Today we’re looking at the life of John MacBride (1865 – 1916), who was executed for his participation in the Rising on 5 May 1916 at Kilmainham Gaol. A native of Westport, Co. Mayo, MacBride fought with the Irish Transvaal Brigade against the British Army in South Africa in the Second Boer War (also known as the Anglo-Boer War). He was also best man at Tom Clarke’s wedding to Kathleen Daly in New York in 1899. In 1903, MacBride married Maud Gonne, the storied republican activist and muse of W.B. Yeats. (Maude Gonne’s testimony for the Bureau of Military History can be read here.) The couple later engaged in a bitter divorce proceeding (which was not finalized) and legal battle over the custody of their two children. (Check out these fabulous posts on the Dublin history blog, Come Here to Me, about Yeats, Gonne, and the Easter Rising.) Yeats remained bitter about the relationship between MacBride and his muse, and in his poem, ‘Easter 1916,’ Yeats described MacBride as a “drunken, vainglorious lout.”
In the decade prior to the Rising, MacBride’s reputation was tarnished within republican circles in Dublin due to his personal circumstances. Seán Mac Diarmada replaced MacBride on the I.R.B. supreme council in 1911. In his entry on MacBride in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, Donal P. McCracken describes MacBride as surprised by the Rising, and “stumbling on it by accident.” Yet he served as Thomas MacDonagh’s second-in-command at Jacob’s Biscuit Factory.
We can gain some insight about MacBride’s experiences before and during Easter Week from various witness statements collected by the Bureau of Military History, which are fully searchable on their website:
Denis McCullough, who served as the president of the Supreme Council of the I.R.B., described the impact of MacBride’s relationship with Maud Gonne on his political activism:
Following the divorce proceedings between Major John MacBride and Maud Gonne, an attempt was made, I believe by the I.R.B. group, to have John MacBride elected as Vice President of the organisation and to exclude Maud Gonne from this office. The women’s organisation — Inghini na hEireann — who had delegates at the convention, opposed this move fiercely. Attempts were made to “nobble” [Bulmer] Hobson and myself on our arrival at the Mansion House, where the convention was being held, by P.T. Daly — the I.R.B. leader in Dublin — by giving us “orders” to vote for MacBride and against Maude Gonne. We refused to accept these “orders” and eventually, as it did not appear possible to get a majority for the MacBride motion, I believe a compromise was reached — both were made Vice Presidents. During the debate on this matter I went to the foyer for a cigarette, MacBride followed me out and assured me that he was no party to the move on his behalf and urged me to vote as I thought right. I treasured his friendship always afterwards.
In his witness statement, Michael MacDonnell who remembered that during their surrender on Bride Street, MacBride told him that he “wouldn’t leave the boys,” even if he had the opportunity to escape.
William O’Brien, a labour leader and member of the I.R.B., recalled how a fellow prisoner at Kilmainham Gaol and member of the ITGWU, Thomas Foran, saw MacBride immediately after his court martial:
Foran said he looked at MacBride with whom he was acquainted and MacBride drew his finger around his heart indicating that he expected to be shot.