Rediscovering Maud Gonne

A theatre/lecture fusion on the life of an Irish icon

Maud Gonne.

Maud Gonne.

THE LIFE, times, and personality of Maud Gonne will be vividly evoked in a new stage presentation by local theatre-makers Caroline Lynch and Sarah O’Toole, of Mephisto and Anam Theatre companies respectively. The show, which could be described as a dramatised lecture, takes place on Thursday February 26 at 1pm in NUI Galway’s Cube Theatre and admission is free.

“We’ve taken a speech that Maud Gonne made in Kerry in 1936 as the show’s centrepiece,” Caroline Lynch says. “There is a statue in Tralee of a pikeman erected to commemorate the United Irishmen, and Maud Gonne unveiled its foundation stone in 1902 when she was at the height of her fame. The statue was torn down by the Black and Tans during the War of Independence. They got around to rebuilding it in the 1930s and she was invited back to unveil the replacement. That’s a huge gap of time so it was interesting to see her stance and we’re going to recreate her speech as part of the performance.”

Had the years mellowed Gonne, the well-known Republican firebrand? “Not at all!” Lynch replies. “If anything she is worse! People have this soft-focus image of Maud Gonne that she was a great beauty and the muse of WB Yeats, but when you read her speech there are things in it I found difficulty with. She talks about the English with a visceral hatred and about having to keep the fight going until all of Ireland is free. She praises men who are ‘bringing the war into the enemy’s territory’ and mentions London Bridge and Westminster being damaged in explosions. It’s interesting because there are clear parallels with the situation in the world today - one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. She is stirring up feeling and when you reflect on all that happened in Northern Ireland you wonder about it.

“We’re using the speech as the grounding for the show. We want to give the audience an opportunity to learn more about Maud Gonne, to get beyond that soft-focus image and discover what you might call her extremist side. For good or ill, that is what she was.

“We also look at the contradictions in her life; she preaches anti-English venom and yet she was English herself. She stated that her ancestors were landowners in Mayo but even so they would have been English settlers anyhow. She also had children out of marriage in France and yet in Ireland she played the role of Mother Ireland, Caitlin Ní Houlihan. She married John McBride and couldn’t stand him but after he died she wore widow’s mourning for the rest of her life. We bring up all those messy contradictions and give her a bit more depth than her public portrayal often has.”

While Gonne’s speech bristles with anti-English rhetoric, Lynch reveals it also makes points with which it is easier to agree. “She refers to financial matters and one of her arguments is that, at that time, the operating central bank for Ireland was the Bank of England. She makes the point that all of our money was going abroad, which is very interesting in terms of where we find ourselves now. She advances that idea of maintaining financial independence within a globalised economy and I’d find myself agreeing with her on those points.”

Lynch describes the roles she and Sarah O’Toole are taking in the presentation. “I’m concentrating on the speech and Sarah provides its context, for instance drawing the audience’s attention to the contradictions in Maud’s presentation of herself and her personal history. The show gives a sense of what a performer Maud Gonne was and how she made herself into this kind of national symbol, yet also uncovers the realities and facts of who she was.”

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