Gonne is born into a distinguished and wealthy family, and her father serves as an army captain. Her mother dies of tuberculosis when she is a child, and she and her sister are raised and educated by a French nanny. This cosmopolitan upbringing is furthered by travels throughout Europe with her father, then a military attaché.
In 1884, Gonne’s father dies of typhoid fever and she receives a considerable inheritance. After moving to France to be with her aunt, she meets and falls in love with right wing politician Lucien Millevoye. Though he is already married, he instills Gonne with his political passions. She begins a nearly lifelong fight for Irish freedom from England and the release of political prisoners. She and Millevoye have two children, one of whom survives, before their relationship ends.
Moved by the plight of those evicted in the Land Wars, Gonne continues to campaign for the Irish nationalist cause. While living in Paris, she is introduced to Fenianism by John O’Leary, a veteran of the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848. In 1889, O’Leary introduces her to a man whose infatuation with her would last most of his life, poet William Butler Yeats. She begins a relationship with Yeats, though she refuses his many marriage proposals. She is the inspiration for many of Yeats’s poems. In 1900, she founds the Daughters of Ireland, which provides a home for Irish nationalist women.
In 1918, Gonne is arrested for being a political agitator. She becomes severely ill in prison and after her release, she begins a crusade for improved conditions for Ireland’s political prisoners. In 1903, she marries Major John MacBride, who had led the Irish Transvaal Brigade against the British in the Second Boer War, in Paris in 1903. After the birth of their son, Seán, Gonne and her husband agree to end their marriage. She demands sole custody of their son but MacBride refuses, and a divorce case begins in Paris on February 28, 1905. The only charge against MacBride substantiated in court is that he was drunk on one occasion during the marriage. A divorce is not granted, and MacBride is given the right to visit his son twice weekly.
The couple’s son, Seán MacBride, is active in politics in Ireland and in the United Nations. He is a founding member and Chairman of Amnesty International and is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974.