Ireland’s people of destiny tend to come in waves usually propelled by some great event or person.
Charles Stewart Parnell’s Home Rule Party was stacked with giants such as John Dillon, Timothy Healy and Michael Davitt, while the battle for independence served up a veritable constellation of outstanding individuals from James Connolly, Padraig Pearse and Countess Markievicz to Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and Eamonn DeValera.
The pickings have been few of late, though it would be hard to ignore the disparate troika of Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, John Hume and Gerry Adams from the Northern conflict.
Oddly enough – and purely a dispassionate observation - all those mentioned benefited from a British education and lived in times or circumstances not dominated by the Catholic Church – hardly a ringing endorsement for the Irish republic.
Then there are those like Sean MacBride who seem to have fallen just short of their potential – at least on the national stage.
His pedigree was impeccable with parents the like of Easter Rising martyr, Major John MacBride, and Maud Gonne, muse and heart-scald to William Butler Yeats.
Born 1904 in Paris Sean spent his first fourteen years in France. In fact, because of his parents’ seismic marital problems he was not initially taught English, his mother reasoning that should the good major kidnap the boy they would be unable to converse.
A British firing squad rendered that problem moot; still, Sean MacBride always spoke with a pronounced French accent that caused no little consternation among his rural Irish followers.
In the eyes of his mother MacBride was always destined for greatness. Madam Gonne (less courteously known around Dublin as Maud “Half-Gone”), along with such tutors as Yeats and Ezra Pound, demanded much from the boy and treated him as an equal.
At seven he served mass for Pope Pius X. Barely ten he ably debated Pádraig Pearse and within a year was helping his mother care for injured soldiers on the Western Front.
Small wonder that he became a full member of the IRA and was throwing bombs at British patrols at age fifteen. By the time truce was declared in 1921, MacBride – still only seventeen - was renowned for his charisma, fearlessness, and ability to procure military supplies in Europe.
He was summoned to London by Michael Collins to act as his bodyguard during the Treaty negotiations. Like many he was flummoxed by Eamonn DeValera’s refusal to attend.
MacBride greatly admired Collins but felt there was far too much drinking going on amongst the Sinn Fein/IRA contingent in London.
As Collins’ emissary he took the boat-train to Dublin every Friday and was back in London for Monday morning with DeValera’s instructions. He always felt that had the negotiators returned to Dublin on weekends Ireland would have been spared a civil war.
MacBride took the Republican side in the split. Captured, he shared a cell with Rory O’Connor and was about to be shot along with the IRA Chief of Staff but was reprieved at the last moment.
The execution without trial by the Free State government of 78 Republican prisoners led him to an uncompromising belief in due process and would later inspire him to help create Amnesty International. He was eventually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for mobilizing “the conscience of the world in the fight against injustice.”
Before then however he founded the radical Clann na Poblachta party and in 1948 was appointed Minister of External Affairs in the first coalition government; unfortunately he aligned himself with Archbishop McQuaid against his colleague Dr. Noel Browne in the Mother and Child Health controversy that led to the collapse of the coalition in 1951.
That disaster scuttled his ambition of ever becoming Taoiseach, a post for which he felt he was indubitably suited.
He is best known in the US for his championship of the MacBride Principles that finally helped sweep away religious discrimination in the Northern Ireland workforce.
Yet, despite all his accolades and achievements, Sean MacBride’s final portraits seem tinged with sadness. Despite an epic and colorful life Maud Gonne’s son never quite achieved his anointed destiny and Ireland is the poorer for it.