Lord Ashbourne


 17 rue Domeiliers, Compiègne

Dublin-born William Gibson (Dublin, 1868—Compiègne 1942), aka 2nd Baron Ashbourne, Liam Mac Giolla Bhríde or Lord Ashbourne) died on January 21, 1942 at the age of 74 at his home at 17, rue des Domeliers in the centre of Compiègne, close to the internment camp of Royallieu where other Irishmen were imprisoned during the war.

Ashbourne was a fervent Irish cultural revivalist, a prominent member of the Gaelic League, whose cultural and religious views had caused him to be largely disinherited by his father. Ashbourne’s death prompted messages of condolences for his French wife from the likes of Douglas Hyde and Eamon de Valera as well as an eulogy in the Catholic Herald, which told its readers that Ashbourne “always wore the kilted Irish dress and was a picturesque figure. His green kilt, green stockings and belt with massive silver buckle always created unusual interest. Before the last war Lord Ashbourne created a mild sensation by appearing in the House of Lords in kilts and speaking in Gaelic”. He had last visited Ireland in July 1939, when he could barely walk and was in Compiègne when the Germans marched in in June 1940. In spite of his age, he was briefly interned in December 1940, before he was released on the intervention of his wife, Marianne de Monbrison (like Lord Ashbourne, a convert from Protestantism), who also got released “a young Irish nun”, called Soeur Cécile, who was subsequently to look after Lord Ashbourne on his death bed
         Il Duce gets a nose job
Indirectly, Lord Ashbourne had already had a run-in with the Axis powers several years earlier. His mentally disturbed sister, Violet Gibson, had tried to assassinate Benito Mussolini in front of the Campidoglio in Rome in April 1926. A shot from her revolver only succeeded in grazing Il Duce’s nose before the gun jammed and  Violet was quickly overcome. In order to avoid a diplomatic incident, her trial was quickly expedited, Violet was declared insane, and she was sent back to a mental hospital in England. Lord Ashbourne seems to have played an important role in Violets decision to convert to Catholicism of a progressive kind and to her interest in the kind of Celtic mysticism that seems to have taken over his own life.  Lord Ashbourne’s own literary output betrayed his interest for the history and philosophy of French Catholicism, with titles such as The abbé Lamennais and the liberal Catholic movement in France and L’église libre dans l’état libre. Ashbourne was mortified by his sister’s actions and he willingly accepted a request for a meeting from the Italian embassy in Paris to explain what had happened. The Italian consul met Ashbourne, describing him as “an imposing red-faced old man with a head of abundant, snow-white hair [who] entered my office in his habitual traditional costume and, with lips trembling, said ‘Quelle horreur’!"


 Lord Ashbourne's grave

At the same time, two agents from the Italian secret service were sent to stake out Lord Ashbourne’s abode in rue des Domeliers in Compiègne, where he and his wife had lived since 1920 but after a while decided the place was “semi abandoned”. An antique shop owner in the same street told the Italians that Lord Ashbourne associated with a heteroclite crowd ranging from rowdy students to local aristocracy, and that he also did a lot of charity work with the local poor and “was held in great esteem by everybody”. The Italians also spied on Lord Ashbourne’s Paris hideout, at the Hotel International on the Avenue Iéna in Paris, where he spent most weekends. But here too, the agents were only able to ascertain that Lord Ashbourne was considered “an eccentric academic who loved beer, literature and radical students.” Among the people he came to know during his Paris sojourns was one Lydia Vanston, an Irish artist living in Paris. She made a bust of Lord Ashbourne sometime before the Occupation, but lost it when she had to abandon her flat ahead of the advancing Germans. 

 According to his widow, Marianne (who Violet Gibson distrusted and described as a “mischief maker”), Lord Ashbourne spent the last months of his life “more and more withdrawn in his room, surrounded by objects which had come from Ireland or which recalled it to him and leaving his room for walks. He had in his room his Celtic cross, the flag of the Red Hand of Ulster, an address from members of the hockey (hurling?) club of Kilkeel, a Breton statue of the Virgin, swans in Beleek, landscapes of Killarney, Connemara, Lough Neagh; Irish plaids on his bed and portraits connected with his ideals, among them those of O’Connell, Lamennais, A. Comte, l’Abbé Grégoire, and a library of the French Revolution on which he had done much work in his youth….An Irish rosary never left his bed and was often in his hands up to the very last days when he was no longer able to hold it.”

Upon his death in January 1942, Lord Ashbourne was “clad in his kilt, the Sinn Féin ring on the collar of his shirt, his dear Irish beads entwined in his joined hands….On the coffin was the flag of the Red Hand at his feet the Celtic Cross and many inhabitants of Compiègne who loved and admired him came to pray for him.” Lord Ashbourne was buried in the hamlet of Chevincourt, 15 kilometres north of Compiègne. The large Celtic cross over Lord Ashbourne’s grave still stands there today, but his residence at rue Dormeliers was torn down to make way for apartments and a medical centre sometime after the war, leaving only part of the original gardens.


Select Bibliography

National Archives of Ireland, Department of Foreign Affairs files, Paris Legation, 1940-1945

Catholic Herald, Jan. 30, 1942

The Woman Who Shot Mussolini (2010) 
Frances Stonor Saunders