Tag Archives: john macbride

1916: John MacBride

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,
Transformed utterly:
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)

1941: Harry Gleeson, posthumously exonerated

On this date in 1941, Harry Gleeson hanged for murder in Ireland — wrongly, the government admitted in 2015.

Gleeson was the nephew and farmhand of a man called John Caesar, whose County Tipperary property abutted a cottage inhabited by a local prostitute called Moll McCarthy. On November 21, 1940, Gleeson found Moll McCarthy dead on a farm field. Her face had been destroyed by a gunshot; her murder orphaned seven children, many of them the illegitimate progeny of local married men.

Nine days later, Irish police arrested a surprised Gleeson for the murder. He hotly denied their theory that he had availed himself of the victim’s services, and then slain her to prevent his uncle finding out about it.

It was, the Irish Times says in a review of one of the several books about the case, “a definitively Irish murder case: the prosecution claimed that ‘Gleeson was meeting Moll at the field pump, away from prying eyes, and arranging to give her potatoes in exchange for sex.'”

As a criminal case, it involved that brew of tunnel vision preoccupation with the wrong guy and outright cheating to nail him that frequently characterizes errant convictions. But there may have been a political undercurrent besides.

Gleeson was defended by former Irish Republican Army chief of staff Sean MacBride,* and it’s been hypothesized that the barrister’s political affiliations critically unbalanced the case for at least a couple of important reasons:

  • A prejudicial court and jury perhaps gave their verdict as much against MacBride as against Gleeson. (The jury issued its conviction alongside an unsuccessful application for clemency.)
  • MacBride himself might have pulled some punches from the defense bar in view of the possibility — as charged by Kieran Fagan in The Framing of Harry Gleeson — that McCarthy was actually murdered for informing on IRA men.

A few books about Mary MacCarthy and Harry Gleeson

* MacBride’s father John “Foxy Jack” MacBride hanged in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising.