HomeStoriesCharlotte Despard's Irish Question by Lourdes Mackey

Charlotte Despard's Irish Question by Lourdes Mackey

This story is to remember Charlotte Despard who planted her tree in Annie's Arboretum on 17 January 1911. 

On a cold Monday in November 1918, Charlotte Despard donned thick woollen socks under her trademark sandals and set off across London for 18, Woburn Buildings, the home of poet William Butler Yeats. The Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, newly released from Holloway, was staying there. Her early release on medical grounds was hastened by a loud and determined crusade led by Charlotte and championed by the poet Ezra Pound, who at the time was in love with Maud’s daughter, Iseult, and by Yeats, who at all times was in love with Maud. The pacifist MP and Bolshevik sympathiser Joseph King had come on board, as had Charlotte’s array of advocates from her many causes – most especially Sylvia Pankhurst, Esther Roper and Esther’s partner Eva Gore Booth. Eva’s sister Constance Markievicz was still in Holloway. She was recovering from a bout of German measles and Charlotte wanted to hear, first-hand, of her wellbeing and report back to Eva. Monday, she knew, was a good day to visit – Yeats would be hosting his celebrated social gathering. He would be occupied with his literary circle, giving Charlotte more private time with Maud. She hoped that Ezra would not be there. He was helpful in the campaign, she had to admit, but he was so very overbearing. As she hurried along, Charlotte thought of all she had to tell Maud. At seventy-four years old, the suffragist was looking forward to the future.

Charlotte Despard and Maud Gonne first met at a Women’s Freedom League (WFL) meeting in London in 1917 and despite the twenty two-year age difference and Maud’s extreme Anglophobia, the two became what Edwardians termed as the most intimate of friends. They had much in common: both had aristocratic backgrounds, were converts to Catholicism, both theosophists and supporters of Irish republicanism – although Maud’s was of a romantic, nationalistic variety compared to Charlotte’s socialist, republican leanings.

Charlotte had always felt a warm and spiritual connection with Ireland (possibly because of her paternal ancestry and the Irish connections of her late husband Max) and was regularly described as Irish in the British press. Her earliest effort at social reform was the establishment of a welfare centre in Nine Elms, London, one of the first of its type in Britain. Nine Elms was an Irish immigrant slum, affectionately described by Charlotte as ‘Little Ireland.’ Her flock there, though they did not understand a word from her noble lips, regarded her as a saint. Over the years she had regularly visited Ireland in support of her campaigns for workers’ rights, peace and equality. With Gretta Cousins and Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, Charlotte founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League (IWFL) in 1908. As well as being a suffragette and theosophist Gretta was also a vegetarian and invited Charlotte to address the Irish Vegetarian Society. Always game for a laugh, Charlotte wrote to her friend, George Bernard Shaw, recounting with high hilarity the society’s officers’ names – Henry Ham, Maud Joynt and Jonny Hogg Inspired by Gandhi’s campaign of passive resistance, she urged women to boycott the 1911 census and conducted a talking tour of Ireland. Members of the IWFL flooded the letters’ pages of Irish newspapers with propaganda. ‘It was,’ wrote one suffragette in a letter to the Irish Press, ‘ridiculous that though women could be taxed just as men were, when it came to voting, they were classed as a political non-entity alongside infants, criminals and lunatics.’ Some filled their census forms with sardonic slogans like No Vote No Census. One listed her religion as ‘Suffragette’ and in the Read and Write column on the form, a suffragette from Cork wrote ‘Can Read, Cannot Vote.’ Many left home for all-night driving parties and picnics under the stars.

Much as Theresa May’s Tory government is dependent on the DUP today, the general election of 1910 left HH Asquith’s Liberals dependent on the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Its leader, John Redmond, was nicely placed to negotiate Home Rule. Suffragists all over Britain lobbied for women’s franchise to be included in the Bill but Asquith was vehemently opposed. When Deputy Leader of the Irish Party, John Dillon, opined that ‘women’s suffrage would bring about the ruin of our western civilisation’, it was clear that the Irish Party was not going to risk the alliance. In 1912 the Bill passed on Committee Stage with no clause on women’s suffrage. Hannah Sheehy Skeffington was furious with her brother-in-law Tom Kettle MP, who advised ‘Home Rule first and everything else second.’ So, the IWFL began its militant campaign in Dublin. Charlotte stuck to the WFL non-violent militancy and again toured Ireland. With veteran suffragist Dora Montifiore, she supported the workers in the 1913 Dublin lockout and stood on a platform with Sylvia Pankhurst, George Lansbury and others demanding the release of Jim Larkin, imprisoned for seditious language during the strike.

Horrified at the brutal response to the 1916 Rising and at the loss of her great friends, socialist James Connolly and pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington, Charlotte advocated full Irish independence, which put her in total conflict with her own family. In May 1918, her brother Viscount Jack French, who had been installed as Viceroy of Ireland, had made it his mission to enforce conscription and to crush any nationalist notion beyond Home Rule. Taking to his mission like a hound to the hunt, within six weeks, many ‘rebels’ were arrested and interned. Among them were Charlotte’s friends – Constance Markievicz, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington and Maud Gonne.

At 18 Woburn Buildings, Maud was weak and frail but in positive spirits. Full of Sinn Féin’s plans for the upcoming December general election, she was particularly excited over Constance Markievicz’s nomination, notwithstanding the fact that Constance was still in Holloway. Charlotte herself was standing for the Labour Party in Battersea. The granting of the franchise early in the year had been somewhat of an anticlimax for her. She regarded it as a franchise for ladies and not women. This might now be redeemed if for the first time, a woman was elected to parliament.

Early in the New Year, though not fully recovered, Maud returned to Dublin to share in the Sinn Féin euphoria. Charlotte followed a month later and stayed with her in the flat in St Stephens Green. From there, Charlotte wrote much of the Irish Bulletin newsletter, the gazette of the new rebel parliament, the first Dáil set up in Dublin in January. The authorities dreaded her pen as much as they dreaded an IRA flying column.

Constance Markievicz, the newly elected but absent MP, was appointed Minister for Labour in this alternative parliament.

Charlotte religiously avoided the Vice-Regal Lodge.


On an autumn evening in 1920, while driving down Sackville Street with all the pomp and protection of the King’s representative, Jack French observed two flamboyant women pontificating to a rebellious crowd. Nervous since the IRA attempt on his life at Christmas, he ordered his driver to stop. With a jolt – as Mary Colum, in her autobiography Life and the Dream, tells it – he realised that he could not without scandal order the women’s arrest, for one was his sister, the redoubtable Charlotte Despard and the other, the woman he once desired, the magnificent Maud Gonne. He promptly shouted, ‘Drive on.’ Charlotte was renowned for her oratory. Mary Colum describes the Pankhursts as ‘fighting magnificently, but when they made speeches, they talked like lawyers and politicians.’ In contrast, Charlotte’s speeches were a mixture of warmth and humour, with a dash of Shelley and a good dollop of encouragement.

Meanwhile in Kingstown, lorryloads of Black and Tans were swaggering off the ferry and drunkenly rampaging through the country on a daily basis. Letters beseeching Charlotte to intercede with her brother piled up in her Nine Elms home. The young medical student Kevin Barry was awaiting a death sentence in Mountjoy and Cork’s lord mayor Terence MacSwiney – whose sister, Máire, Charlotte knew from their suffragette days – was on hunger strike in Brixton prison. Ignoring his sister’s petitions, Jack indignantly declared that ‘Charlotte has always mingled with subversives, but now she is emphatically one of them.’ Being the Viceroy’s sister, however, did have some advantages. Collecting information for the British Labour Party’s enquiry into atrocities in Ireland, Charlotte and Maud motored through Munster in November. Enjoying by turn, the startled, then nervous reactions of the soldiers, Charlotte loudly proclaimed that she was the Viceroy’s sister on important business as her driver accelerated through the roadblocks. Reporting an increasing tide of violence, she chronicled murder, looting and the burning up of the innocent many, because they could not catch the guilty few.

Six months later, Charlotte made a permanent move to Dublin and with Maud bought Roebuck House in Clonskeagh. Both women opposed the Anglo-Irish treaty, claiming that it did not deliver the republic that had been proclaimed in 1916. Roebuck House soon became a republican sanctuary. In her biography of Charlotte, Margaret Mulvihill describes radicals of every shade of red mixing with poets and writers there: James Connolly’s son Roddy, Peadar O Donnell, Richard Fox and his wife, the children’s author, Patricia Lynch rubbed elbows with Yeats and George Russell. Kathleen Lynn, Hannah Moloney and Constance Markievicz were there for Cumann na mBan meetings. The house also hosted the Women’s Prisoners’ Defence League (WPDL), which Charlotte and Maud had founded with Hannah Sheehy Skeffington to help families of imprisoned republicans. Known as ‘The Mothers,’ they adopted the lily as their emblem, which is still used today to commemorate the 1916 Rising. The swarming, hive-like activity didn’t suit everyone though. Iseult Gonne’s husband, Francis Stuart, in his mostly autobiographical Black List Section H, describes ‘being hemmed in on all sides, by his mother-in-law and her wide circle of admiring acquaintances.’ Charlotte’s niece, on a visit to Dublin, reported back to the family that Aunt Charlotte ‘is living in a hen house in Ireland.’ The new Free State government wasn’t impressed either, proscribing the WPDL as an illegal organisation and in 1923 threw Maud into Kilmainham Gaol. She immediately went on hunger strike. Yeats, who was by then a Free State senator, sped off to petition the Taoiseach. But ‘Poor Willie,’ as Maud and Iseult Gonne always called him, was sharply rebuked by WT Cosgrave who counselled that ‘women, doctors and clergy ought to keep out of politics, as their business is with the sick.’ Charlotte brought a chair to the prison gates and there sat in a solitary vigil until Maud’s release twenty days later.

Charlotte was always aware of the close links between economic and political freedoms, saying that ‘fundamentally all social and political questions are economic. With equal wages the male worker would no longer fear that his female colleague might put him out of a job… A woman needs economic independence to live as an equal with her husband. It is indeed deplorable that the work of the wife and mother is not rewarded.’

Hoping to provide work for ex-prisoners and their families, Maud and Charlotte set up an array of cottage industries at Roebuck. Charlotte converted an outbuilding into a jam-making factory, but the project was a resounding failure. Neither the weather nor the workers could be relied on, and she was left with empty jam-jars and an empty purse. For some, the two chatelaines were a farcical pair as they strolled out: statuesque Maud in a swish of drooping drapery towering over the sparsely adorned, stooped and creaky Charlotte. Once, as they entered the General Post Office, a Dublin wit (no doubt a Free State wit) was overheard to say: ‘Oh, look, here they come. Maud Gonne Mad and Mrs Desperate.’

Police raids on Roebuck House intensified when, in 1927, Maud’s son Sean MacBride was suspected of killing the Free State minister Kevin O’ Higgins. Disillusioned with the results of the struggle and the lack of change in the social and economic status of women in an independent Ireland, she left Sinn Féin and increasingly turned to Communism. In August 1930, Pravda, the official organ of the Soviet Communist Party, headlined that Charlotte Despard ‘the oldest woman in the Irish revolutionary movement’ was en route to the USSR. She and Hannah Sheehy Skeffington went as delegates for ‘The Friends of The Soviet Union’. It was the culmination of a long political trail for Charlotte. At home, the Catholic hierarchy railed against the spread of left-wing ideas with homilies creating images of Bolshevik hordes on the loose, destroying the Irish people’s faith and way of life. ‘You cannot be a Catholic and a Communist,’ they roared, but Charlotte could. Designated a dangerous character and liable to expulsion from the country, she left Roebuck House on her return, eventually moving to Belfast. Her finances exhausted from a lifetime of philanthropic and political activities, she was declared bankrupt in 1937. She died two years later.

Rumours of a rift – that Maud was too pro-fascist for Charlotte and Charlotte too left-wing for Maud – were belied when a grief-stricken Maud was the chief mourner at Charlotte’s funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Maud joined her there in 1953.

They are reunited in the republican plot.

Lourdes Mackey's non-fiction has featured on RTE Radio 1 and in magazines and newspapers including The Irish Times and The Irish Examiner.

Her short fiction has been longlisted in The RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Award and placed third in The Colm Toíbin Short Story Competition. She lives in Cork.