Friday Fiction: Yeats-Gonne Series: Divorcing John MacBride

Each Friday, I publish an extract from my work in progress, currently Dancing in the Wind, based on a true story about the controversial love triangle between WB Yeats, his longtime muse Maud Gonne, and her daughter Iseult.

In this extract, letters exchanged by Maud Gonne, WB Yeats, John MacBride and his friend Victor Collins are reprinted, almost verbatim, from their own original letters or statements connected to the controversial custody trial waged between Gonne and MacBride.

The documents needed no adjustment to give an insight into what went on between these two mismatched spouses during their marriage breakdown. Yeats, as always, was a good friend to Gonne during this troubled time.


Dancing in the Wind Snippet: OPEN YOUR EYES, WILLIEJohn MacBride to Victor Collins

Dear Vic
This is a letter I never expected to be writing. I learned on Tuesday last that my wife is seeking a divorce. The first thought that crossed my mind was that her wandering fancy had settled on some other man or that she had gone back to one of her exes but when I heard the charges she was bringing against me, I was simply dumbfounded. They are too evil and ridiculous to repeat in writing; suffice it to say that in addition to alleged drunkenness, they centre on her illegitimate girl, Iseult.
This is a terrible blow to me, hard to take after all the woman has put me through already. I left Paris for Dublin on 25th November, arriving in Westport on the evening of the 26th. Before leaving I left a letter for her. This letter annoyed her considerably. The contents in a nutshell amounted to this: that our life was not a happy one owing to her being unable to rise above a certain level. That it was painful to me to see that she was only the weak imitation of a very weak man. I also advised her that if I was hung or died in prison, she should get married again as she was a woman that cannot live without some man or other behind her and that it was better for her, if she was really interested in the cause of Ireland, to be married, even if she were a little unhappy, than to live an impure life.
I was probably foolish to write like that; but she had made life nearly unbearable by her complete lack of all womanly delicacy, by constantly lying, and by trying to force her exes on me.
In her first letter to Westport, she complained of the above-mentioned letter saying that she would have it out with me when we met. Notwithstanding she continued to send me friendly letters up to the 18th of December. On that day my brother Anthony in London received a note from her by special messenger asking him to call and see him on a very important business. He went to the house of Mrs Clay, my wife’s cousin (who is herself separated from her husband after being married about two years also) and she and my wife came out with their fairy tale to him.
She asked him to meet her at her solicitors the following day. He did so and my wife, Mrs Clay and her English solicitor tried hard to make him believe their absurd and damnably false tale. Among other things they told him that they were drawing up a document which if I did not sign would lead at once to an action for criminal assault being taken against me. In this precious document I was to acknowledge that I was guilty of the offence with which I was charged, give over the control full and entire of Seaghán to my wife and her English friends, emigrate to America and never come back to my native land again.
When I heard the charges that she was bringing against me, I was simply dumbfounded. No one but a devil incarnate could invent them. I said immediately that I would leave for London, see my wife and refute the alleged offence face-to-face.
So here I am in London, hoping to see her. She has called on Barry O’Brien and told him a long tale of woe about my cruelty, drunkenness etc. most of which is absolutely false. The origin of all difference between us was her continual efforts to force her exes on me.
Forgive this long and confused missive. My head is spinning with thoughts, as you can imagine, and I had need to write them down. Say nothing of this to anyone else besides Nell.
John MacBride to Maud Gonne MacBride My dear Maud
I learned on Tuesday last for the first time of the scandalous charges you and your English friends have been making against my character. They are absolutely false and of course I’ll meet and disprove them. I’d prefer not doing so publicly for little Seaghán’s sake and yours; but I cannot lie under any such accusations as I have been told you have been making lately. I can hardly credit you believe these charges yourself.
I went to see Barry O’Brien, whose judgment as an Irishman and a man of unquestioned honour can be relied on. He suggested waiting until he had a talk with you. After you have seen him, please send me word saying where we can meet to talk matters over without any heat. I had to tell him who Iseult was. I said nothing otherwise.
This is an awful blow to me as I was looking forward to a happy time in Ireland.
Please make arrangements as to where I can see Seaghán each day while I am in London. Any place and any hour you name shall suit me. His happy little face is always with me.

Maud Gonne MacBride to Barry O’Brien, Mediating Lawyer
My dear Mr O’Brien
By Mr Witham’s advice, I cannot receive my husband. Also an interview between us would be very painful and quite useless. I would be grateful to you, therefore, if you would let him know three things which may influence his decision.
1st: That if you and Mr Witham can arrange a separation giving me entire guardianship of Seaghán, which shall not make public the horrible thing against John, no one shall ever hear of it from me and if he goes to America people generally need not know of our separation unless he chooses; it would appear quite natural that not having been able to find work in Europe during two years, he should go to look for it in America.
2nd: That, if by getting work and leading a sober, decent life for some years he proves he is worthy of it, I would not prevent him seeing Seaghán and having a share of his affection.
3rd: That there are other things concerning his conduct during our married life which took place at my house and which if made public as they inevitably would be, would injure the reputation of a woman who I should think he has every reason to wish to spare. These things I only found out while inquiring into the other matter and it has been a great shock to me.
Please show this letter only to John.
I am very sorry to trouble you with all this and I thank you for trying for all our sakes to settle this matter as quietly as possible.

John MacBride to Barry O’Brien
Dear Mr O’Brien
You decline to hear me respecting the details of the differences between my wife and me. So be it. I shall not trouble you about them. But this much I must say. When I heard of the charges my wife made against me, I hastened from Ireland to London, wrote to her and called to see her, wishing to see her, to have this matter out face to face. She refused to answer my letter and she refused to see me.
Without consulting a single Irish friend (so far as I know) she went to an Englishman to take steps against me whom she would not hear or see. Assuredly, Mr O’Brien, that was strange conduct on the part of Maud Gonne towards John MacBride. In view of her conduct, I need scarcely say that I wish to see her no more.
She has shown me that she is dead to any sense of justice and that in a crisis she is ready to lean on English support regardless of the consequences to Irish interests. I think only of Ireland with whose cause my wife and I have been, however unworthily, associated and of my little boy and wish to be guided mainly by consideration for both in all I do in this unhappy affair.

Barry O’Brien to Maud Gonne MacBride
Dear Mrs MacBride
I think that both you and your husband should remain in London for the present. Take care that you do not allow yourself to be dominated by English political and family influences in a matter where the interests of our country are concerned. This is no ordinary case of differences between husband and wife. Were it so the charges and counter-charges made by you and your husband against each other would call for no interference from me. But this is a case in which Irish national considerations must be taken into account. Therefore I cannot regard with indifference the prospect of seeing you and your husband made the subject of ridicule and contempt by the press of this country.
You are bound to think of the Irish cause with which you have been for so many years associated. Those who undertake public duties have public obligations. Your husband recognises this fact. You shall recognise it too – if you are true to Ireland.

John MacBride to Victor Collins
Dear Vic
After the events of today I don’t know where I am. I write, as usual, to keep you posted of events but also to straighten my thoughts.
Yesterday, Mr O’Brien met my wife at Mr Witham’s office and gave her my letter to read. She wept, acknowledged she did wrong in not seeing me or letting me see Seaghán, and wanted to know if she could not see me now. Mr O’Brien told her that I did not wish to see her now; but that if she sent the boy to his house with her cousin Mrs Clay on the following day at 3 o’clock that I would be there to receive him.
So today I went to Mr O’Brien’s at 3 o’clock and to my amazement (and O’B’s amazement) instead of sending her cousin with the boy, she sailed into the room herself. I took no notice of her. I went to my child and Mr O’Brien and herself left the room together. After some considerable time Mr O’Brien came back, saying that she wished to see me and that she expressed regret for not seeing me before and for not allowing me to see the baby. He said we must only talk about the terms of the settlement, that there was no good now going into the question of charges and counter-charges.
I said: ‘If I see her, Mr O’Brien, I must deny this charge and ask her questions about it.’
He said: ‘You can deny the charge but there is no good in discussing details. You have agreed to separate – the only question is the terms.’
When I went into the adjoining room, my wife was sitting at one end of the fireplace and I sat opposite her with Mr O’Brien sitting between us. Mr O’Brien repeated what he said about charges and counter-charges and terms but I said: ‘I beg your pardon Mr O’Brien, I must first of all deny these charges. They are absolutely false.’ My wife said; ‘Oh John, I fear they are true.’
‘No they are not Maud,’ I said, and moved up to a chair nearer to her. ‘When is it supposed to have happened?’
‘I can’t give dates.’
‘Was it when you were last in Ireland?’
‘Then why did you not allude to it before.’
‘Iseult told Mme. Avril and told her not to tell anyone.’
‘That’s very peculiar’.
Then Mr O’Brien interposed, saying there was no good in discussing these charges in the absence of Mr Witham and urged us to come to the question of terms. I turned to him and said: ‘I beg your pardon, Mr O’Brien, but I must also speak about Eileen Wilson as my wife accuses me of kissing her. I did kiss her but it was all mostly done in my wife’s presence. There was never anything between Eileen Wilson and myself that all the world might not know.’
Mr O’Brien again broke in. ‘The terms of separation, please. I must insist. This other discussion gets us nowhere.’
We then talked about terms, my wife wanting to have control of the child for ten years, while I was willing to let her have control for six years, after which time the question could be opened up de novo. She wanted to let me see my boy four times a year and I wished to see him every day. After discussing the above for a long time without coming any nearer an agreement, Mr O’Brien remarked that there was no use in talking about it any more that evening and advised us both to go home and think it over seriously and that we might be in a better frame of mind tomorrow. We both agreed to do so.
Mr O’Brien led the way towards the next room. My wife walked slowly past me, drawing herself up to her full height as I bowed slightly without uttering a word. She got close to the door when she suddenly wheeled round, stretching out her hand to me, which I took, and then she fell weeping on my neck. This was too much for my gravity and I commenced to laugh. However, we kissed each other and she said to me: ‘I love you now John, but I shall hate you before you go to bed tonight.’
I told her that the charges were damnably false and that I was surprised she should believe the words of others in preference to mine. She mumbled something in reply between her kisses. I swore again in the most solemn manner that there was no truth in them and she said: ‘I can believe there was nothing between you and Eileen but kissing’.
‘It was you yourself that got Eileen to kiss me first and there was never a word or thought of love between Eileen and myself.’
I then said: ‘If you meet me tomorrow Maud, we can talk it over quietly, for when all is said and done, you and I can settle this matter quicker and better than any outsiders.’
She hesitated at this, saying that she would write me that night.
We all made as to leave, Mr and Mrs O’Brien going towards the door, my wife and I lingered behind and when they were all out of the room, she flung her arms round my neck for the last time and gave me a parting kiss. Mr O’Brien Junior assisted me in placing my wife, child and the nurse in the hansom, which had been kept all this time, and from there she shook us both by the hand in the most friendly fashion.
So there you have it. She is the most vexing of women. But I prefer to think of us sorting it amongst ourselves than going into a courtroom, which can only damage the cause of Ireland.
I shall write again with the next chapter. Remember me to Nell and the children.

Maud Gonne MacBride to Barry O’Brien
My dear Mr O’Brien
I didn’t thank you this afternoon as I should for your kindness in permitting John to see Seaghán at your home and for receiving me there – but I was rather upset. My nerves have been terribly overstrained lately and seeing my husband for the first time since I heard these terrible things was very trying.
I would like to have believed all he said. I cannot do so.
My nerves gave way and I began to cry at the end of our interview during the few moments we were alone at the end and I fear this has given John hope that I can be weakened in my determination about separation. He at once begged to see me today which I refused and this morning he writes again asking me to see him – which again I have refused.
In the arrangement which you shall make with Mr Witham it is useless to ask me to agree to anything less than ten years control of the child. I have already conceded too much. If John keeps from drink and does not otherwise annoy me, I am not selfish and would gladly increase the opportunities for him to see the child but it must be left to my discretion. I must have safeguards.
You know Ireland and you know how terribly it shall injure me, this separation without explanation. It is always the woman who suffers in these cases. The whole scandal coming out would be far less bad for me than this shall be, which spares John, the guilty one. If he were wise or wished really to atone for the wrong he has done, he would accept your suggestion of getting a commission in the American army. Dublin is about the worst place he could be in from the drink point of view.
It has occurred to me he might think of following me to Paris with the hope of getting me to give up separation. The house being taken in both our names I could not legally refuse him admittance but I shall not see him any more. His presence in Paris would be very dangerous as any indiscretion on the part either of my friends or the servants who know that dreadful matter would get him arrested for a criminal offence. Then the affair is out of my hands. So if he says anything about going to Paris please advise him against it.
Please give my kind regards to Mrs O’Brien and thank her for her kind hospitality. I fear it must have been most troublesome to her and to you.

John MacBride to Maud Gonne MacBride
I asked if there was a letter for me this morning Maud but was told there was no delivery on Sunday. Did you write? It is very important that you and I should have a few minutes talk before you go to Paris and before I leave for Dublin. Send me word please, saying where we can meet. I am going to Anthony’s for lunch unless I receive word from you before 1 o’clock and I’ll probably remain there until about 3 o’c.
I’d like to impress on you that we owe it to our country and that it is only doing our duty towards little Seaghán to come to an understanding.
The O’Briens were full of praise for the merry-hearted boy yesterday. Please take him in your arms and whisper a New Year’s wish in his tiny ear for his father.
May I wish you a year of peace and happiness

Maud Gonne MacBride to John MacBride
John, I cannot see you tomorrow. I have been through so much my nerves are so overstrained I should only break down foolishly as I did today. I do not, I cannot, believe what you say. Mr O’Brien shall see Mr Witham and draw up the terms of separation, the draft of which they shall send me to Paris. I shall write to you to Dublin news of Seaghán. In order to let the house in Paris I shall have to get a procuration from you taking off your signature or authorising me to sign alone. The same applies to the property in Colleville.
What do you want me to do about your things in Paris – shall I get them packed and sent to you in Dublin or to Westport? If the house lets you would hardly care to have them there.
It is a sad New Year’s Eve for us both. The years have been sad ever since our marriage. I hope the future may be more peaceful for both.
John MacBride to Maud Gonne MacBride
I am only afraid that in the present distracted state of your nerves, Maud, you are only too ready to believe any absurd story that may be told you. I would be very much obliged if you would have my things sent to Barry’s Hotel, 1 Gt. Denmark St. Dublin 1

John MacBride to Victor Collins.
Dear Vic
You above all others know I was not anxious for this marriage as I knew we were not suited for one another but nobody knows the hell I have been in since.
For 8 or 9 months I had been resisting her advances then one night she told me that she would place her whole future life in my hands to direct as I would wish if only I would make her my wife, that she had suffered greatly and wanted to try to be a good woman. I was moved by her tears, felt very sad for her, and thinking I was doing a good act for my country and for her, I consented to marry Maud Gonne.
It was when I was in the United States that I heard about her other lovers and at first could hardly believe it. I knew she had had an evil life before our marriage but did not know it was so bad as I found out afterwards. By her own confession to me (around the end of August 1904) she had been the mistress of three different men! By one she had two illegitimate children and two miscarriages.
Since then, when she admitted her guilt, I could not warm towards her at all and always felt unhappy and constrained in her presence knowing how deceitful she had been with me.
The very day we were married she wanted to keep up a correspondence with her ex-lovers and bring them to the house for me to entertain. Of course I would not allow such a thing.
Once she had me talking to one of her ex-lovers at the Gare St. Lazare for five minutes and got me to ask him to the house. I did so, not knowing at that time the relationship that had existed between them. To his honour, he declined to come.
Another time she got me to write to another of her ex-lovers giving him an invitation to stay with us for a week, which I did and which he accepted. Needless to say in this instance also I was not aware of the relationship that had existed between them. Once she told me that she had been in a house of ill fame in Marseilles with her first lover. She wanted to hang her paramour’s photograph up in the house which I would not allow but she had the photograph of another of her paramours on her desk in Colleville and I, all unknowing of their relationship, left it there.
While she was enceinte she was always complaining about the horridness of her condition. She had a French midwife and their conversation was always on the one subject: namely the sexual connection between man and woman and the different ways and manners in which it was done. The woman was dead to all sense of shame. She is a vile woman. Woman? It is a disgrace to womanhood to call her by that holy name.
I gave her a name that was free from stain or reproach and she was unable to appreciate it. She had no conception of delicacy and no idea of truth and ever since has been constantly sending and receiving messages through Mme. Avril and Iseult to her paramours
Iseult is a perfect specimen of a decadent, having no sense of right or wrong. However, it is better not to continue in that strain.
Forgive this confused epistle. I will write more clearly soon.
Best wishes to Nell and the boys.

Maud Gonne MacBride to WB Yeats
My dear Friend
I am glad you know all. Thank you for your letter and thank you for all the trouble you are taking for me.
My nerves are so shattered by all I have gone through, not only since I knew this horrible thing, but ever since my marriage where insane scenes of jealousy, & an atmosphere of base intrigue have rendered life almost unbearable…
The French avoué says I have quite enough evidence to go on without bringing in anything about little Iseult. I wrote to Mr Witham that as John was trying so hard to get political and religious sympathy to cover his vices and is making a great point against me that I have been to an English solicitor it would be well to get an Irish barrister. Would you make enquires and advise me on this matter? You might tell my cousin to see Mr Witham about it if you think well.
Your kind letters are a great comfort to me and I thank you for your generous sympathy – but Willie I don’t want you to get mixed up in this horrible affair. By my marriage I brought all this trouble on myself and as far as I can I want to fight it alone. This is why I have spoken to none of my friends. Why should they who are engaged on noble work be mixed up with a sordid horror of this sort?
To have a really good counsel is necessary, & if you shall help me in this you shall do me a great service, but apart from this Willie, for your sake, for Ireland’s sake & for your own work as well as for mine, try & keep quite clear of this affair. Don’t even think of it too much. I know the generosity of your nature makes you want to help me & to defend me but it would only add to my trouble to know your life was touched in any way by this miserable tragedy – That I have your friendship whatever happens is a great comfort to me.

Victor Collins to John MacBride
My dear Mac
Your wife left a note at the Florence yesterday at 5.30 asking me to see her at that hour today which I did. She said she and you were going to separate and she wanted me to take charge of such of your effects as she dared not send to you lest they might be seized.
She told me of some of your offences, coming home too drunk to get out of the cab, going to bed in your boots, reading such obscene books that the publishers name did not appear, that no servant was safe from your attentions, that you had gone to Margot, the nurse’s room at 3am, and would not leave – though fortunately nothing worse occurred. I pooh-poohed such tales, saying servants were always ready to get up tales when husband and wife disagreed. She said: it was not only with servants. I gave her to understand I for one could not believe such tales; that I had known you intimately and had never heard an indecent word from you nor seen you drunk
She said she was decided to separate and if you did not agree to her terms by Saturday, she would apply to the courts. I said it was a pity to make an open rupture as it would harm the cause. She left it to you to avoid that by accepting her ultimatum.
She spoke of knowing of a scandal of yours before you left Dublin. I said: ‘And with your eyes open, you married him’.
‘Oh,’ quoth she. ‘He had had time to reform.’
She had also heard from a girl that you had lately been drinking in Dublin. I gave her to understand I put no value on that gossip; that no man of the world would believe such ill-founded charges; that the best thing she could do was agree that the child should be six month alternately with either parent.
At this she shouted: ‘I have nothing to reproach myself with and I shall never allow my child to be under such evil influences.’
V.C: ‘He denies your charges.’
M.G: ‘Let my child out of my keeping? Never.’
V.C: ‘Mac shall say why should he be deprived of his child.’
M.G: ‘He would not be capable of looking after it.’
V.C: ‘But it could stay with his mother.’
That she would not hear of and again referred to the Courts, which evidently she thought had terrors for you so I said: ‘Well, my dear girl, I’ll tell you what I shall advise him to do. I shall tell him to go to Court. Were I Mac, I would put a stop to all this gossiping and character-blackening behind my back by having your charge threshed out in court.’
She did not seem too pleased at my assuming this attitude and the interview soon after broke up.
Once she put her foot in it, saying a propos of something or other that when she left for London it was with the intention of getting a separation.
‘What!’ I exclaimed. ‘You had that idea when you were asking me to urge Mac to go to America where you would join him on a tour for the famished in the West. If you had that idea, you are a good actress for you certainly seemed sincere when speaking to me.’
She saw her error but said something about not knowing the procedure and that what she intended going to London was to consult her solicitor.
My reading of her is that she hopes to frighten you into letting her have her way. I did what I could to disabuse her mind of that by saying, ‘If you don’t agree to equal terms I, for one, should advise John to go to court. You want the child, so does he. You say you have nothing to fear; so says he. The child is as much his as it is yours. The best plan is to agree to six months in turn.’
She looked very white and upset when I spoke like this and I put her in a cab for home, Collins stock having gone down below zero in the opinion of Maud Gonne MacBride.
All here join in sending all good wishes.

Maud Gonne MacBride to WB Yeats

One more hideous day [in court] listening to MacBride’s friends perjuring themselves by saying he never got drunk. The strain of the last month has worn me thin as a shadow. It was such a nightmare work having to sit in court day after day listening to my witnesses describing the hideous things I knew of, I found myself feeling glad and relieved when they forgot some ugly detail & then I had to shake myself up to the fact that I was there to remind my lawyer to ask some question that would bring it out & that the future of my son depended on it.
Day after day I had to listen to MacBride’s witnesses perjuring themselves & contradicting each other & sometimes the fighting spirit in me woke up & it amused me to suggest questions that I knew would accentuate the contradiction, but all the time at the bottom of my heart was the sickening fear that the name of my innocent little Iseult would be dragged into the sea of mud. For though agreement had been come to between the lawyers on both sides in the presence of the judge that the affair was not to be alluded to on either side, I knew I was fighting a mad man who, when he realised he was losing, would do anything for revenge.
As I expected, it came. The last day of the hearing of witnesses, in spite of protest from the judge, in spite of remonstrance from his own lawyer, MacBride insisted in calling his brother to go into the whole affair. He ended by saying it was his belief that I and the British government had concocted this to get rid of his brother.
Nothing was left of me then but to ask for another day’s hearing of witnesses & getting Madame Avril & the other witnesses to give evidence. As I had the calling of witnesses in my hands I refused to allow Iseult to be called & she knows nothing at all of the affair. The judge quite understood & appreciated the reasons, I think. It has damaged MacBride’s case frightfully. His baseness was so apparent that the judge spoke most severely to him when he tried to put questions to my witnesses, questions which he knew were groundless but which might perhaps leave a doubt in the judge’s mind.
My lawyers say the case is certainly won now.

Maud Gonne MacBride to WB Yeats
The plaidoirie of Maitre Labori was infamous… Labori openly spoke about Iseult as my daughter ‘by a former marriage, I mean union’ and said I had dared to accuse the ‘chivalrous MacBride’ of having made an indecent assault on the child, had accused him before members of his own family but knowing the accusation to be false had not brought it forward in the divorce suit.
This may mean that I shall have to prove this horrible thing. I shrink from doing it because it means that poor little Iseult shall have to appear in court & be questioned & cross-questioned on this hideous thing which I want her to forget. She is a nervous child & was ill for days after from the terror of it & used to wake at night screaming that MacBride with his ‘eyes of an assassin’ was running after her, even now she hardly likes going upstairs after dark alone because, as she told me last week when I was laughing at her for being afraid, she is always afraid MacBride may be hiding & run after her. Still it is possible it shall have to be proved…
MacBride’s friend, Mr Collins, was in a front row taking notes. Every insult that Labori addressed to me he laughed & rubbed his hands.

Maud Gonne MacBride to WB Yeats

My dear Willie

Here is the verdict as far as I can remember it not as yet having received the written copy.  MacBride has succeeded in proving Irish nationality & domicile so that only separation, and not divorce, can be granted.  The Court thinks the charges of immorality are insufficiently proved but that the charges of drunkenness are manifestly proved…

The Court grants Mrs MacBride judicial separation in her favour & gives her the right of guardianship of the child.  It allows the father the right of visiting the child at his wife’s house every Monday, & when the child shall be over 6 years old allows the father to have him for one month in the year –

I am very disappointed & I shall probably appeal…

PS. The verdict was given at 10 minutes after 12 today – I wonder if you could see anything in my stars for me on the matter.

Be part of something great

Sign up for the latest news about my Gonne-Yeats novels and our Kickstarter campaign #StatueforMaudGonne

It's going to be epic. Create history with us.