I hadn’t been able to sleep that night. I never could when I worked at the factory. Instead, I stood in our low-hung doorway, looking out into the gloom. The narrow cobbled back streets at the heart of Dublin darkened quickly back then, before there were electric streetlamps, before they brought light to the tenements. It was the stone walls, too; they stood close together, squeezing out any of the light that might have reached us from the main road. And most of the residents would have retired or gone out by then, extinguishing their candles before they did. Anyone moving through the warrens at that hour did so in almost complete darkness.
Several men were huddled together further on, the embers from their pipes bobbing faintly as they spoke. Liquid sloshed in a bottle as one of them tipped it up, then down again, and passed it on. Hoarse voices and raucous music drifted up from O’Mahony’s place at the bottom of the alley. It seemed a fight was brewing.
While I lingered, too awake to return to bed, the shadow of a woman fell across the top of the laneway. In the flickering of the distant gas lamps, it seemed to dance up the walls. Sensing a presence, everyone else stopped moving and turned to look. The place fell silent.
The fog that had rolled down the River Liffey from the sea swirled around her so that she seemed to be rising from it, like a goddess. She towered, tall and stoic, in a high-necked cloak and a blaze of red hair, her feet anchoring her dancing shadow. Even from that distance, I could see the pride and defiance in the way she held her head.
Though time seemed to stop, she must have paused only briefly. The tamp-tamp-tamp of two sets of police boots were clunking up the road somewhere behind her. She turned her head slightly to glance back before plunging into our world.
The footfalls slowed to a stop as her pursuers were brought up short, unwilling to follow. They lurked just beyond the walls for a moment before their footsteps could be heard receding, grudgingly I imagine.
She glided, unflinching, between the narrow stone walls of the alley. Light seemed to emanate from her as she greeted all who lived here: labourers, weavers, dock workers, factory girls like me, and the rest of the wretched among us who had emerged to see the great lady. As they tipped their hats or bowed their heads, murmuring “Ma’am,” she nodded and smiled, enquiring after those she knew. Despite the late hour and her recent escape from the authorities, she took her time, discussing evictions, the food situation and promising to “keep working for Ireland.”
Perhaps she didn’t see me, standing as I was in the shadow of the doorway, but she passed just in front of me – so close, I could feel the air move. It stirred my hand, drawing it after her. I felt myself reaching out, daring to touch her rustling cloak. The sensation at my fingertips was soft, vibrant, electric.
When someone cleared their throat nearby, I jumped, snatching my hand away and sinking back against the door. A gravel-gargled voice asked, “Madam Gonne, were those men bothering you?” So it was her!
There was laughter up and down the tenements; everyone knew that the authorities watched her, aiming to catch her at some subversive act or other.
Maud Gonne smiled and I swear she winked. “Oh, not really,” was all she said before she slipped from view, turning the corner down by O’Mahony’s.
They used to say she walked with the gods, but they don’t say that anymore. They say other things instead, things I’d rather not believe. What I do know is that she was Ireland’s heroine–our goddess–and that once she passed by here, right past my own house, so close that I was able to reach out and touch her.
In her autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, Irish revolutionary, Maud Gonne, lightheartedly describes the creative ways with which she frequently evaded the Dublin Castle detectives sent to watch her.
“And she had the walk of a queen” is the final line in W.B. Yeats’ play about Irish nationalism, Kathleen Ni Houlihan. Maud Gonne, Yeats’ life-long muse, played the title role in 1902.