Major John MacBride was shot on this date in 1916 for his improvised role in the Easter Rising.
A doctor by training and a republican by heart, MacBride earned his officer’s commission when, as an emigre to South Africa, he raised the Irish Transvaal Brigade to fight against the British during the Second Boer War. (The Boer nationalist cause was wildly popular among Irish nationalists: they had the same enemy.)
The British during that conflict were aggressive about treating as “rebels” even guerrillas whose nationality was in question, so the fact that the Irishman MacBride accepted citizenship from the Transvaal Republic and went to war against the Crown made him a right traitor in London’s eyes. After the war, he laid low in Paris and married Maud Gonne to the annoyance of the lovestruck poet W.B. Yeats who had unsuccessfully wooed Gonne.*
Back in Ireland once gone from Gonne, MacBride’s Boer War bona fides made him such an obvious locus of sedition that the Easter Rising conspirators kept him entirely away from their plot for fear of inviting the attention of whomever was watching MacBride. Instead, he walked into events accidentally, finding the rising occurring while he was in town to meet his brother.
A proper Irish patriot with military experience that the revolutionaries sorely needed,** MacBride recognized what was happening and presented himself to Thomas MacDonagh — who gave him a snap appointment to the command team occupying Jacob’s Biscuit Factory.
After events had run their course, MacBride embraced his martyrdom with such equanimity that some wondered whether he hadn’t tired of life. More likely, he was just being realistic: as he halloed to another prisoner who hailed him, “Nothing will save me, Sean. This is the end. Remember this is the second time I have sinned against them.” His dignified and fatalistic final address to the court that condemned him concluded,
I thank the officers of the court for the fair trial I have had, and the Crown counsel for the way he met every application I made. I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African War to fear death, and now please carry out your sentence.
* The two married in 1903 and divorced in 1905. Yeats alleged in private correspondence that MacBride had molested Gonne’s daughter, Iseult. (Repeatedly rebuffed by Maud Gonne, Yeats later also proposed to Iseult, who was 30 years his junior. There’s a lot going on here.) This allegation has blackened MacBride’s name down the years although its credibility remains in question since the jealous Yeats was an extremely hostile observer.
After the Easter Rising was crushed, Yeats spared some verse in his poem “Easter, 1916” to throw some (qualified) shade at his dead rival, which drew him a rebuke from Maud.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
A terrible beauty is born.
** General Charles Blackader, who suppressed the Easter Rising and presided over the ensuing courts-martial, reportedly admired “the most soldierly” MacBride: “He on entering the court stood to attention, facing us. In his eyes, I could read: ‘You are soldiers, so am I. You have won. I have lost. Do your worst.'” (From Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising)