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Violet Gibson – The Irish Aristocrat Who Shot Mussolini

Violet Gibson, pictured shortly after her arrest for attempting to assassinate Benito Mussolini. ‘How lucky it is we are to be judged by God instead of man,’ she remarked in 1925.

On 20 October 2022, a plaque commemorating the Hon. Violet Gibson was unveiled at 12 Merrion Square, her childhood home, by Caroline Conroy, the Lord Mayor of Dublin. Violet is the subject of the excellent Barrie Dowdall / Siobhan Lynam docudrama, ‘The Irish Woman Who Shot Mussolini’, with Olwen Fouéré as Violet. There will be a screening of the film at the IFI in Dublin on Thursday 3 November 2022, starting at 6:20pm.

The following is a story I wrote about her for my 2021 book, ‘The Irish Diaspora.’

 

 

******

 

 

Rome, 7 April 1926. “Giovinezza, giovinezza, primavera di bellezza.’ bellowed the students gathered in Piazza del Campidoglio as they sang the official hymn of the National Fascist Party. At length, Il Duce himself stepped out from the Palazzo dei Conservatori to acknowledge his doting fans. It is not clear whether he spotted the bedraggled, fifty-year-old lady pointing a revolver at him. Maybe it was instinct, perhaps it was luck. Either way, Benito Mussolini turned his head in the nick of time so that the bullet she fired at his temple scraped across the bridge of his nose. The woman pulled the trigger a second time but the bullet jammed.

The would-be assassin was hurled to the ground where she was kicked and punched by an incensed mob until the Carabinieri managed to push through and seize her. As the Italian dictator was hurried to safety, the woman was hauled across the Tiber to Regina Coeli prison and placed in a complex for female prisoners known as Le Mantellate. Within a few short hours, she was identified as Dublin-born Violet Gibson.

Edward Gibson, 1st Baron Ashbourne, was tapped as a possible prime minister during the late Victorian Age. Violet was the seventh of his eight children.

The Gibsons were one of Ireland’s most distinguished legal families, affiliated with Counties Meath and Tipperary.[1] Edward Gibson, Violet’s father, enjoyed a particularly successful political career, becoming a darling of the Conservative Party in the age of Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Randolph Churchill.  An exceptionally tall and commanding man, with a shock of white hair and a booming voice, some had him tapped as a future Prime Minister. Having come to prominence as Disraeli’s principal advisor on Irish affairs, his most notable achievement was to oversee the passage of the Land Purchase Act of 1885, by which some 25,000 Irish tenant farmers borrowed money from a government fund to purchase their farms from their landlords. The act marked a breakthrough in the bitter age of the Land Wars and Gibson was rewarded with a baronetcy, becoming Baron Ashbourne, and the lucrative office of Lord Chancellor, as well as a permanent seat on the cabinet. [2]

When Gibson was made a baron, the courtesy title of ‘The Honourable’ was also bestowed on his eight children, four boys, four girls. The Hon. Violet Albina Gibson, the second youngest child, was born in Dalkey, a seaside suburb of Dublin, in 1876 and grew up at 12 Merrion Square, the family’s Georgian townhouse.[3]

Childhood was not easy for Violet, or Vizzy, as her siblings called her. She was afflicted with near fatal bouts of scarlet fever, pleurisy and rubella. Her survival is all the more remarkable given that her deeply religious mother, an early convert to Christian Science, eschewed medical assistance, believing that Violet’s ailments were a penance for an unspecified sin.

Like most well-to-do Protestant women of her age, she was educated at home by governesses, primarily learning about music and art.[4]  She was taught to speak French and Italian too. The latter was especially useful when she accompanied her father, with whom she had a strong bond, on a visit to Italy as a child.

She came out into society in 1896, attending balls and drawing rooms at Dublin Castle during the Season, and greeting the numerous guests who arrived at their Merrion Square home for the dinner parties that her parents hosted.[5] She mingled with Viceroys and Duchesses, and met the Duke of York, later George V, when he visited the city in 1897.

Violet was always fascinated by religion. She tried her hand at Christian Science, her mother’s faith, but then developed an interest in theosophy, a movement that was much in vogue with the upper classes at that time, which focused on karma and the emancipation of the soul. She attended theosophy lodges in Switzerland, France and Germany before concluding that theosophy was not for her.

Willie Gibson, 2nd Baron Ashbourne, brother of Violet.

Instead, to her father’s intense dismay, she followed the lead of her oldest brother Willie and converted to Catholicism. Willie was an unusual man. While studying at Trinity College Dublin, he had taken to wearing Gaelic kilts and cloaks, a habit he would retain for life. Since his conversion at Oxford in 1891, he had become steadily more aligned with groups such as the Gaelic League and the Friends of Transvaal Committee. The latter were vehemently opposed to Britain’s war against the Dutch Boers in South Africa, which was seen as a blatant land grab by the empire. Willie’s politics were the complete opposite to his Conservative father.[6] The Gibson family fell apart and Willie was disinherited although he would still become the 2nd Baron Ashbourne when his father died in 1913.

There was further distress for the Gibson’s when Violet’s favourite brother Victor returned from the Anglo-Boer War suffering from severe post traumatic distress disorder, having narrowly survived an ambush in which many of his close friends were killed.[7] He pulled himself together, to an extent, and was present at Dublin’s Rotunda in 1901 when a young Winston Churchill delivered a speech on the war; the future prime minister was introduced, on that occasion, by Violet’s father.[8]

A pacifist at heart, Violet is unlikely to have supported such an imperial war. That said, she is thought to have attended an event at Farmleigh in Dublin’s Phoenix Park to honour Queen Victoria when the elderly monarch came to Dublin in April 1900.  Baron Ashbourne certainly met the queen on various occasions during her three-week visit. [9]

Ashbourne stopped speaking to his daughter after her conversion to Catholicism, unable to tolerate her modernist, Liberal views that land and power should be shared with the masses. Violet moved to London in 1902, and settled in the bohemian stronghold of Chelsea, where she was blighted by personal tragedy over the next seven years, including the death of an older brother, a beloved sister-in-law and, most cruelly, her fiancé.

In 1909 she sailed to Italy to find solace amongst the holy sites and basilicas. She collapsed in Milan, exhausted by grief, necessitating a hasty visit by her younger sister Constance who spent several weeks nursing her back to health.

When her father died in 1913, Violet made her final journey to Dublin, attending the internment of his ashes in the family vault at Mount Jerome Cemetery. Willie, now Lord Ashbourne, was increasingly embroiled in the fight for Irish independence. In 1914, he helped fund the purchase of Germans guns for the Irish Volunteers, a shipment that the spy novelist and increasingly nationalist Erskine Childers famously sailed into Howth on the eve of the Great War.[10]

Violet went to Paris at the start of the war to help those desperately trying to advocate peace, only to be diagnosed with cancer, requiring a left mastectomy.[11] Two years later, suffering acute appendicitis and peritonitis, she was back under the surgeon’s knife. She would be ever-after stricken with abdominal pain. Her mind was beginning to flicker. She became a devotee of Rev John O’Fallon Pope, a Jesuit scholar from Missouri, who believed that self-flagellation, fasting and wearing hair shirts were key to spiritual enlightenment.

In 1922 she received the devastating news that Victor had been found dead in a Surrey inn. She took to wandering outside in her nightdress. The police were obliged to bring her home on one occasion. The situation reached a crescendo when her housekeeper’s daughter espied her walking back and forth across a busy road and tried to intervene. Violet lashed out with a knife and sliced the child’s hand.

Certified insane, Violet was taken to the Holloway Sanatorium in Surrey, where she reportedly tried to kill a fellow patient. Somehow her family got her out of Holloway and she went to live on her own in Kensington.

Always a voracious reader, she began to take a deep interest in Italy, frequently expressing her dislike of Pope Pius XI, a strong conservative and Fascist sympathiser. In 1924, the newspapers reported that Giacomo Matteotti, a charismatic Italian socialist, had been kidnapped and brutally murdered by the Fascists.

Shortly afterwards, Violet Gibson sailed for Italy, accompanied by an Irish nurse, Mary McGrath. Upon arrival in Rome in November 1924, the two women went to Our Lady of Lourdes convent, from where Violet sought an audience with the pope.[12] The request was declined, which was fortunate for the pope as it seems her ambition was to kill him.

Three months after her arrival in Rome, Violet shot herself with a revolver. The bullet missed her heart and lodged in her shoulder.[13] She spent the next two months in a psychiatric clinic, after which she moved to the Convent of Santa Brigida.[14]

On 7 April 1926, Violet walked out of the convent with a Lebel revolver, a couple of bullets and a rock. The rock was to smash any glass that might prevent her getting a clear shot at her target, Benito Mussolini, the Italian prime minister.

She saw Mussolini. She shot. She failed. She was taken in.

A still from ‘The Irish Woman Who Shot Mussolini’ with Olwen Fouéré as Violet Gibson.

Violet’s motive for trying to assassinate Mussolini is a riddle that will never be resolved. The Italian police were utterly frazzled by her responses during the endless interrogations that followed. Initially she insisted that she hadn’t done anything. She subsequently produced a number of plausible motives – for the glory of God, to impress a handsome Italian aristocrat – before stating that she had no idea why she tried to kill him.[15] She could be mischievous too. When asked if she had any accomplices, she confessed that she did and promptly named every saint she could think of.[16]

However, the story became more complex when the nuns at Santa Brigida weighed in with their thoughts. Violet was often away from the convent but where did she go all day? And why was she so drained when she came back? Why was her room full of newspaper cuttings about Mussolini? How had she obtained a revolver? Why did she bring a rock?

One theory holds that she was put up to the task by Ernesto Buonaiuti, a dissident priest and philosopher, who was based in Rome’s poor Trastevere neighbourhood. Her politics were firmly aligned with the modernist, anti-fascists. If Violet interpreted her failed suicide attempt as evidence that God had another purpose for her, it is certainly plausible that she would have taken that purpose to be political.

Conversely, the Vatican were of the view that her failure was a clear message that God was on Il Duce’s side. Celebratory church bells resounded across Italy but there was widespread violence too as Fascists seized the occasion to ransack and burn opposition newspapers. Another consequence was that Mussolini received a letter of support from a beautiful 14-year-old girl, Clara Petacci. He replied, a correspondence ensued, and Clara became his mistress a decade later.

Mussolini sporting a plaster after he was shot across the nose by Violet Gibson.

Whatever the truth about Violet’s motives, Mussolini’s propaganda team were eager to portray her as a religious nutcase who had acted on her own rather than a political assassin. Her earlier sojourn in Holloway was cited as evidence but she sealed her fate in July 1926 when, fed up with being taunted, she attacked a fellow inmate with a small hammer.[17]

She was transferred to a lunatic asylum where, after three weeks of intense psychological assessment, she was diagnosed with chronic paranoia. She was also subjected to an intrusive gynaecological analysis. She kicked back as best she could, smashing a pottery jug over a prison guard’s head and embarking on a hunger strike, before contracting a fever.

Neither her family not the British government could see any good reason to dispute the Italian’s view that she was insane. At this time, Britain and Italy were enjoying a relatively good relationship. In January 1927, Churchill arrived in Rome to meet Mussolini. He raised the matter of Violet Gibson. Baron Ashbourne, her father had been one of his own father’s good friends, and had introduced young Winston before his speech in Dublin over quarter of a century earlier. Mussolini had survived four assassination attempts in the past fourteen months but his view on Violet Gibson seems to have been reasonably benign. He simply wanted her removed from Italy.

With the blessing of her other surviving siblings, Constance Gibson headed up the ‘rescue’ team who escorted Violet back to England where, in a veil of deception, she was incarcerated at St Andrew’s Hospital for Mental Diseases in Northampton.

This was where Violet would live for twenty-nine long, monotonous years before her death. It was, she observed, ‘a kind of nun’s life’. She did not want to be there. She wrote a constant stream of letters to plea her case for release, especially when the British media turned against Mussolini after his vicious invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. However, her letters to people such as Churchill and, later, Queen Elizabeth II, were never delivered. The asylum authorities also appear to have withheld any post she received from supporters. Believing herself friendless and plagued by demons, she tried to hang herself in 1930.

In her twilight years, she found a degree of peace amongst the birds that flittered in the asylum gardens. She lived to hear of Mussolini’s fall, and read about how the bodies of the dictator and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were hung upside down at a petrol station in Milan, the city she had gone to for solace in another age. She may even have met poor Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, who arrived at St Andrew’s in 1951, having been diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Bedridden for her last five years, Violet died 1956 aged 79. She had requested a requiem mass at her funeral. This was not to be, and nor was there was any mention of her passing in any newspaper. Neither friend nor family were in attendance as she was laid to rest in the asylum’s non-denominational cemetery. So ended the wretched life of a woman who, but for a split-second, would have changed the course of history by assassinating Benito Mussolini.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Violet in recent years, not least with the 2020 film ‘Violet Gibson, The Irish Woman Who Shot Mussolini’, directed by Barrie Dowdall, which is currently being shown at film festivals internationally. This followed on from a 2014 radio documentary broadcast by RTÉ, made by Siobhán Lynam, Barrie’s wife, which drew on the book ‘The Woman Who Shot Mussolini’ by Francis Stoner-Saunders. On 20 October 2022, a plaque commemorating Violet was unveiled at 12 Merrion Square, the site of her childhood home, by Caroline Conroy, the Lord Mayor of Dublin. A radio piece about the plaque was broadcast on 400 radio stations on National Public Radio in North America, while a story was also published in the Smithsonian Magazine.

 

With sincere thanks to Barrie Dowdall and Siobhán Lynam for their outstanding, award-winning work on Violet Gibson.

 

Memorial to Violet Gibson in Palermo, courtesy of Kevin Harris Kaufman. It is located on a small Piazza close to Museo Abatellis.

 

End-Notes

 

[1] Her grandfather William Gibson was born in Trim, County Meath, the son of William Gibson of Gaulstown and Lodge Park, County Meath. He later acquired Rockforest near Roscrea, County Tipperary. See here.

[2] The Ashbourne Act, as it became known, set up a £5 million fund that Irish tenant farmers could borrow from in order to pay for anything up to the full amount of the purchase price of their land from their landlord. Such loans were to be repaid over 49 years at a fixed interest rate of 4%. It also laid down the method which was to be the basis for all future land purchase legislation: government loans for tenants to purchase their holdings, to be repaid over a fixed period (in this case forty-nine years) by land annuities (at 4 per cent interest). By making loan repayments so affordable, the act enabled 25,000 tenants to purchase their holdings by 1888.

Gibson was elected MP for Dublin University in 1875 and appointed Attorney General for Ireland in 1877, just after Violet’s birth. As Disraeli’s principal advisor and spokesman on Irish affairs, he advocated a substantial crackdown on the Land League.

Violet was nine years old when her father was raised to the peerage as Baron Ashbourne and appointed to the lucrative office of Lord Chancellor of Ireland, a rare position for someone from Ireland. He was also given a seat in the British government’s cabinet – the only lord chancellor of Ireland to be so treated.

And yet there was always a hint of mystery about the Gibson’s loyalty. Even though her father was a senior Tory, there were these rumours that his grandfather was a United Irishman from Cavan and that his Land Act was some sort of collusion with Parnell.

Edward was a family man and adored his daughters.

[3] ‘August 30, at Beulah, Dalkey, the wife of Edward. Gibson, QC, MP., of a daughter.’ Belfast News-Letter, 4 September 1876.

[4] The family had at least eleven staff,

[5] In the spring of 1896, she attended both the Drawing Room and the State Ball hosted by the Earl of Cadogan, the Viceroy, and his countess, at Dublin Castle. Thereafter, she attended a constant stream of concerts, balls, receptions, weddings and sporting events, as well as house parties and dances. Her parents did not shy away from hosting parties at their Merrion Square home. Lady Cadogan attended one such party at which Violet was dressed in black satin, with scarlet chiffon sash, and poppies on the bodice, while her mother held court in ‘a complete crown of diamonds.’

[6] Violet was particularly drawn to the modernist Jesuit George Tyrrell.

Violet came of age in a time when many women from the so-called Anglo-Irish world, or Ascendancy, were making their mark in the political area. One thinks of Anna and Fanny Parnell, co-founders of the Ladies’ Land League, or Jennie Wyse Power, who was a founding member and vice-president of both Sinn Féin and Inghinidhe na hÉireann. Or, only a few years older than Violet, Maud Gonne, another co-founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann, and Constance Gore-Booth who, known as ‘Countess Markievicz’, would become co-founder such prominent Irish nationalist organisations as Fianna Éireann, Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen Army.

Violet also began espousing modernist, Liberal views. She was undoubtedly swept up by the excitement of the Gaelic Revival, which had seen her brother Willie befriend William Butler Yeats and Maud Gonne at their Irish Societies [which ones]. Willie, a socialist catholic, also joined the Gaelic League, impressed by the fact that it was open to men and women equally.

The Gaelic Revival coincided with a power shift, particularly at local level, from the minority Protestant Ascendancy to democratically elected county councils and rural district councils in which nationalists were more and more prominent. Willie, and possibly Violet, supported the idea of taking land and power off the establishment and sharing it with the masses.

[7] Victor – the youngest brother – who was of the same unionist, conservative, imperialist mindset as their father. The Anglo-Boer War becomes the basis for a showdown in Ireland between these two words. On the one hand, you have Ireland as the Conserver of the Empire, proudly sending soldiers off to fight, like Violet’s beloved older brother Victor who raised the Irish Hunting Contingent of the Imperial Volunteers, or ‘Millionaires’ Own’, a regiment of landed gentry that was then captured by the Boers, and he returned battle-scarred and suffering PTSD and ends up drinking himself to death in 1922.

[8] Born in 1874, Churchill was two years younger than Violet and it seems likely they knew one another. His grandfather had been Viceroy of Ireland during the 1870s while Lord Randolph Churchill, his father, was one of the biggest players in the 1880s when Violet’s father was peaking.

He also probably knew her brother Victor from his time as a journalist in the South African war; both me were captured by the enemy. When Churchill came to Dublin in 1901 to deliver a lecture about the war at the Rotunda, Victor was in the audience while Violet’s father, Lord Ashbourne, chaired the event.

[9] Lord Ashbourne span out to Killiney Bay to view the Channel Fleet and met the queen several times during her trip.  (Northern Whig, 11 April 1900.) Meanwhile, Maud Gonne, Willie’s friend, was loudly denouncing Victoria as ‘The Famine Queen’ and organising a pro-Boer fete in Drumcondra at which she urged 30,000 children to strive for Irish freedom.

[10] Willie also became a good friend of Agnes O’Farrelly, chair of the first meeting of Cumann na mBan. A patron of the GAA, Willie later donated the Ashbourne Cup, which is used today as intervarsity Camogie Cup.

[11] She convalesced in Devon. It was here that she met the novelist Enid Dinnis, another Catholic convert, who was to become her closest friend for the remainder of her life.

[12] The nuns and priests with whom she mingled at the convent could tell that she was focused but presumed her motive was benevolent.

[13] Willie arrived from Paris to see her four days later but failed to convince her to return with him. They never saw one another again. Somehow, she persuaded the relevant authorities to bring her to the Villa Giuseppina, a small suburban clinic in Rome where she received psychiatric care for two months.

Did Elizabeth Bowen refer to Violet? Not only was she in Bordighera in the early 1920s, and later Rome, but she was also in Northampton.

[14] At the Convent of Santa Brigida, she was reunited with Miss McGrath. The hapless nurse remained by her side until March 1926 when, for no discernible reason, she was abruptly dismissed and sent back to Ireland. The death of Violet’s mother that same month certainly played a part in all this.

[15] In June 1926, Violet declared that the attempt to kill Mussolini was, in fact, premeditated and that she had done so to impress Giovanni Antonio Colonna di Cesarò, an Italian duke ‘who she had fallen in love with years before in Switzerland … “ [she insisted he knew nothing of her plans] … Colonna was vehemently opposed to fascism, she claimed Colonna had communicated his desire for Mussolini’s death through a series of [obscure] clues before gifting her with gun and bullets, that led her to the assassination site that fateful day. The duke was under surveillance for anti-fascist activities, and his movements at the time of the shooting could not be accounted for, lending plausibility to Gibson’s account. The authorities, however, were not convinced.”

[16] She later expresses her delight that God gave her ‘an Irish tongue’. She had a huge amount of money in her bank. Miss Magrath was also interviewed and returned to Rome to see her in prison, twice.

[17] She had been using the hammer to press flowers.