Gift of the Gob – An Irishman’s Diary about the name Gobnait
“As profiled in a Harry Clarke stained-class window in Cork, St Gobnait’s nose has the trajectory of an Olympic ski-jump”
Is it wrong to feel sorry for women called Gobnait? If so, and if there are some of you who rejoice in the name, I apologise for my presumption. But while I’m at it, happy birthday. You must have been born on or around February 11th, the eponymous saint’s feast day. So at least your parents had an excuse.
Or maybe it was a geographical inheritance. In which case, the high-risk areas include Clare, where St Gobnait was born; Inis Oírr, where she fled from her family; and Ballyvourney, Co Cork, the site of her convent and the place most associated with her.
Then again, there are Kilgobnets dotted all over the south of Ireland. And there may even be a few Gobnaits so-christened because their parents enjoyed bee-keeping, something with which the saint was much associated.
Anyway, if you do have the name and regret it, it could be worse. You could be a man called Fechin, for example; especially in parts of the country where, unlike Connemara, they don’t silence the “c”.
The only problem with Gobnait, really, is that it sounds inelegant. “Gob” is an opening syllable from which no Irish name can fully recover; although, historically, it was the saint’s nose, not mouth, that was her stand-out feature.
In one history, she is described as a “sharp-beaked nun”. And as profiled in a Harry Clarke stained-class window in Cork, her nose has the trajectory of an Olympic ski-jump.
Since shortening the name is hardly an option, I suspect that a few teenage Gobnaits have quietly dropped it over the years, in favour of something else.
But there is at least one woman in Irish history who did the reverse, taking the name in adulthood, as a free choice, and becoming probably the best-known Gobnait of the 20th century.
It was far from Ballyvourney or Inis Oírr that Albinia Lucy Broderick was born, back in 1861. She was part of an aristocratic English family, based in London’s Belgravia, albeit that her brother was Lord Midleton, with an estate there to match.
But her own visits to Cork seem to have proven highly infectious. Her Irish Times obituary would note many years later that she had “abandoned an easy life” in favour of conversion to Irish nationalism. And among the hardships she thereby took upon herself was a new name, Gobnait Ní Bruadair.
As Roy Foster writes in his 2014 book Vivid Faces, she joined Countess Markievicz as one of a small group of “Ascendancy rebels” who, motivated by a mixture of guilt and feminism, became militant republicans.
But Ní Bruadair was even more militant than Markievicz, eventually. She was shot by Free State troops during the Civil War and went on hunger strike in prison. Later she disdained Fianna Fáil as an outlet for her anti-Treaty views and then left Cumann mBan to form her own extreme-nationalist grouping, Mná na Poblachta.
Foster mentions the disquiet she once caused her fellow Protestant republican, Rosamond Jacob, who worried about the shortage of their co-religionists in Sinn Féin.
Jacob wrote in her diary: “I’m in a fright now for fear she may turn Catholic herself, like Casement and Madame de Markievicz”.
She needn’t have fretted. As a Kerry Gaeilgeoir, Ní Bruadair remained a committed member of the Church of Ireland in Sneem, where she played the organ regularly. Her self-reinvention had also included training as a nurse, a vocation she carried on for many years. She never married and died aged 93.
By leaving most of her money to the republican movement, she then revived the Civil War in microcosm.
The will bequeathed £17,000 in vague terms to republicans “as they were in the years 1919 to 1921”.
Decades of legal argument could not resolve what this meant and in 1979 a judge gave up, declaring the bequest “void for remoteness”.
Her legacy to the name Gobnait is also debatable.
Being one of the great Irish eccentrics, she probably didn’t help popularise it much.
Perhaps the best-known Gobnait in the years since then was a fictional radio character with the surname O’Lunasa. Adding insult to injury, thanks to Frank Kelly, he was a man.