John MacBride was born on 7 May 1865 in Westport, County Mayo. He studied medicine, but gave it up and began working with a chemist firm instead. He joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and became friends with Michael Cusack, who founded the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). Beginning in 1893, MacBride was termed a "dangerous nationalist" by the British government. In 1896 he went to the United States on behalf of the IRB. On his return he emigrated to South Africa.
He took part in the Boer war, where he was commissioned with the rank of major in the Boer army and given Boer citizenship. After the war he travelled to Paris. In 1903, he married the Irish nationalist Maud Gonne, who he had met in 1900 and through whom he had met W.B. Yeats. The following year their son Sean MacBride (who won the 1974 Nobel Peace Prize) was born. After the marriage failed amid accusations of domestic violence he returned to Dublin.
MacBride, unlike the other Rising leaders, was not a member of the Irish Volunteers. Instead he offered his services to Thomas MacDonagh and was appointed second in command at the Jacob's factory.MacBride, after a court martial under the Defence of The Realms Acts, was shot by British troops in Kilmainham Jail, Dublin, after the 1916 Easter Rising, and is now buried in Arbour Hill Cemetery, Dublin.
Major John MacBride was executed in Kilmainham Jail on 5 May 1916. William Butler Yeats, who had hated MacBride during his life largely because of Yeats' unrequited love for Maud Gonne and who had heard negative reports of MacBride's treatment of Gonne in their marriage, gave him the following ambivalent eulogy in his poem "Easter 1916":
This other man I had dreamed A drunken, vain-glorious lout. He had done most bitter wrong To some who are near my heart, Yet I number him in the song; He, too, has resigned his part In the casual comedy; He, too, has been changed in his turn, Transformed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.