Remembering John MacBride
By Celine Naughton
In 1916, Irish people had come to dread the knock on the door. So often it heralded unwelcome news – a loved one killed either here or on the battlefields of Europe, or shipped off to prison somewhere far from home.
For Honoria Gill MacBride, the knock on the door at her home in Westport came not from an officer or a gentleman, but an eleven-year-old boy.
Having seen the morning headlines, a local newsagent had dispatched young Tommy Hevey to break the devastating news that Honoria’s youngest son, Major John MacBride, had been executed by firing squad.
John, the estranged husband of Maud Gonne, had been second-in-command to Thomas MacDonagh in Jacob’s biscuit factory during the Easter Rising. As he was led out to the Stonebreaker’s yard in Kilmainham Jail on May 5th 1916, he refused to wear the blindfold offered him. Having fought the
British in the Boer War years earlier, he said, ‘I’ve looked down the muzzles of their guns before.’
But Honoria’s troubles weren’t over yet. Days later, another son, Joseph MacBride, and his first cousin Joseph Gill were among a group of Mayo men arrested and interned in England and Wales. One of the last prisoners to be released, Joseph MacBride didn’t arrive home until Christmas Day that year.
He went on to become the first elected Sinn Féin MP for Mayo West two years later, while his nephew, Seán MacBride, only son of John and Maud Gonne, would go on to become a distinguished statesman: Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, founder of Amnesty International and winner of the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes for his human rights achievements.
‘Seán received ten honorary doctorates throughout the world, but none from Ireland,’ says Mary MacBride Walsh, granddaughter of Joseph.
She and Seán were closely related, because not only were his father and her grandfather brothers, his mother and her grandmother were also half-sisters.
‘When Colonel Thomas Gonne’s wife Edith died at the age of twenty-eight, Thomas had an affair with the governess Margaret Wilson, which resulted in the birth of Maud’s half-sister, Eileen,’ she explains. ‘Joseph MacBride married Eileen, and his brother John married Maud, so two brothers married two half-sisters.’
John and Maud split acrimoniously a year after their son was born. In a separation agreement, Maud won custody of the baby until the age of twelve, and she raised him for those years in Paris. John was granted visiting rights and one month each summer.
‘My grandparents spoke fondly of John’s visits home, when he’d bring sweets and regale them with stories of the Boer War.’ says Mary. ‘He was godfather to his niece Sheila Durcan, mother of the poet Paul Durcan.’
Seán never took sides in his parents’ separation and, to the delight of the MacBride family, once he was of age, he sought them out and visited often. For years, he and Mary made an annual pilgrimage to Arbour Hill Prison to pay their respects to his father and the other executed Rising leaders in their final resting place. She also spent time in Seán’s Dublin home, entertaining a global A-list of his close friends.
You never knew who’d be sitting next to you at his dinner table – Bishop Desmond Tutu, Kader Asmal, Anthony Cronin, Bono, Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese… Seán was an extraordinary man, highly intelligent, a dedicated human rights activist, and a very caring man with a great sense of humour.
With her experience of entertaining world dignitaries, Mary was the perfect choice to host President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina at a 1916 commemoration day in Westport. Over 1,500 people gathered in the town on May 8th 2016 to remember their local heroes. The sun shone right on cue as the ceremonies began with the unveiling of a plaque at the John MacBride monument to thirty-one Westport men interned in 1916.
The monument bears an inscription of Major MacBride’s own words, from his address on the Manchester Martyrs in 1914:
No man can claim authority to barter away the immutable rights of Nationhood; for Irishmen have fought, suffered and died in defence of those rights. And, thank God, Irishmen will always be found to snatch up the torch from the slumbering fire, to hold it aloft as a guiding light, and hand it on, blazing afresh, to the succeeding generation.
In his commemoration speech, President Higgins noted, ‘The people of Mayo were never slow to stir and we’re here today to celebrate that sense of coming together in public to defend what is principled.’
Stirred herself by the emotion of the day, Mary read the Proclamation in a moving tribute that brought the words of Pádraig Pearse to life for a new generation.
It was a joy and a privilege to read the Proclamation on such a special day …. It was one of those moments that makes you stop and think about those noble and courageous heroes who gave their lives for Ireland. I could almost hear their voices as I began to read, ‘Irish men and Irish women: In the name of God and the dead generations…’ It’s a tremendous document. I love every line of it.
The event in Westport was more intimate but no less rousing than the national commemoration in Dublin on Easter Sunday, which Mary attended with her husband, five children and extended family.
Relatives who’d come from Chicago and Nebraska were blown away by the ceremonies. To be in Dublin on Easter Sunday, witnessing the dignity and discipline of the defence forces, listening to The Parting Glass as the tricolour flew in the wind, to hear the Proclamation being read out from the GPO and see the flyover from the air corps… It was a spine-tingling, unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For me, there’s no doubt that without the Easter Rising, Ireland would still be occupied. I’m proud to be related to Major John MacBride, who gave his life to break the stranglehold Britain had on the country for the previous seven hundred years, and I think everyone should be equally proud of him and all his comrades.
And Extract from My 1916: What the Easter Rising Means to Me, by Celine Naughton, available on Amazon