Major Sean MacBride, executed for his part in the Rising of Easter Week 1916, is remembered mainly in the characterisation by W. B. Yeats, who in the poem Easter 1916 described him as a drunken vainglorious lout. These three words have come to outweigh the glories and sacrifices of his life and death, and this is utterly unjust.
Until recently, accounts of the domestic conflict between MacBride and his wife, Maud Gonne, which gave rise to the Yeats smear, gave an entirely one-sided version of events. In the course of divorce and custody proceedings arising from the breakdown of their disastrous marriage, Gonne accused MacBride of drunkenness, cruelty, violence, infidelity and immorality. In addition to Yeatss writings, published accounts of their relationship repeated the prejudices and untruths arising from Gonnes version and Yeatss determination to believe it.
Not until Anthony J. Jordans 2000 book, The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle, did Major MacBrides side of the story become widely available, and this has been largely ignored. Jordan undertook the simple endeavour of visiting the National Library to read Major MacBrides papers, bequeathed to the State by the family with whom MacBride had been staying before his death. The content of these is interrogative of any sense of complacency we may have about what we have come to know about history.
The immorality charges, including the allegation that MacBride indecently molested his wifes 11 -year-old half-sister [sic], Iseult Gonne, and committed adultery with another half-sister, 18-year-old Eileen Wilson, are rebutted in MacBrides 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.
In the ensuing divorce proceedings in Paris, a close friend and confidante of Maud Gonnes gave evidence on behalf of MacBride, saying Gonne had spoken to her in the warmest terms of her husband just weeks before the proceedings began. To one charge, that of sexual assault on a cook, MacBride responded: 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 wifes house. A midwife said she had seen MacBride kissing Eileen Wilson, with whom MacBride said he had never been alone with in the house.
Of a servant who claimed to have found semen stains on Eileen Wilsons bedclothes, MacBride declared: It is incomprehensible how this woman (an unmarried woman) can swear positively, as she does, that the marks on Eileen Wilsons linen were spots of semen.
MacBride also pointed out that Eileen Wilson and Iseult Gonne slept in the same room. Of the incident in which he was alleged to have sexually assaulted Iseult, he says that she burst into his room one morning when he had the chamber pot in my hand.
The court rejected the immorality charges against MacBride, accepting only one charge of drunkenness. Maud Gonne was awarded guardianship of Seaghan, with John entitled to visiting rights every Monday at the home of the mother. Heartbroken at the outcome, MacBride exercised his visiting rights on a couple of extremely tense occasions, and eventually returned to Dublin. He would never see his son again. Gonne, in a calculatod effort to distance Seaghan from his father, insisted that his first language be French, thus Sean MacBrides lifelong hallmark French accent.
Major MacBrides involvement in the Rising appears to have been accidental. He was not a member of the formal republican leadership, his military distinction arising mainly from his formation of the Irish Brigade to assist the Boers in 1900. He told his court martial on May 4th, 1916, that he had left his lodgings in Glenageary on the morning of Easter Monday, and gone into town to meet his brother who was coming to Dublin to get married. On St. Stephens Green, he saw a band of Irish Volunteers, who told him that a Republic was about to be declared. I considered it my duty to join them, he said. He was made second-in-command of a battalion at Jacobs factory. MacBride was shot on May 5th.
Kevin Christopher Higgins, in a poem about the execution, How He Died, quoted words attributed to MacBride addressing his firing squad: Let you rest well onights; myself will do it for one! And tell them nobody cried!