John MacBride

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John MacBride
Circa 1900-1916
Born(1868-05-07)7 May 1868
Westport, County Mayo, Ireland
Died5 May 1916(1916-05-05) (aged 47)
Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland
Allegiance Irish Republican Brotherhood
 South African Republic
Republic of Ireland Irish Republic
Service/branch Irish Transvaal Brigade
Republic of Ireland Irish Volunteers
Years of service1899–1902 (Boers)
1913–1916 (Irish Volunteers)
second-in-command (4th battalion)
Commands held4th Battalion
Battles/warsSecond Boer War
Easter Rising (1916)

John MacBride (sometimes written John McBride; Irish: Seán Mac Giolla Bhríde; 7 May 1868[1] – 5 May 1916) was an Irish republican and military leader. He was executed by the British government for his participation in the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

Early life[edit]

John MacBride was born at The Quay, Westport, County Mayo, Ireland, to Patrick MacBride, a shopkeeper and trader, and the former Honoria Gill, who survived her son.[2] A plaque marks the building on the Westport Quays where he was born (now the Helm Bar and Restaurant). He was educated at the Christian Brothers' School, Westport, and at St. Malachy's College, Belfast. His red hair and long nose led to him being given the nickname "Foxy Jack".[3] He worked for a period in a drapery shop in Castlerea, County Roscommon. He had studied medicine, but gave it up and began working with a chemist's firm in Dublin.

He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and was associated with Michael Cusack in the early days of the Gaelic Athletic Association. He also joined the Celtic Literary Society through which he came to know Arthur Griffith who was to remain a friend and influence throughout his life. Beginning in 1893, MacBride was termed a "dangerous nationalist" by the British government. In 1896 he went to the United States on behalf of the IRB. In the same year he returned and emigrated to South Africa.[2]

Participation in the Second Anglo-Boer War[edit]

MacBride took part in the Second Boer War on the Boer side, for whom he raised the Irish Transvaal Brigade. What became known as MacBride's Brigade was first commanded by an Irish-American, Colonel John Blake, an ex-US Cavalry Officer. MacBride recommended Blake as Commander, since MacBride himself had no military experience.[4] The Brigade was given official recognition by the Boer government, and the commissions of the Brigade's officers were signed by State Secretary F.W. Reitz. MacBride was commissioned with the rank of Major in the Boer army and given Boer citizenship.

The 500 Irish and Irish-Americans fought the British. Often these Irish commandos were fighting opposite Irish regiments, such as the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. From the hills around the besieged town of Ladysmith to the plains of the Orange Free State, MacBride's Brigade first looked after the Boers' "Long Tom" gun, then fought in the Battle of Colenso and later held the rearguard, harassing Lord Roberts' cavalry as the Boer army retreated.

A Second Irish Brigade was organised by Arthur Lynch.[5] The arrival in the Irish camp of an Irish-American ambulance corps bolstered MacBride's Brigade.[6] Michael Davitt, who had resigned as an M.P, visited MacBride's Brigade. When Col. Blake was injured at Ladysmith, MacBride had to take sole command of the Brigade. Though Blake later returned for a short period, he later left the Brigade to join another commando.[7] In Ireland pro-Boer feeling, informed by Arthur Griffith and Maud Gonne, formed the most popular and most fervent of the European pro-Boer movements. However, more than 16,000 Irish fought for the British against the Boers.[8]

Marriage to Maud Gonne[edit]

When MacBride became a citizen of the Transvaal, the British considered that, as an Irishman and a British subject of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, he had given aid to the enemy.[2] After the war he travelled to Paris where Maud Gonne lived. In 1903, he married her to the disapproval of many, including W. B. Yeats, who considered her his muse and had previously proposed to her.

Patrick J. Little, editor of 'New Ireland', who had published work by both Yeats and Gonne, recalled an extreme case that almost prevented the marriage:[9]

When John McBride became engaged to Maud Gonne, Stephen McKenna made the remark that he thought that it was a tragedy that such a remarkable woman should get engaged to such a rolling stone. This story was reversed, and repeated to McBride, who challenged Stephen McKenna to fight a duel. Stephen, who was always prepared to oblige anybody, accepted the challenge, and they met in a large room, in the offices of the New York 'Sun'. The weapons were revolvers. Just before they started shooting, Stephen asked McBride what the duel was about, and McBride said that he had been told that Stephen McKenna had said that it was a shame that such an honest man as McBride should marry such a person as Maud Gonne. Stephen said, "Quite the contrary. What I said was, it was a shame that such a turbulent rascal should marry such a splendid woman" And Seán McBride said, "Shake hands, old man!"

The following year their son Seán MacBride was born. Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory in January 1905, the month MacBride and Maud separated, that he had been told MacBride had molested his stepdaughter, Iseult, who was 10 at that time.[10][page needed] The marriage had already failed but the couple could not agree on custody of Sean. Maud instituted divorce proceedings in Paris. No divorce was given but in a separation agreement, Maud won custody to the baby until age 12. The father got visiting rights and one month each summer. MacBride returned to Dublin and never saw his son again.[11] Anthony J. Jordan argues that MacBride was a much-maligned man in the divorce proceedings. He posits that on the merit of W. B. Yeats believing Maud Gonne's accusations against her husband, successive biographers of Yeats have treated them as factual, ignoring the verdict of the Parisian Divorce Court which found MacBride innocent. Dr. Caoimhe Nic Dhaibhid writes that "The target of Jordan's argument has been a number of biographies of W. B. Yeats, particularly Roy Foster's landmark 1997". She appears to endorse Jordan's position.[12] Donal Fallon, MacBride's recent biographer, quotes the poet Paul Durcan, the grandson of Joseph MacBride and Eileen Wilson, as believing that MacBride "was unquestionably defamed" and lays much of the blame on the "people in the Yeats-Maud Gonne Industry".[13]

About forty years after the marriage had ended, Maud herself attributed the breakdown of the marriage to John's loneliness and a drink problem in Paris, during her frequent trips to Ireland without him.[14]

We had a house in Passy and John worked as Secretary to Victor Collins who earned a large salary as correspondent to the New York Sun and Laffan's Bureau, a fairly important newsagency in New York. Despite my warning John became the inseparable companion of Collins, who introduced him to a rather undesirable drinking set who usually foregathered in the American Bar. He had an unhappy life in Paris. He did not know a word of French and must often have been very lonely, as my work kept me much in Ireland.

1916 Easter Rising[edit]

After returning permanently from Paris to Dublin in 1905 MacBride joined other Irish nationalists in preparing for an insurrection. Because he was so well known to the British, the leaders thought it wise to keep him outside their secret military group planning a Rising.[15] As a result he happened to find himself in the midst of the Rising without notice. He was in Dublin early on Easter Monday morning to meet his brother Dr. Anthony MacBride, who was arriving from Westport to be married on the Wednesday. The Major walked up Grafton St and saw Thomas MacDonagh in uniform and leading his troops. He offered his services and was appointed second-in-command at the Jacob's factory.[16]

Kilmainham Gaol

After the Rising, MacBride was court-martialed under the Defence of the Realm Act and executed by firing squad in Dublin's Kilmainham Gaol on 5 May 1916. Facing the British firing squad, he said he did not wish to be blindfolded, adding "I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African war to fear death and now please carry out your sentence". He is buried in Dublin's Arbour Hill Prison.[17][18]

Yeats, who was jealous of MacBride for marrying Maud Gonne (and later proposed to her daughter Iseult) gave MacBride an ambivalent eulogy in his poem "Easter, 1916":

This other man I had dreamed
 A drunken, vain-glorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Maud Gonne wrote to Yeats, "No I dont like your poem, it isn't worthy of you & above all it isn't worthy of its subject... As for my husband he has entered eternity by the great door of sacrifice… so that praying for him I can also ask for his prayers".[19]


Statue of John MacBride (1868-1916) in his native Westport, County Mayo, at South Mall

In November 2016 Ciarán MacSuibhne, a member of the local St Patrick’s Drama Group wrote an amateur, three-act play detailing various stages in MacBride's life including his experiences in the Second Boer War, his marriage to and separation from Maud Gonne and the concern regarding the future of their only child, Seán, which followed. The play, which featured the poetry of Yeats, also covers the period following MacBride's execution. The opening and closing scenes of the play, in particular, were described as "very moving". The character of Maud Gonne's half-sister, Eileen Wilson was played by Wilson's great-granddaughter, Bernardine Walsh MacBride. The play, which was shown in the Westport Town Hall Theatre, was described by the Mayo News as "a fitting tribute by a local drama group to a local hero".[20][21]


  1. ^ Barton, Brian (23 May 2010). Secret Court Martial Records. The History Press. ISBN 9780750959056. Archived from the original on 4 August 2020. Retrieved 29 January 2020 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ a b c John MacBride Archived 19 May 2006 at the Wayback Machine. The National Library of Ireland. Retrieved on 23 September 2007.
  3. ^ McCracken, Donal P. "MacBride, John" (PDF). Dictionary of Irish Biography. Archived (PDF) from the original on 4 December 2017. Retrieved 5 August 2018.
  4. ^ Jordan 2006, p. 13.
  5. ^ Jordan 2006, pp. 60–61.
  6. ^ Jordan 2006, p. 70.
  7. ^ Jordan 2006, p. 76.
  8. ^ McCracken, Donal P. (2003). Forgotten Protest: Ireland and the Anglo-Boer War (updated and revised ed.). Ulster Historical Foundation. p. 108. ISBN 1903688183. Archived from the original on 3 August 2020. Retrieved 11 April 2019.
  9. ^ Little, Patrick J. "Witness Statement WS1769, 25 March 1959" (PDF). Military Archives. Bureau of Military History. Archived (PDF) from the original on 23 September 2020. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  10. ^ Sinead McCoole, "No Ordinary Women" (Dublin 2012), biographies
  11. ^ Jordan Anthony J. The Yeats Gonne MacBride Triangle (Westport Books 2000) pp. 49–104
  12. ^ Irish Historical Studies no 140. November 2010 Caoimhe Nic Dhaibhid "The breakdown of the MacBride-Gonne marriage 1904-08" No. 144 November 2010
  13. ^ Fallon 2015, p. 174.
  14. ^ Gonne McBride, Maud. "Witness Statement WS317" (PDF). Military Archives. Bureau of Military History. Archived (PDF) from the original on 8 May 2020. Retrieved 24 September 2020.
  15. ^ Jordan 2006, pp. 130–156.
  16. ^ Jordan 2006, p. 158.
  17. ^ McCarthy, Mark (2018). "Making Irish Martyrs: The Impact and Legacy of the Execution of the Leaders of the Easter Rising, 1916". In Outram, Quentin; Laybourn, Keith (eds.). Secular Martyrdom in Britain and Ireland (PDF). Springer Nature. p. 171. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-62905-6. ISBN 978-3-319-62905-6. LCCN 2017947721.
  18. ^ McEvoy, Dermot (18 April 2021). "Arbour Hill, Dublin's forgotten memorial to the men of 1916". Irish Central. Retrieved 6 November 2022.
  19. ^ White, Anna MacBride; Jeffares, Norman, eds. (1 December 1994). Gonne-Yeats Letters. Syracuse University Press. p. 384. ISBN 9780815603023. Archived from the original on 3 August 2020. Retrieved 29 January 2020 – via Google Books.
  20. ^ "'Major John MacBride' debuts this week in Westport". The Mayo News. Archived from the original on 20 November 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
  21. ^ Whyte Snr., Dr. Oliver (14 November 2016), St. Patrick's Drama Group: Major John Mc Bride, archived from the original on 23 September 2021, retrieved 19 November 2016


  • Boylan, Henry, A Dictionary of Irish Biography Dublin, Gill & Macmillan 1999
  • Fallon, Donal (2015). John MacBride. Dublin: O'Brien Press.
  • Jordan, Anthony J. ' Major John MacBride' , Westport Historical Society 1991
  • Jordan, Anthony J. ' Willie Yeats & the Gonne MacBrides' , Westport Historical Society 1997.
  • Jordan, Anthony J. ' The Yeats/Gonne/MacBride Triangle' , Westport Books 2000.
  • Jordan, Anthony J. (2006). Boer War to Easter Rising; the Writings of Major John MacBride. Westport Books. ISBN 978-0-9524447-6-3.
  • McCracken, Donal P. 'MacBride's Brigade: Irish commandos in the Anglo-Boer war', Four Courts Press, Dublin 1999, 208pp, ISBN 1-85182-499-5.
  • O'Malley, Ernie, On Another Man's Wound published 1937
  • Purdon, Edward, The 1916 Rising Mercier Press Ltd 1999

External links[edit]