In a letter to her suitor, William Butler Yeats, who complained that he was unhappy without her, Maud Gonne wrote “Oh yes, you are, because you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.” This letter both succinctly captures the extraordinary Maud Gonne and, paradoxically, overshadows her. Known as Yeats’ unrequited love, Gonne was, in her own right, a powerful woman committed to social, cultural, spiritual, feminist, and nationalist causes.
In the 1890s,Gonne witnessed evictions of Irish tenants and incarcerations of men for rebellious acts. She believed each to be unjust, and this inspired her lifelong commitment to issues of humanitarianism and social justice. In 1900, Gonne was a founding member of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland), a nationalist women’s organization that supported an independent Ireland, the promotion and education of Gaelic culture and language, the promotion of Ireland’s domestic economy, and discouraged all uses of English and displays of English culture. It began a monthly publication, Bean na hÉireann (Woman of Ireland), in 1908 and published pieces supporting women’s rights and suffrage as well as Irish nationalism.She served as its president until 1914 when the group merged with Cumann na mBan (The Irishwomen’s Council).
Through this endeavor, Gonne was introduced to and included in a wide web of Irish activists that included fellow female radicals such as Constance Markievicz and Helena Molony. Gonne’s activism also extended to the labor movement, where she coauthored “The Right to Life and The Rights of Property” with famous Irish Socialist and 1916 Proclamation signer James Connolly.
In 1918, Gonne was accused of assisting the “German plot,” and imprisoned alongside Constance Markievicz, Kathleen Clarke, and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington in Holloway women’s prison in London. Following the War of Independence, Gonne opposed the Free State, was imprisoned twice, and worked tirelessly on behalf of republican prisoners and their families. A prolific writer on many social causes, she was also very much an active participant in aiding the poor, the dispossessed, and disenfranchised.
The letter mentioned at the start indicates much more than her curious relationship with Yeats. It hints at the language of a strong, feminist woman who believed in her own strength and put her beliefs into action. She was active and influential in women’s suffragist, labor, humanitarian, cultural and nationalist causes. Maud Gonne is best understood not as Yeats’ unrequited love, but as a strong and influential woman.
- Michael Bailey, Student Assistant to Kathleen Williams and Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History
- Kathleen Williams, Senior Reference Librarian, Bibliographer for Irish Studies, John J. Burns Library
Maud Gonne, The Autobiography of Maud Gonne: A Servant of the Queen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938.