most earnestly to do all in your power to prevent your countrymen from entering the degraded British Army. If you prevent 500 men from enlisting you do nearly as good work, if not quite so exciting, as if you shot 500 men in the field of battle, and also you are making the path smoother for the approaching conquest of England by Germany. Let one of your mottoes be “No recruits for England.”’ (Quoted in The Home Rule Bill: Memoranda on Amendments [Union Defence League], London 1912; available online; accessed 16.08.2014.)

Note that a Patrick O’Brien of Dublin is similarly reported as saying on 1 Oct. 1899: ‘He would not say shame to the Irishmen who belonged to British regiments, because he had hopes that before they lined up against the Boers, they would remember they were Irishmen, and that instead of firing on the Boers they would fire on the Englishmen’ - while John Dillon is reported to have said in Tralee on 20 Oct 1911, ‘I see there is a gentleman coming over here looking for recruits for the Irish Guards. I hope you will put him out of Kerry if he comes here.’ (Ibid., p.18.)

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Speech from the Dock (Courtmartial, 4 May 1916): ‘On the morning of Easter Monday I left my home at Glenageary with the intention of going to meet my brother who was coming to Dublin to get married. In waiting around town 1 went up as far as Stephen’s Green and there saw a band of Irish Volunteers. I knew some of the members personally and the commander told me that an Irish Republic was virtually proclaimed. As he knew my rather advanced opinions and although I had no previous connection with the Irish Volunteers, I considered it my duty to join them. I knew there was no chance of success and I never advised nor influenced any other person to join. I did not even know the positions they were about to take up - I marched with them to Jacob’s Factory. After being a few hours there I was appointed second-in-command - I felt it my duty to occupy that position. I could have escaped from Jacob’s Factory before the surrender had I desired, but I considered it a dishonourable thing to do. I do not say this with the idea of mitigating any penalty they may impose but in order to make clear my position in the matter’. (Public Records Office, Kew W071/350; quoted in Anthony J. Jordan, The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle, Westport 2000, p.115.)

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Kith & Kin: Robert MacBride, a black South African sentenced to death as an ANC freedom-fighter in the late 1980s, subsequently joined the South African foreign service and met the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and his party in Johannesburg in 2000.

The Iseult incident: Francis Stuart mentions Iseult’s telling him ‘an anecdote about how her stepfather, John MacBride, had made advances to her as a child’ (Black List, Section H, p.34.) It is confidentially recalled by others connected with the Stuart family by marriage that Iseult Gonne verbally recalled MacBride inducing her into his room with sweets and exposing himself to her; but see also John Waters’s account of MacBride’s rebuttal, supra (Commentary)and infra [full text].

Portrait: There is a photo portrait of ‘Major John MacBride and fellow republicans’, c.1914, in Frank Tuohy, Yeats ( 1976), p.123.

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