An Activist’s Spiritual Experience: Maud Gonne’s “Spirit World” in her Autobiography and Letters to Yeats

From Firenze University Press Journal: Studi irlandesi. A Journal of Irish Studies

University of Florence
6 min readNov 9, 2023
  1. Beginning in medias res: Visionary Experience and the Construction of a Life’s Mission

In A Servant of the Queen Gonne writes that “[t]he spirit world never seemed far from me” (1995, 209, hereafter SQ). It is apparent even from a cursory look at the table of contents that the spiritual dimension has indeed a defi nite place in her memoir. Out of twenty-seven chapters three beartitles thatpoint to otherworldly experiences: “Th e Woman of the Sidhe” (Chapter 9), “Occult Experiences” (Chapter 15), and “Th e Inevitability of the Church” (Chapter 26). However, the brief opening section, entitled “I Saw the Queen”, is pivotal to start exploring how Gonne chose to deal with this dimension. “I Saw the Queen” precedes a very concise “Foreword” and the actual beginning of her memoir and provides the fi rst instance of how she carefully selected episodes and anecdotes — including visions, dreams, voices from another level of reality — and wove them into the narration of her eventful life.

“I Saw the Queen” deserves our attention for several reasons. In it, Gonne recollects a vision of Cathleen ni Houlihan, the legendary icon of Irish nationalism, that took place on her return journey from County Mayo, after one of her visits to villages hit by poverty and famine. From her letters we know that these journeys occurred between February and March 1898, about ten years after she had started to work for the cause of Irish independence. The young Gonne, “[t]ired but glowing”, saw, from the train window, a beautiful woman heading towards the hills, and heard a voice addressing her: “ ‘[y]ou are one of the little stones on which the feet of the Queen have rested on her way to Freedom’ ” (SQ, 9). Gonne casts herself as a humble servant and an instrument chosen for this arduous task, a role that was bestowed upon her directly by the legendary woman. “I Saw the Queen” is a spectacular opening in medias res, and its prominent position in the book places the account of Gonne’s life and her fight for Irish independence un-der a supernatural aura. In the last lines, the older Gonne concludes that “[b]eing old now and not triumphant I know the blessedness of having been ‘one of those little stones’ on the path to Freedom” (ibidem). These words mark a transition from the narrated self — the younger Gonne who saw the Queen — to the writing and wiser self of the “Foreword” that follows the first page. The juxtaposition with the “Foreword” heightens the dramatic effect of “I Saw the Queen”. In telling the readers what her memoir sets out to do, the brief second section has a more pragmatic dimension: “[b]y the time that I […] had arrived at the age of reason and was a free agent I had determined that [the British Empire] was not worth the price. How I arrived at this determination and how it affected my life is the story I have tried to tell” (SQ, 10). In the “Foreword” a change of style occurs: from the narrative and visionary tone of “I Saw the Queen”, to the declaratory and dry sentences of those few lines. The miniature aisling of Cathleen in “I Saw the Queen” gives way to the story of a Bildung, of a (self-) education that was acquired through determination and direct participation in the battle. Whereas “I Saw the Queen” rests on the assumption of Gonne’s visionary gift and implicitly asks the readers to trust her as the witness of an extraordinary event, the “Foreword” asks them to align on a different argument. Here the narrator anticipates how she came to oppose the immoral “ ‘conditions sine qua non’ ” (Mitchell qtd. in SQ, 10) the British Empire could not have thrived: “famine in Ireland, opium in China, torture in India, pauperism in England, disturbance and disorder in Europe and robbery everywhere” (SQ, 10). Ultimately these two sections reflect their author’s posture towards her mission: as Karen Steele noted in her analysis of Gonne’s journalism, she was “both reporter and lyrical writer, a social activist and allegorist (2022, 114). They reinforce each other in constructing the picture of a life’s mission, one in which inspiration from above and self-determination played equally crucial roles.These initial sections serve this purpose in other ways. Contemporaries and later critics have often noted her tendency to self-aggrandizement and to “cast a halo about her activities” (Donoghue 1986, 223). Even recently, for instance, A Servant of the Queen has been described as the “ebullient, if somewhat egomaniacal” account of the challenge to find a place “in an over-whelmingly male tradition of revolutionary endeavour” in Ireland (Kelly 2018, 111). Gonne’s memoir can be read as a woman activist’s attempt to carve a space within the genre of political autobiography, which had indeed been shaped by illustrious male names. In this respect, it seems that both her detractors and more impartial scholars have sometimes overlooked the closing statements of the “Foreword”:

In telling it I may seem to ignore events and people deserving to be mentioned. In a fight one sees only the corner of the field in which one stands. That is my excuse to those other soldiers in the fight for freedom whom I have not mentioned and who have made as great efforts and perhaps greater sacrifices. (SQ, 10)

The autobiographer does not hide the subjective perspective of her memoir. Gonne is not just apologizing with those who have been “forgotten”; this statement can be read as the assertion of her right to tell the events from her own unique perspective. Recently Gonne’s memoir has been discussed in terms of “political autobiographics” situated between life-writing and historical record, where “ ‘the contingency and freedom that characterize the realm of the vita active’ ” take centre-stage (Guaraldo 2001, qtd. in Tamboukou 2018, 249). A Servant of the Queen is alive with accounts of travels, adventures, plans, meetings, anecdotes, which are made more vivid by her gift for dramatic dialogue. The combination of narration, dialogues and straightforward tone, coupled with the adventurous atmosphere surrounding the life of the young Gonne, is anticipated in “I Saw the Queen”. One among several autobiographical fragments that make up the memoir, this episode stands out as a defining moment of her career, to the point that she had originally wanted Cathleen ni Houlihan’s words “one of those little stones” to be the title of her book1. These words reappear in the closing lines of A Servant of the Queen, where once again the older Gonne humbly considers her role in the Queen’s journey as a blessing (cf.SQ, 350). Their importance makes them the textual equiva-lent of an epiphany; just as the episode of the vision represents Gonne’s formal “investiture”, so Cathleen’s words, being repeated at the end, seal the convergence between personal and national destiny. As an activist writer Gonne seems to be fully aware of a biographeme that is well-rooted in the writings of male activists since the early nineteenth century, “the master trope of the Irish autobiographical tradition”, namely “[t]he rhetorical fusion of individual identity and collective destiny” (Harte 2007, 3). Following her predecessors, but at the same time subverting the gendered narrative that matched political activism with masculinity, the convergence of personal and national mission is manifest in several lociof A Servant of the Queen, specifically in the image of a woman who renounces her private life and devotes all her energies to the Irish cause. One of the most explicit passages in this respect is the following:

I had long ago chosen to devote my life to the one objective of freeing Ireland, and since then I had invariably found that anything I undertook for myself personally never succeeded, and so I had given up trying. So long as I was working for Ireland I felt safe and protected. (SQ, 328–329).

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