Yet Maud Gonne was also a lifelong anti-semite, someone who, even after the horrors of the Second World War, could not summon sympathy for the millions murdered by the Nazis. A believer in the occult and in reincarnation, she took mescaline with Yeats to enhance visions of mythic Irish heroes and heroines, and in mid-life converted to Catholicism in order to marry her husband, the Irish Catholic war hero John MacBride.
What motivated this extraordinary person? Kim Bendheim has long been fascinated by Maud Gonne’s perplexing character, and here gives us an intensely personal assessment of her thrilling life. The product of much original research, including interviews with Gonne’s equally vivid, unconventional descendants, The Fascination of What’s Difficult is a portrait of a powerful woman who, despite her considerable flaws, continues to inspire.
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. . . . In 1892 she traveled to Portland Prison, the grim prison on an island off the coast of Dorset, England. The prisoners quarried stones to build the Portland breakwater. The stone wall had been built to protect the massive buildings against the implacable forces of wind and tide. In this bleak outpost, the Irishmen were allowed one twenty-minute visit every four months. Since the prisoners’ families lived far away and had little or no income without their men, there were no visits. Many had seen no one from outside the Portland Prison since their incarceration a decade earlier.
“It was exactly like the cage of wild animals at the zoo,” she wrote in her memoir. Like the evicted families in Donegal, these men admired their beautiful, empathetic visitor. She gave them hope, predicting when each would be released and in what order. For some, like Dr. Thomas Gallagher, arrested in 1883, it was too late. He had gone insane and, once released, spent the remainder of his life in an asylum. Maud settled another prisoner, James Cunningham, arrested in 1885, into the care of Bowie, her old nurse. According to a story in United Ireland, Maud was hugely responsible for shaping public opinion about these “forgotten” men, and helped secure their release: “The movement of sympathy with Irish wrongs which Miss Gonne has created in France is still a growing and gathering power. A few months ago the number of articles in the French papers upon Miss Gonne and her work had reached 2,000.” The inventive Yeats, her suitor, was the source for that number, sending it in a letter to a writer and editor friend who included it in the United Ireland article. It is impossible to verify that claim.
Regardless of the actual number of articles about her and her work, with Millevoye’s help Maud generated fantastic publicity for the Irish political prisoners she visited. For instance, Le Gaulois gave her a front-page story where she was quoted as saying, “While thieves and assassins are liberally given [permission] on determined days, for their parents and friends to visit, our poor Irish who have committed no other crime than to demand with a loud voice, the emancipation of their country are sequestered, isolated and stopped from all commerce with their fellow human beings.” The obviously smitten reporter described Maud’s expressive eyes as being “changeable like the sea, at times turquoise blue, at others grey like steel,” and described how when telling the story of the men in Portland prison, “her voice trembled and her eyes filled with tears.”
She excelled at publicizing these men’s imprisonment. Le Figaro noted in June 1893: “Following revelations by Miss Maud Gonne on the atrocities in Portland prison, the English government decided to release [James] Gilbert who is ‘a toute extrémité,’ ”—at the point of death.
The released men showed their gratitude to Maud in a variety of ways. For instance, after John Daly left Portland Prison, he became a local hero in his hometown of Limerick where he was elected mayor. At his swearing in ceremony, he gave Maud Gonne and his fellow prisoner Tom Clarke an honorary “freedom of the city” award. Lore has it that Daly gave Maud an old French coin and a bullet to remember the failed 1798 Irish Rebellion, in which the French joined the Irish fighting the loyalists and the British. Although Maud, the former debutante, had no use for her diamonds as an adult other than to sell them for cash to feed Irish children, she had these mementos made into a brooch that she wore with pride.
The French press seemingly couldn’t get enough of the tall, strikingly attractive woman in her late twenties who spoke their language like a native. La Revue Mondaine Illustrée, in an 1892 piece, described how “Miss Gonne is a woman of heart in the biggest sense of the word: good and generous to a fault. She is filled with courage and a will that men might envy.” Breathlessly, the French papers reported when she had pneumonia or when she went to meet with important Irish nationalists such as Timothy Harrington and Michael Davitt in Luxembourg. “Miss Maud Gonne is thin,” one journalist noted, but “though frail in appearance, she contains a virile energy like one of Michelangelo’s angels.”