One of the world’s best loved poets is Ireland’s own William Butler Yeats. In this letter, we will meet the Muse behind his works, Maud Gonne, an actress, revolutionary, and supporter to the cause of a Irish National culture.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and you are welcome to the Letter from Ireland for this week! The air has a touch of Autumn in these parts – the evenings are a little cooler and the mornings a little dewier. How are things in your part of the world today? I’m having a nice cup of Lyon’s tea as I write – so I do hope you will join me now with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we start into today’s letter.
Have you ever had a “strong woman” in your life? Someone who said what needed to be said, took a stand and lead by example – perhaps your friends and family see YOU that way! Around the end of the 19th century, there seemed to emerge in Ireland a number of such women. They were often of Anglo-Irish descent – and had both the means and influence to push for an end to the inequalities they saw around them in Ireland and sponsor the rise of an Irish national culture.
One of these women went by the name of Maud Gonne – perhaps you have heard of her? In her long life she was a revolutionary, suffragette, founder of a number of various women’s movements, actor, wife to a man executed in the Irish 1916 rising, mother to many children – including the founder of Amnesty International, and the muse to a man who was one of the greatest poets in the English language.
On Saint Patrick’s Day, 1902 – Miss Maude Gonne addressed the crowds in the busy market town of Skibbereen in County Cork. She had recently founded the women’s movement “Inghinidhe na hÉireann” (daughters of Ireland) – and was passionate on the message of Irish culture and nationalism, and the central part women had to play in their resurgence.
However, on that day she could not reach the Town Hall where she was due to give her speech – so she improvised and made it from her hotel room to the crowds below.
In 1889, Maud Gonne was introduced to the poet, William Butler Yeats in Dublin for the first time. It is said that he fell in love with her on the spot – that’s poets for you!
It might be no coincidence that Yeats’s most memorable poems and lines come from after that time – as he firmly placed Maud Gonne at the centre of both his personal and artistic ambition. Over the following twelve years, Yeats proposed to Gonne at least four times. She rejected him each time. She then went on to marry John McBride in 1903.
In some ways, we are made privy to their exchanges and feelings at the time – as so much has been captured in both their letters and the poems of Yeats himself:
“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
(Aedh wishes for the cloths of heaven).
However, while Maud Gonne enjoyed the friendship of Yeats – she just did not feel the attraction. In fact, she retorted to his proposals with the following canny observation:
“…you make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry. The world should thank me for not marrying you.”
Maud Gonne went on to live a long life – dying at the age of 86 in 1953 – and is buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin.
As I write these words, I am looking out that same window that Maud Gonne opened to address the crowd in Skibbereen in 1902. This was a hotel at the time, and as she could not make it to the Town Hall through the crowds – she just threw open this window before me and did what she did best, she spoke from the heart and lead from the front! I do look forward to finding the words that Maud Gonne delivered on that day – I’m sure they are around here somewhere.
In the meantime, let us go back to the words of William Butler Yeats – to another wonderful poem inspired by his Muse and friend, Maud Gonne:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
When You Are Old, October 1891
That’s it for today – as always, do feel free to leave a comment below and share any questions or stories you might have yourself.
We’ll see you next week! : )
Slán, Mike and Carina
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