MacBride is born at The Quay, Westport, County Mayo, to Patrick MacBride, a shopkeeper and trader, and the former Honoria Gill. He is educated at the Christian Brothers School in Westport and at St. Malachy’s College in Belfast. He studies medicine but gives it up and begins working with a chemist’s firm in Dublin.
He joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and is associated with Michael Cusack in the early days of the Gaelic Athletic Association. He also joins the Celtic Literary Society through which he comes to know Arthur Griffith, who is to remain a friend and influence throughout his life. Beginning in 1893, MacBride is termed a “dangerous nationalist” by the British government. In 1896, he travels to the United States on behalf of the IRB. Upon his return he emigrates to South Africa.
In the Second Boer War MacBride is instrumental in the raising of the Irish Transvaal Brigade and leads it into action against the British. When organised resistance collapses, he and the surviving members cross the border into Mozambique. After the war he marries Maud Gonne and they have a son, Seán MacBride, who is also to make a name for himself in Irish Politics. The marriage, however, is not a success and they go their separate ways. MacBride keeps up his associations with Republican activists but does not become personally involved other than making the odd speech in support of Ireland’s Cause.
After returning permanently from Paris to Dublin in 1905, MacBride joins other Irish nationalists in preparing for an Insurrection. Because he is so well known to the British, the leaders think it wise to keep him outside their secret military group planning a Rising. As a result, he happens to find himself in the midst of the Rising without notice.
MacBride is in Dublin early on Easter Monday morning, April 24, to meet his brother, Dr. Anthony MacBride, who is arriving from Westport to be married two days later. As MacBride walks up Grafton Street he sees Thomas MacDonagh in uniform and leading his troops. He offers his services and is appointed second-in-command at the Jacob’s Biscuit Factory, which is occupied and held through Easter Week until the order to surrender is received. As he is dressed in civilian clothes rather than a military uniform, he could likely have escaped without too much difficulty but rather he decides to go with his comrades into captivity.
Tried by court martial under the Defence of the Realm Act, MacBride is found guilty and sentenced to death. He is executed on May 5, 1916, two days before his forty-eighth birthday. Facing the British firing squad, MacBride refuses to be blindfolded saying, “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.”
John MacBride is buried in the cemetery at Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin.