'I believe that without the Rising, Ireland would still be occupied''
Mary MacBride Walsh is fiercely proud of her family's role in the events of 1916
Published 19/05/2016 | 02:30
In 1916, Irish people had come to dread the knock on the door. So often it heralded unwelcome news - a loved one killed either here or on the battlefields of Europe, or shipped off to prison somewhere far from home.
For Honoria Gill MacBride, the knock on the door at her home in Westport came not from an officer or a gentleman, but an 11-year-old boy. Having seen the morning headlines, a local newsagent had dispatched young Tommy Hevey to break the devastating news that Honoria's youngest son, Major John MacBride, had been executed by firing squad.
John, the estranged husband of Maud Gonne, had been second in command to Thomas MacDonagh in Jacob's biscuit factory during the Easter Rising. As he was led out to the stonebreaker's yard in Kilmainham Jail on May 5 1916, he refused to wear the blindfold offered him. Having fought the British in the Boer War years earlier, he said, "I've looked down the muzzles of their guns before."
But Honoria's troubles weren't over yet. Days later, another son, Joseph MacBride, and his first cousin Joseph Gill, were among a group of Mayo men arrested and interned in England and Wales.
One of the last prisoners to be released, Joseph didn't arrive home until Christmas Day that year. He went on to become the first elected Sinn Fein MP for Mayo West two years later, while his nephew, Seán Mac Bride, only son of John and Maud Gonne, would go on to become a distinguished statesman, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, founder of Amnesty International, and winner of the Nobel and Lenin Peace Prizes for his human rights achievements.
"He received 10 honorary doctorates throughout the world, but none from Ireland," says Mary MacBride Walsh, granddaughter of Joseph.
She and Seán were closely related, because not only were his father and her grandfather brothers, his mother and her grandmother were also half-sisters.
"When Colonel Thomas Gonne's wife Edith died at the age of 28, Thomas had an affair with the governess Margaret Wilson, which resulted in the birth of Maud's half-sister, Eileen," she explains. "Joseph MacBride married Eileen, and his brother John married Maud, so two brothers married two half-sisters."
John and Maud split acrimoniously a year after their son was born; Maud raised him for his first 12 years in Paris, and John returned to Ireland, never to see him again.
"However, my grandparents spoke fondly of John's visits home, when he'd bring sweets and regale them with stories of the Boer War," says Mary. "He was godfather to his niece Sheila Durcan, mother of the poet Paul Durcan."
Seán never took sides in his parents' separation and, to the delight of the MacBride family, once he was of age, he sought them out and visited often. For years, he and Mary made an annual pilgrimage to Arbour Hill Prison to pay their respects to his father and the other executed Rising leaders in their final resting place. She also spent time in Seán's Dublin home, entertaining a global A-list of his close friends.
"You never knew who'd be sitting next to you at his dinner table - Bishop Desmond Tutu, Kader Asmal, Anthony Cronin, Bono, Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese… Seán was an extraordinary man, highly intelligent, a dedicated human rights activist, and a very caring man with a great sense of humour."
With her experience of entertaining world dignitaries, Mary was the perfect choice to host President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina at a 1916 commemoration day in Westport earlier this month. Over 1,500 people gathered in the town on May 8 last to remember their local heroes. The sun shone right on cue as the ceremonies began with the unveiling of a plaque at the John MacBride monument to 31 Westport men interned in 1916.
In his speech, President Higgins noted, "The people of Mayo were never slow to stir and we're here today to celebrate that sense of coming together in public to defend what is principled."
Stirred herself by the emotion of the day, Mary read the Proclamation in a moving tribute that brought the words of Padraig Pearse to life for a new generation.
"It was a joy and a privilege to read the Proclamation on such a special day," she says. "It was one of those moments that makes you stop and think about those noble and courageous heroes who gave their lives for Ireland.
"I could almost hear their voices as I began to read, 'Irish men and Irish women: In the name of God and the dead generations…' It's a tremendous document. I love every line of it."
The event in Westport was more intimate but no less rousing than the national commemoration in Dublin on Easter Sunday this year, which Mary attended with her husband, five children and extended family.
"Relatives who'd come from Chicago and Nebraska were blown away by the ceremonies," she says.
"To be in Dublin on Easter Sunday, witnessing the dignity and discipline of the defence forces, listening to the Parting Glass as the tricolour flew in the wind, to hear the Proclamation being read out from the GPO and see the flyover from the air corps. It was a spine-tingling, unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
"For me, there's no doubt that without the Easter Rising, Ireland would still be occupied. I'm proud to be related to Major John MacBride, who gave his life to break the stranglehold Britain had on the country for the previous 700 years, and I think everyone should be equally proud of him and all his comrades."