‘HOW do you solve a problem like Maria?” sings the Benedictine Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. In the Loreto Convent in Navan they were pondering the same question about Maria Gibbons when she wrote Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week? immediately after the executions of 1916. The song was sung at feiseanna, Sinn Féin gatherings and in jails.
She was brought before Dr Laurence Gaughran, the Bishop of Meath who – according to family tradition – summoned her for the optics but told her in private she had erred on the right side.
A nun by vocation, Maria was a republican by inclination. She made her profession in 1906 and took the religious name Columba. When she died in January 1961, at the age of 86, the Irish Press remarked that Revd Mother M Columba Gibbons was “a member of a family which played a notable part in the spread of the ideals of Irish nationhood”.
In April 1961 Sinéad de Valera wrote to the Loreto community from Áras an Uachtaráin: “At Easter time we were listening to a broadcast about the Rising. How proud I was when Who Fears to Speak of Easter Week? was sung. Mother did indeed give her talents to God and Ireland.” Éamon de Valera visited Mother Columba in Navan on numerous occasions.
A letter sent by him from Dáil Éireann dated February 19th, 1957 remains in the Loreto Archives, Stephen’s Green. He expressed surprise that Columba had become suddenly ill. “Mrs O’Doherty has told me that you are now much better T.G.” Columba’s sister, Katherine, was married to Seamus O’Doherty who was a member of the IRB’s military council at the time of the Rising. He was given two orders for Easter Week. The first was to arrest Bulmer Hobson – who was opposed to the Rising – and keep him locked up from Good Friday until Easter Monday. The second was to carry on the work of the IRB. When O’Doherty reported to the GPO on Easter Monday after Hobson’s release, he was told by Tom Clarke to go away and lie low to carry out the second part of the order.
He became the acting-head of the IRB Supreme Council when it was reconstituted after the 1916 Rising and Katherine became the voluntary secretary of the National Aid Society. Michael Collins was a frequent visitor to their house and he later became the paid secretary of the society, having managed to count on Katherine’s support along with other members.
She assisted in the Irish bond drive in the US and was with de Valera during part of his mission in 1919/20 to the United States to seek international recognition of the de facto Irish Republic. She wrote the book Assignment America which describes the events of de Valera’s visit. She also assisted Dan Breen in writing his book My Fight for Irish Freedom. In 1922 she was a republican courier during the Civil War and carried $50,000 in a body belt from America to de Valera’s anti-treaty side.
The five Gibbons girls from Collinstown in Westmeath were educated at Loreto Navan. Their cousins in Ballycumber in Co Offaly proudly displayed pictures of Mother Columba and her two brothers, the two priests.
James Gibbons, Columba’s older brother, went to school in France and expressed an interest in joining the Holy Ghost Missionaries. His mother would not give her consent. A compromise was reached and he joined the diocese of Middlesbrough and began studies at Ushaw College and then the English College in Rome. James arrived home from Rome without finishing his studies. His mother was distraught, but he eventually returned and was ordained in Leeds.
After ordination he brought two of his sisters to the FCJ boarding school in Middlesbrough. Not long after, however, he left the priesthood and went to America. According to a memoir by another sister, Margaret Gibbons, “uncharitable neighbours began to realise the situation. They were spiteful and jealous of our superiority . . . how those who hated us rejoiced.”
An echo of Brinsley MacNamara’s Valley of the Squinting Windows, which was based on the neighbouring village of Delvin?
Margaret, a teacher and journalist – and friend of Lord Longford – decided at the age of 72 to board a plane to India and write a history of Archbishop Mar Ivanios which was published in 1962. She had met him when he visited Dublin for the International Eucharistic Congress in 1932.
Their younger brother Edward went to Maynooth and became a Meath diocesan priest. He was a shareholder in Bulmer Hobson’s paper The Republic and a friend of Willie Pearse. He regularly visited the Pearses and the church in Kinnegad – where he was curate for a while – contains a piece of Pearse sculpture.
He was also a poet. “Saxon or Teuton they grew the same root on” began his 1914. It was decided that this cultured man needed a bit of grounding and he was sent as curate to a parish priest whose interest was solely agriculture. The bishop sent his secretary to “find out how Gibbons is coping in his new abode.” The secretary reported back: “the two of them are best described as the plough and the stars, your Lordship.”
Mother Columba’s nephew Revd Msgr Feichin O’Doherty was professor of psychology in UCD. His brother Michael Kevin O’Doherty wrote the book My Parents and Other Rebels.
Their sister Roisin O’Doherty, a diplomat, married ambassador Robert McDonagh. One of their sons, Bobby – a godchild of de Valera – is the current ambassador to the Court of St James. When Queen Elizabeth arrived at Baldonnel Airport last May he was one of the first to welcome her on Irish soil. Mother Columba would have approved of the queen’s cúpla focal.