Gonne, Edith Maud (1866–1953)
Edith Maud Gonne, a social activist and devotee of ritual
magic, was born in Tongham, Surrey, England, into a wealthy
family of wine merchants. In 1868 she moved to Ireland where
her father was stationed with the British Army, and she developed
a lifelong identification with her new home. In 1874, however,
several years after her mother’s death, she was sent to England
to be cared for by relatives. The arrangement did not
work out, and a short time later she wound up in France in the
care of a very independent-minded governess. She grew into
an attractive young woman and was the subject of constant male
attention. Her father moved her several times to keep her from
the notice of the Prince of Wales, a royal heir who had a reputation
for womanizing.
One of the determining events in her life occurred in 1886
when one evening she quietly made a pact with the Devil. She
agreed that in return for the ability to control her own life, the
Devil could have her soul. Coincidentally, a few weeks later, her
father passed away. Gonne decided to become an actress, but
an illness prevented her debut on stage. She retired to France
to recover and while there she met Lucien Millevoye, a French
political activist who sought to win back Alsace-Lorraine, which
France had lost in the Franco-Prussian War. Their relationship
solidified Gonne’s anti-British sentiment and transformed her
into an activist for Irish independence. She also had a child
with Millevoye in 1890, though the child died a year later.
In 1889 Gonne met William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet
and member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
(HOGD). In 1891 she joined the HOGD and over the next few
years became an accomplished magician. She settled in Paris
in the mid-1890s and in 1896 worked with Samuel L. MacGregor
Mathers and his wife Moina Mathers in 1896 in their exploration
of the Celtic magical tradition. She also began
L’Association Irlanaise to work for Irish independence. Yeats
joined her in several lecture tours, including one in America.
In December of 1898 Gonne had an unusual experience of
a dream in which she was carried into the spirit realm where
she was married to Yeats. That same evening Yeats had a
dream in which she kissed him. They would come to describe
this experience as a spiritual marriage that would never be consummated
on the physical level. They remained close friends
and coworkers for the rest of their lives. In 1903, Gonne joined
the Catholic Church and married John MacBride, but the marriage
lasted only two years. In 1908 she again found herself
working with Yeats. In 1917 he finally asked her to marry him,
but she turned him down and he married another. The following
year she went to Ireland but was arrested and returned to
England, where she was imprisoned for six months as a member
of the Sein Fein Party. Following her arrest, her son Sean
(the second child born of her relationship with Millevoye)
joined the Irish Republican Army.
Gonne’s experience in prison diverted her activism to the
cause of jail reform and the plight of the wives and children of
political prisoners. She also served in the Irish White Cross, a
relief organization. She remained active in pro-Irish causes. In
1938 she completed her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen.
She died on April 27, 1953, near Dublin.
Gonne, Maud. ‘‘Yeats and Ireland.’’ In Stephen Gwynn, ed.
Scattering Branches Tributes to the Memory of W. B. Yeats. London
Macmillian, 1940.
Greer, Mary K. Women of the Golden Dawn Rebels and Priestesses.
Rochester, Vt. Park Street Books, 1995.
King, Francis. Ritual Magic in England. London Neville
Spearman, 1970.
McBride, Maud Gonne. A Servant of the Queen Reminiscences.
1938. Reprint, Woodbridge, Surrey, UK Boydell Press, 1983.