Maud Gonne’s Upbringing: Open Post

It was only partly true that the Gonne girls were brought up in France. They’d also lived at Howth and Donnybrook in Ireland, and for long spells with their English relatives in London, Richmond and Ascot. They’d spent summers in Switzerland and winters in Italy. And all their lives, their father brought them to visit whatever great European city was closest to where he’d most lately been delivered by the English army, his employer. They’d seen much more of the world than the young Castle ladies and their chaperones. It was Kathleen’s way to play down such advantages but her sister delighted in playing them up.

Colonel Gonne—-the girls called him Tommy-—had spent most of his long army career with the 17th Lancers, travelling first to India, where he learned Hindustani. As interpreter to the cavalry flying column at Gerapore, he “saw action”, as the army boys like to say, putting down the local Indian rebels. He was then returned to the big army camp at Aldershot in Hampshire, where he was awarded an Indian Mutiny Medal for his efforts and won one of Life’s great awards as well, when he fell with Miss Edith Frith Cook, of Roydon Hall, a hugely wealthy heiress.

Tommy was not poor—when his father died he would inherit his share of a respectable estate—but the Cooks were in another league. Through manufacturing, wholesaling, warehousing and insuring, Edith’s grandfather had made himself one of the richest men in the richest country in the world, and when he died, she was due to inherit her share of his fortune directly, as her parents had both died tragically early.

Both Gonnes and Cooks dedicated their lives to getting on in the world and making more money but Tommy and Edith were the venturesome oddballs that always emerge in such families. Bound from the beginning by the daring they recognised in each other, they intended to break free from their conventional and overbearing relatives, to live a life of travel and excitement.

They met, they married, and Tommy let his superiors know that he was available to travel for intelligence work and diplomatic assignments. Edith would travel with him and they would see the world and have many adventures together. No matter that in December 1865, they had their first child, a daughter: Edith Maud Gonne. Their children would come with them too.

First up: Ireland. In March of 1867, the Lancers and many other regiments were called there to quash a rebellion by the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Ah, the bold Fenian men. I grew up to my grandfather’s talk of their exploits, and defence of them as the truest sons of Irish soil, though the ignorant thought them but trouble. Named after the Fianna, the warriors of our land’s oldest stories, the modern Fenians also wanted to protect our island from invasion. Many were returned home from the newly liberated Americas, filled with the spirit of revolution. Alas, the curse of rebellious Ireland —informers to the Crown—saw them shot down before they’d properly rose up.

Like many an Irish rising, their rebellion was more theatre than war, such little chance they had of defeating the might of th British Empire at its height, with the money from the colonies and slaves able to buy endless soldiers and weapons. A short-lived dance with freedom our bold Fenians had, but it got the English all into a lather all the same. The army set about making their camp in The Curragh a permanent feature and Tommy was sent across to help his Brigadier move the regiment to what would now be the long-term base of the 17th Lancers. True to their plan, along with him came a very pregnant Edith and a very excited four-year-old Maud Gonne.

Kathleen was born at the Curragh in 1870. The rigours and roughness of camp life were not to Edith’s liking and the Brigadier-Major, as Tommy now was, moved his little family to Dublin, to a beautiful house called Floraville in Donnybrook. There, life settled into a rhythm for a time, with Tommy’s weeks spent at the Curragh and his weekends at Donnybrook. He would arrive bearing gifts, and the great gift of his presence which made everything joyous, as he went singing about the house in his beautiful tenor voice, playing lighthearted tricks and practical jokes, giving them many treats and outings. Tommy loved life in all its forms—art, sport, travel—and loved to pass his passions on.

“Oh Tommy, how you spoil them,” Edith would protest, when he exceeded his already lavish extravagance. “And me!”

“Of course!” he’d say, pulling her towards him. “I shan't see my darling girls again for five whole days.”

In 1871, Edith was pregnant again and the happy couple agreed they’d be glad of another girl but, just for balance, even more glad of a boy. The pregnancy was touchy from the get-go and as the birth approached, Edith grew worrisomely weak. Thinking city doctors would be able to do more for her, she and Tommy moved the family to London for her lying-in, so she could receive the best care and have her relatives around her. Not that Edith relished the company of her aunts and uncles, or Tommy either, but they’d need help with the girls, during the birth and after.
Up they all packed and over they went but Life had other plans for them. Like so many mothers before her, in giving life to her child, Edith Gonne lost her own. She was 27. You can imagine the scalded hearts she left behind her, as well as the infant girl, whom they called Margaretta Rose after Edith’s own mother.

Memories from that tragic time were imprinted into Maud Gonne for life and written up in her autobiography seventy years later. Hearing a noise and getting out of her nursery bed to go to her parents room, afraid nurse would catch her before she reached it. Looking up at the height of the door handle. Fumbling efforts to try and turn its stiffness in her small, up-reaching hands. Finding the room dark, lit by candles though it was daylight, and Tommy kneeling by the bed, crying. Seeing him turn his head and hearing his voice, harsh with grief, telling her to go away.

And later, when the men had come to carry down the coffin, being fetched to say goodbye to Edith, who looked like a cut lily in her coffin, dressed in her favourite blue and adorned in pearls. Being held in her father’s arms at the funeral. And him saying to her, with great solemnity: “You must never be afraid of anything, Lambkin. Not even of death.”

She was too young know what he meant by death, but she was already afeared of all sorts, what with the end-of-life rituals unfolding around her and the torment she felt in her father as he spoke those words. With her child’s knowing, she felt his fear as her own.

All that, and the anguish not yet over. Merciless Life had another blow to deliver. Without her mother, little Margaretta failed to thrive and two months after, she followed Edith into the grave.

So there they were, a family of three now instead of five, riven with sorrow. Tommy’s orders were to return to The Curragh as soon as possible but how was he to manage two young daughters without a wife? He had money enough to leave the army but Victorian men were not allowed to look after their own children without being despised. Anyhow, Tommy was not the type. He and Edith had stretched their canvas across the world, and he’d set up his army career to paint it in seasoned color. It would not be the same without her, but life as he was made to live it must go on, or he would die himself of grief.

Before she passed, Edith had made him promise that he would not send the girls to boarding school, or leave them in the clutches of her aunts. She’d hated her upbringing after her own mother died young, and wanted something better for her girls. So he found a nanny, a Miss Mary Ann Meredith, swiftly nicknamed “Bowie” by Maud Gonne. In the summertime of 1872, he made them a home in Howth, a picturesque fishing village that nestles on the sheltered side of a headland of the same name, ten miles north of Dublin.

A beautiful place, Howth, a haven beloved by all who set foot there, both the pretty village and the treeless headland, covered in heather and gorse, crisscrossed by footpaths that beckon you to explore. On its eastern side, the promontory plunges dramatically into the ocean forming steep cliffs that house colonies of gulls, guillemots, and gannets, that soaring gracefully through the skies above or below you, depending on how high you’ve climbed.

Howth and their new nurse were just what a good doctor would order for the bereaved little girls, in the absence of loving parents. Bowie had no fear of the cliffs and often took them down to bathe in sea-formed pools where, with feet and hands holding them in place, they would boast that they were swimming. How she managed to convey two young children up and down those zig-zag narrow cliff paths month wheeling, crying seagulls was a mystery to Maud Gonne when she came to write about it, seventy years later: “No place has ever seemed to me quite so lovely as Howth was then. Sometimes the sea was as blue as Mama’s turquoises, more strikingly blue even than the Mediterranean because so often grey mists make it invisible and mysterious.

“The little rock pools at the bottom of the high cliffs were very clear and full of wonder-life. Sea-anenomes which open look like gorgeous flowers with blue and orange spots and, if touched, close up into ugly brown lumps. Tiny crabs, pink star-fish, endless varieties of sea-snails, white, green, striped and bright, buttercup yellow.”
Yes, as well as all her other accomplishments, Maud Gonne was well able to write. In this early part of her life, though, education and accomplishments took a back seat. Bowie was a sociable soul and liked to visit all the neighbouring cabins and chatted with the residents over a friendly cup of tea, while her two charges play with the local children, and share their hot griddle cakes and potatoes The hospitality was all on one side, something that bothered Maud Gonne for a lifetime. Bowie would not allow her to bring her friends over to share her meals. The children were mostly barefoot but they had more learning than the little Misses Gonne, for by law they had to go to the national school, while Bowie let the two sisters play in the heather with kid goats and donkeys.

The two motherless English girls and the youth children were a wonder to each other. Maud Gonne long remembered a day when she and Kathleen ran into the humble mud cabin of one of their playmates to take refuge from a shower of rain. They were met with compassion by the mother of the house, who took off their shoes and socks and laid them out to dry. Her own children might have been barefoot, but it was the two motherless English girls who had her pity. “The creatures, God help them. They have lost their mother,” she whispered, a maternal kindness that struck straight into Maud Gonne’s orphaned heart.

Their Irish idyll did not last long. In 1874, Tommy was appointed to the position of garrison instructor at Aldershot. At the same time, during a lunch with Lord Howth at Howth Castle, the ladies informed Tommy that he daughters were being allowed to run wild like little savages and were quite shockingly ignorant.
They were soon dispatched, along with Bowie and a newly appointed governess, to their great-aunt Augusta, their mother’s aunt. Aunt Augusta was a widow who lived alone in Hyde Park Gardens in London, in a huge white house with huge rooms. Alone, that is, if you don’t count the eight servants who waited on her and her incontinent mouse-hound of a dog, Tiny.

When Tiny made a mess, the bell had to be rung. The footman answered and was told of the event in apologetic terms by Aunt Augusta. He then told his superior, the butler, who reported it to the upper housemaid who then instructed the under-housemaid, who’d arrive to deal with the nuisance with dustpan and sponge and bucket of water.
If the event happened too often in the same day, Aunt Augusta’s courage failed her and she’d ask the governess to do the needy with fire shovel and hearth brush. “I don’t like to disturb the servants at their work,” she’d say but in truth, she was less afraid of the governess, who was hired by Tommy for the girls, than she was of her own servants.
For company’s sake, Aunt Augusta had honoured the governess with an invitation to share her evening meal. The two would seat each end of the long table, with the butler behind Aunt Augusta’s chair and the footman behind the governesses, and places at each side for the two girls to come down from the nursery to eat dessert, usually fruit.

The fruit was purchased earlier in the day. The girls would be dressed in velvet frocks and pink stockings and ostrich feathered hats to drive in a yellow chariot to Convent Garden with Aunt Augusta, where she would spend much time haggling over the price of apples and pears and oranges. When the fruit arrived to the dinner table—a measly collection on a magnificent silver dessert-stand—she’d spend most the time discoursing how much it cost.

All in all, life in London was far from the freedom they had known on Howth Head. Everything followed strict rituals. There was none of the love they’d known with their parents and an excess of propriety. It was here, surely, at six years of age, that Maud Gonne’s preference for Irish sincerity over English formality began.
Whether it was the cost of keeping them or the constant clashing with Maud Gonne’s independent spirit, the stay with Aunt Augusta soon came to an end. On the day settled for them to leave, Maud Gonne was dancing in front of the great mirror on the landing leading to the drawing-room and singing at the top of her voice.

“Hooray, hooray, hooray, we’re going away today!”

Their nurse came along on her way to the drawing room, and heard. “Stop it, you ungrateful little girl. Do you want your aunt to hear you?”

“But Bowie, it’s a poem. I made it up myself.”

“Stop it at once, you little rapscallion.”

They were driven in the yellow chariot that afternoon to Richmond, where Augusta's brother Francis Cook lived at Doughty House, in a mansion which housed the family art collection, including works by Velasquez and Van Eyck. How great-uncle Frank, who was Edith’s guardian after her father died, had managed to possess himself of all her father’s art treasures, was never explained. He had a long private gallery built onto Doughty House to display his works by, to mention only some of the best known, in alphabetical order: Botticelli, Durer, El Greco, Holbein, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck. He also collected silver, antiques and racehorses. Edith, her father’s only child, had nothing but a little Venus and Cupid which was passed onto Maud Gonne.
Neither Tommy nor Edith was the type to build long galleries into their home, ceremoniously admitting the public on certain days of the year, but the girls were now back among that type and they had a further six years in London being shuffled between the splendid abodes of their relatives as Tommy's military career led him from post to post.

Have you ever read the Eloise books by Kay Thompson or seen the film Life Without Zoë by Sofia Coppola and her father Francis? They depict the same kind of girlhood as Maud Gonne’s holding a romantic image of their papas, swooning over his delightful letters of tender words and fatherly love, sparkling with adoration when he swoops in bearing gifts, ut mostly missing him something fierce, for he were never around enough.

When Tommy visited and swept them into his arms, the world felt perfect to Maud Gonne and Kathleen, but time flew by too quickly, and he’d have to leave again. They’d cling to his legs, not wanting him to go, and once he’d left, they’d cry with longing. They dreamed of a life where they could always be with him. Maud Gonne, especially, wanted to share in his world, to be by his side as he explored the wonders of the world.
In 1876 Major Gonne got himself appointed as a military attaché to the Austrian court. He set up the girls—now ten and six—in the south of France, with Bowie and a governess, in Villa Fleurie, on the road between Cannes and Grasse, a place blooming with flowers and fruit trees. The little girls loved it for a kitsch fountain in the garden with tiny emerald frogs loudly croaking the most popular love songs of the day.
A French governess, Madamoiselle Austen, took charge of their education, a strong Republican who made learning seem like play, who taught them to love humanity and beauty, and to find both all around.

For the rest of her life Maud Gonne was as comfortable in France as in Ireland or England, and as fluent in French as in English. As Tommy travelled for his diplomatic missions—to Vienna to observe the military situation in eastern Europe; to Herzegovina to observe the insurgent fighting against the Turks; to Bulgaria with the Roumanian Army beseiging Pleven; to Bosnia as a Military Attaché—they met up with him whenever possible. In between, they were given a grounding in French, history, and literature, and some cooking skills by Madamoiselle.

Maud Gonne grew tall very young and as she grew, her father began to see her as the companion she yearned to be. At fourteen, Maud Gonne was five feet ten and had made Bowie lengthen her skirt and dress her gold-brown hair in great coils at the back of her head. For his part, Tommy Gonne looked remarkably young and sometimes when they were on some excursion together, people would take them for a honeymoon couple.

Maud Gonne’s first marriage proposal came when she was sixteen, staying in Rome with an old friend of their mother’s. Tommy had just taken a position in Ireland: Assistant Adjutant General in Dublin. This was most exciting. The girls were going to move back to Ireland to live at the Royal Barracks with him, and also attend a finishing school in Torquay in England to learn English ways, so they could have their coming out in the colonial court. Meantime, the plan was they’d remain abroad for another year or so. The proposal put paid to that.

Even though Maud Gonne was not yet “out”, she was precocious. A young Austrian had proposed marrying her the year before but gone straight to Tommy, so she only heard of it weeks after. When the Italian proposed—at The Colosseum by moonlight—she actually had more time for an American artist who was painting her portrait. But the moonlight and the Colosseum backdrop were affecting to a romantic young girl, and the American was showing no signs of a move, so she found herself saying yes to the Italian.

She wrote to Tommy to tell him the news, as did her mother’s friend, no doubt in different terms. A telegram arrived the next day, summoning Maud at once to Ireland.

And so there they were in Dublin, much earlier than expected, together at last as a family.

Quarterly Newsletter

Select your preference:

No spam, unsubscribe any time.