Flawed Gonne

Sally Richardson reviews Maud Gonne’s Irish Nationalist Writings 1895-1946, Karen Steele (ed), Irish Academic Press, £35, 45 euros hbk

THIS VOLUME collects together all Maud Gonne's journalism, enabling us to see and assess a career's worth of writing, organised into categories for easy reference and with an excellent introduction by Karen Steele.

Book cover

Gonne's writing is at its best when she was observing and documenting abuses and injustices. She was assiduous in collecting information, publicising it and organising protests and campaigns. Articles like those on living conditions west of Ireland describe the suffering of the poor with vivid and compassionate clarity.

The rights and welfare of political prisoners was a lifelong preoccupation. Her earliest published piece concerned the plight of Fenian prisoners. In 1946 she was still campaigning, demanding the release of Sean McCaughey in a letter to the Irish Times

As Steele points out, her commitment to political prisoners and to human rights generally undoubtedly had a profound influence on her son Sean MacBride, who was to become a major human rights campaigner himself and a founder member of Amnesty International.

When at its weakest her writing is overblown and histrionic, full of muddled ideas and crude patriotism. She was never much of a political thinker, still less was she an analyst. She was a brilliant activist and publicist who was in her element most when (often literally) rolling up her sleeves and getting down to practical work.

As early as 1900 she took up the cause of India, recognising that “the famine policy of the British Empire” extended much further than Ireland.  It's a pity that her compassion and concern for human rights did not extend to the black Africans (“savages”) who fell victim to her pro-Boer stance. Equally disturbing is the anti-Semitism she shared with Arthur Griffith.

This book includes a detailed chronology of Gonne's life and many photographs showing the extraordinary beauty that so captivated Yeats. Gonne's weaknesses as well as her strengths are spread out for us in this book. It has sometimes seemed a pity to me that Gonne's reputation has overshadowed those of many other women activists who were more articulate and clear-minded.

But Gonne was highly influential at a critical time in Irish history and we need to understand her impact. Steele's capable editing and her percipient examination of Gonne's work and influence in the context of its time is a significant contribution.

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2004-10-06 09:56:53.
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