“My dear Willie, You seem to have escaped the obsession of this war – I cannot; night & day I think about it uselessly. I cannot work, I cannot read, I cannot sleep. I am torn in two, my love of France on one side, my love of Ireland on the other.”
Maud Gonne, Irish nationalist, women’s rights activist, actress, and eternal muse to William Butler Yeats, wrote these words to Yeats on 26 August 1914, about a month after the outbreak of the Great War in Europe.
Gonne, born in England and educated in France, came to Ireland in 1882 and emerged in 1888 as the first woman to be publicly associated with the Irish nationalist movement since the demise of the Ladies’ Land League. Her parents were unionists, but she was determined to devote her life to working for Ireland and Irish nationalism.
She was in Arrens, in the Pyrenees, with her twenty-year-old daughter Iseult, ten-year-old son Seán, and a houseguest, Helena Moloney (also an Irish nationalist/actress), when she wrote to Yeats in August 1914. In her wartime letters to Yeats and John Quinn (an American supporter of Irish nationalism and cultural revival), Gonne revealed the internal turmoil she went through while in France, dealing with violence and destruction, and attempting to follow along with the momentous turn of events in Ireland.
In her 26 August letter to Yeats, she condemned the decision made by Irish Parliamentary Party leader John Redmond to pledge support for the war effort, leading the majority of Irish Volunteers to back Britain. She worried for the future of Ireland, wondering if the opportunity for the implementation of Home Rule had been squandered. She wrote to Quinn in July 1915, “In Ireland things seem to be going very badly. The English-made Ulster revolt is quite triumphant in the Coalition Government, and Home Rule is again far away. Once again Ireland has been deceived and cheated.” It was difficult to receive newspapers and letters from Ireland in wartime, and as she noted to Yeats, “Want of Irish news makes me very restless.”
Meanwhile, she pondered the war itself, unable to understand its purpose. “This war is an inconceivable madness which has taken hold of Europe,” she wrote to Yeats. “It is unlike any other war that has ever been. It has no great idea behind it.”
Though she feared that European civilization might be swept away by the war, she volunteered with the Red Cross as a nurse, along with Iseult and Helena. She went first to nearby Argelès-Gazost, then after three months traveled to Paris. Helena returned to Ireland while Gonne continued nursing duties at Paris-Plage. She and Iseult gained the rank of lieutenant from the French, which enabled them to travel with the army so that they could nurse where they were most needed.
She wrote to Yeats in November 1914, “I am nursing the wounded from 6 in the morning till 8 at night & trying in material work to drown the sorrow & disappointment of it all – & in my heart growing up a wild hatred of the war machine which is grinding the life out of these great natures & reducing their population to helpless slavery & ruin.” She felt that nursing soldiers to go back again to the front was useless. “I have no military enthusiasm & can see nothing but misery in this present war – a wind of folly & fatality is driving Germany & France to their ruin,” she wrote in December 1914.
She felt keenly the destruction of the landscape in France, as well as expressing a sense of hopelessness and futility at the loss of life. Poignantly, she wrote to Yeats in January 1915, “When you hate the war even ambulance work is rather encouraging it, & yet & yet, one cannot remain with hands folded before suffering –”
The war experience left her with hatred for the waste of war itself and for violence. She declared that all she wanted to do was work for peace, but didn’t know how to go about doing it.
And then, while on holiday with her family in Normandy over Easter in 1916, she received news of the outbreak of the Easter Rising in Dublin. She wrote to Yeats, “I am ill with sorrow – so many of my best & noblest friends gone – I envy them for this world does not seem a place to live in when such crimes can go unpunished. The shelling & destruction of an open town like Dublin seem to me one of the greatest crimes of this awful war – It has disgusted every French person I have spoken to, though with the alliance the French press cannot voice this disgust.”
As well as being heartbroken by the loss of life in the Rising (including complicated emotions over the execution of her estranged husband, John MacBride), Gonne blamed the British for the destruction of the landscape itself, the destruction in Dublin. To Quinn, she described the Irish participants in the rising as completely justified through the betrayal by the British, appalling taxation, looming famine, the government gifting a place of power to Irish unionists, and other provocations.
She was soon determined to get back to Ireland, but was prevented by the British government after she made it over to England in October 1917. She snuck back into Ireland in 1918. Gonne’s attitudes toward World War I, her love of France, and her care for soldiers while despising the war itself, all the while supporting Irish nationalist efforts, show how intertwined these transnational events were, and emphasize once again that there is no straightforward way to generalize about Irish nationalist experiences of World War I.
RTE History Show 10 January 2016 – guest Margaret Ward.
Londraville, Janis, and Richard Londraville, eds. Too Long a Sacrifice: The Letters of Maud Gonne and John Quinn. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1999.
Ward, Margaret. Maud Gonne: Ireland’s Joan of Arc. London: Pandora, 1990.
Ward, Margaret, ed. In Their Own Voice: Women and Irish Nationalism. Cork: Attic, 1995.
White, Anna MacBride, and A. Norman Jeffares, eds. The Gonne-Yeats Letters 1893-1938. New York: W.W. Norton, 1992.