In April 1926, President W.T Cosgrave sent by telegram his best wishes to a recently wounded Benito Mussolini. Coming after an attempt on the life of the Fascist leader, Cosgrave wrote:
On behalf of the Government of the Irish Free State, I have the honour to congratulate Your Excellency, and the Italian people, on the providential escape of Your Excellency from the odious attempt on your person. Sincerely hoping that the wound is not serious, I send you my most earnest wishes for your speedy recover. The infamous attempt has caused much indignation here.
For Cosgrave, it was particularly important that the Free State send its best wishes, as it was an Irish assailant who made the attempt on Mussolini’s life. Ninety years ago this Thursday, Dublin born woman Violet Gibson fired a revolver shot in Rome that could have changed the course of human history. The story is well known today, and has been the subject of a book and an excellent RTE Radio documentary. This post is primarily concerned only with how the event was reported at home.
The shooting of Mussolini in front of an adoring crowd was a dramatic event, and that drama was captured in contemporary press reports. The Irish Times reported that
The Italian Prime Minister, after opening the International Surgical Congress in the Capitol of Rome, was passing through a cheering crowd in the square to his motor care, when “an elderly woman in dark clothes” (afterwards identified as the Hon. Violet Gibson) dashed out and fired a small revolver almost point-blank in his face….
Signor Mussolini remained self-composed, reassured his entourage, and while pressing a handkerchief to the wound, gave orders that no reprisals were to be carried out against his assailant, who had been arrested. She was protected by police from the fury of the crowd, who tried to lynch her. She was carried to the police station by police and carabineers.
The shot Gibson fired grazed the nose of Mussolini, and while the press here condemned the “wicked and unprovoked attack”, in truth she did little damage to Mussolini beyond his requiring a bandaged nose for a number of days. While a lucky escape, he did succeed in making political capital off the event, telling a gathering that he was prepared to “take his share of danger, and had no intention of shutting himself up, or of losing touch with the Fascist rank and file or the Italian people.” In the initial panic that followed the event, newspaper offices belonging to the political opposition were attacked in Rome and other cities, as many believed the assassination attempt to be the work of a communist agent in a country that was polarised by left-right division.The Popolo d’Italia went as far as to accuse Anti-Fascist sections of the foreign press of being in a large measure responsible for what Violet Gibson had done.
Almost immediately, the Irish media were reporting that Gibson was a troubled individual, The Irish Times stating that the “the attempted assassination of Signor Mussolini by an Irishwoman…seems to be more tragic from the side of the assailant than that of the Italian Duce. The Hon. Violet Gibson is a lady of eccentric temperament.” Rather than being the communist hit-woman some had speculated her to be, Gibson emerged in the pages of the national media as the daughter of Edward Gibson, the 1st Baron of Ashbourne. Her father had served as Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and she herself had been presented as a Debutante to Queen Victoria, and was raised in the comfortable surroundings of a Georgian Dublin square. Her brother, the present Lord Ashbourne at the time of the shooting, was described in the press as “an ardent supporter of the Gaelic revival movement and a fluent speaker of the Irish language”, and he was in Dublin attending a Gaelic League conference when he heard the news from Rome. It emerged that Violet had tried to kill herself in a convent in Rome a year before shooting Mussolini, claiming that “I tried to die for the glory of God.” A sister was asked to comment on why she had taken the drastic course of action she did:
Why then did she try to kill Mussolini? Was it that she considered him to be the enemy of Catholicism, or was it for another cause? I, who know her best, can offer no answer to that, for who shall analyse or anticipate the actions of one who is mentally afflicted?
Mussolini undoubtedly enjoyed a degree of popularity in sections of the Irish and British press in the 1920s, at a time when his movement was regarded as a bulwark against Lenin’s Bolshevism. Winston Churchill himself would remark on a visit to Rome in 1927, a year after Gibson’s attempt on Mussolini’s life, that:
It has been said that a continual movement to the Left, a kind of fatal landslide towards the abyss, has been the character of all revolutions. Italy…provides the necessary antidote to the Russian virus.
His Blackshirt movement, which marched on Rome to seize power in October 1922, would inspire diverse movements across the continent, including the Brownshirts of Nazi Germany and Eoin O’Duffy’s Blueshirts here. When Irish pilgrims returned from Rome in 1925, one told the Sunday Independent that “The Fascisti were the personification of good nature, and, by the way, they do not believe that there is another man in the world like Benito Mussolini. They simple revere him.” Even earlier, during the revolutionary period, some in Ireland looked favourably towards the emerging movement in Italy, or at least hoped to capitalise upon it. Donal Hales, who worked as Consular and Commercial Agent in Italy for the Irish Republic from 1919 onwards, maintained in his statement to the Bureau of Military History that “Mussolini certainly was willing to help Ireland in every way.” He also remembered that Mussolini “always gave hospitality to my articles in his paper, before becoming head of the Government.”
Yet if Mussolini’s ideology found some support in its early stages in these parts, attitudes shifted as the barbarism of Fascism made itself known throughout his reign. The man who had been cheered by adoring crowds in Rome minutes before Violet Gibson shot him, would later have his body hung upside down on a Milan street towards the end of the Second World War, where his mutilated corpse was pelted with fruit and spat upon. One woman even emptied five shots into the dead body of the dictator on 29 April 1945, deciding he wasn’t quite dead enough for her yet.
What became of the woman who shot him? Violet Gibson died on 2 May 1956, at the age of 79. Having been released by the Italians on compassionate grounds, she spent the rest of her life in St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, an asylum for the mentally ill. She never returned to Dublin, and her lonely death was a sad end for a former aristocrat of the upper-echelons of Dublin society. Unlike her exploits on an April day in 1926, her passing seems to have passed most of the Irish media by.