At the dawn of 1921, two Westmeath women who grew up five miles apart and went to secondary school together were, at the same time, on duty in the United States, working alongside their husbands in promoting the cause of Irish independence.
One of them was Alice Ginnell (née King), the wife of the maverick former Irish nationalist MP Laurence Ginnell, who in July 1920 relocated to Chicago to promote the interests of the revolutionary First Dáil. Alice, a daughter of James and Georgina (née O’Sullivan) King of Kilbride House, Gaybrook, was born Mary Alice King on 26 September 1882.
Just over a year and a half earlier, on 3 March 1881 in nearby Tyrrellspass, Catherine Gibbons came into the world, the fifth child of seven born to Edward (b. 1840) and Anne (b. 1851, née Crossan) Gibbons. Edward, a native of King’s County (Offaly), was a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary who met and married Anne while stationed in Moynalty, County Meath. Their two eldest children were born in Cavan before Edward was reassigned to the midlands in 1877.
Some years later, he was transferred to the RIC duties in Fore and Collinstown, and the family settled at Ranaghan, where Edward and Anne spent the rest of their days. In 1893, Edward cashed in his RIC pension and retired from the force, just as young Catherine (‘Kitty’) prepared to enrol at Loreto Convent in Navan, where all five of the Gibbons sisters received their education.
Kitty Gibbons was a year ahead of Alice King at Loreto, Navan, and completed her senior grade examinations in 1899. Both girls left the school with honours in several languages, qualifications which stood to them in their later careers, but on leaving school, their lives initially took different paths. Alice spent some time finishing her education in France before marrying Laurence Ginnell, at the age of nineteen, in January 1902.
Kitty, meanwhile, followed her eldest sibling, Mary (Maria), into teaching, briefly joining her brother James in the English industrial town of Middlesbrough, where he was training to be a priest. Here, she finished her education in German, before returning to Ireland to enrol at a teacher training college in Belfast. She taught at schools in Dublin until marrying the Derry-born Irish republican, Séamus O’Doherty, in 1911. O’Doherty, sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) the previous year, was working as a travelling salesman with the Dublin publishers, M. H. Gill and Co., which provided him with cover for his revolutionary activities.
Growing up as the child of a former RIC sergeant did not prevent Kitty and her siblings from imbibing her own fill of strong, clerical-inspired nationalism. She was as ardent an activist as her husband, joining the Gaelic League and working alongside Constance Markievicz in Dublin soup kitchens during the 1913 lockout. When Séamus joined the Irish Volunteers in 1913, she signed up to the women’s auxiliary force, Cumann na mBan the following year, and between them the O’Dohertys were prominent in hiding and moving weapons for the movement.
Following the 1916 Rising, Séamus avoided imprisonment and was at the centre of re-establishing the supreme council of the now scattered IRB. Kitty, meanwhile, worked as secretary to the Irish National Aid Association, the organisation set up to generate financial support for the families of Volunteers killed during or deported after the rebellion. Her biographer, Terry Clavin, states that due to her influence, Michael Collins became a full-time paid secretary of the association in February 1917, accelerating his progress as a leader in the republican movement.
Kitty channeled her energy into the litany of groundbreaking by-elections across Ireland in 1917, and according to Clavin, was the originator of the famous slogan ‘Put him in to get him out’ popularised during imprisoned Sinn Féin candidate Joseph McGuinness’s successful campaign for the South Longford by-election.
Over the following two years Séamus spent time in and out of prison, while Kitty stood for the municipal elections in Dublin, and was elected a poor law guardian. Séamus, not a violent man, was perturbed by the hit-and-run guerrilla tactics adopted by the IRA during the first year of the War of Independence, and left Ireland in early 1920 to push for an Irish republic by diplomatically lobbying Irish America.
Séamus was followed to the US by Kitty and their family in August of that year, weeks after her old schoolmate, Alice Ginnell, arrived in Chicago with her husband to push the Irish republican cause in the midwest. Initially employed as a church furnisher, later in 1920 Séamus became the managing editor of the Irish Press newspaper, owned by the Philadelphia-based republican and businessman Joseph McGarrity. On her arrival in the US, Kitty became a frequent contributor to the paper, as well speaking regularly to Irish-American women’s groups. She also co-ordinated efforts to send supplies of medical goods, food and clothing to charitable organisations in Ireland for relief purposes. Dr Patrick McCartan, the IRB man, TD for Laois-Offaly and one of the Dáil’s top diplomatic agents, recalled that Kitty “toiled beyond belief” to ensure the delivery of 1,700 tons of food and clothing to Ireland by Christmas 1920.
Possessed by stout moral courage, Kitty was unafraid of putting pressure on high office to promote the cause of Irish independence. An example of this is recorded by her son, the late Michael Kevin O’Doherty, in his 1999 memoir My Parents and Other Rebels. In the spring of 1921, Kitty met with Dennis J. Dougherty, the Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia who had recently been elevated to the cardinalate by Pope Benedict XV. Dougherty raised substantial money for Ireland in the wake of the 1916 Rising but had been denied a promotion due to his advanced views, and appears to have damped his ardour in the ensuing years. In an audience with the cardinal, Kitty asked him to publicly identify with the republican cause, and elicited the following response:
Now, my child… would it not be better if you as an educated lady were to take up a teaching career in this city. You might settle down here. You might meet a suitable Irish-American life partner and set up another Catholic home.
Indignantly, Kitty replied:
I have no wish to mislead Your Eminence, but I have no desire to settle in this country. I am married and living here with six children. Your advice therefore scarcely applies to me.
“She concluded,” Kevin O’Doherty’s memoir concluded, “by advising the Cardinal – by now rather red-faced – as to how he might stretch to help people in the homeland of his grandparents.”
Kitty was, by Kevin’s account, also an admirer of the Indian nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi, and when she addressed a political meeting at the historic site of Valley Forge, she told a group of his compatriots: “Your cause is identical with mine.” She also led a group of women in a protest during a visit of the British ambassador, Sir Auckland Geddes, to Philadelphia, carrying banners reading ‘Geddes Go Home’ outside his hotel room.
The O’Dohertys remained in America throughout 1921 and into the Civil War period. Séamus, while erring on the side of opposition to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, was according to Clavin “horrified” by Ireland’s descent into fratricidal strife and was disinclined to emphatically take a side. Kitty, on the other hand, was an ardent supporter of Éamon de Valera and was more explicitly an anti-Treatyite – so much so that in July 1922, she smuggled £50,000 in funds into Ireland for the anti-Treaty IRA using a visit to her parents in Collinstown as a cover.
Kitty’s devotion to de Valera’s political mission continued beyond the Irish Civil War, and in subsequent years she became a supporter of Fianna Fáil. In 1957, she authored an account of de Valera’s 1919-20 fundraising campaign in the United States entitled Assignment America. Kitty is also credited with ghost writing (and toning down, in places) Dan Breen’s famous account of the revolutionary period, Guerrilla Days in Ireland.
Séamus and Kitty O’Doherty returned to Ireland permanently in 1923 and settled in Drumcondra. Kitty, who died in March 1969, outlived her husband by nearly 24 years.
Her eldest sister, the teacher Maria Gibbons, became a Loreto nun in Navan in 1906, taking the name Sr Columba (later Mother Columba). Notably, she was at Loreto Convent at the same time that a younger sister of Alice Ginnell’s, Constance King, also professed as a nun, Sr Mary Benignus. Maria’s claim to fame is authorship of the stirring republican ballad ‘Who fears to speak of Easter Week?’ in 1916. Another Gibbons sister, Margaret, became a teacher who in her seventies, travelled to India to research and write a biography of the Malankaran Syrian Catholic archbishop, Mar Ivanios.
Terry Clavin, ‘(Michael) Kevin O’Doherty’, Dictionary of Irish Biography entry available at https://www.dib.ie/biography/odoherty-michael-kevin-a9437 (also contains biographical information for Kevin’s parents); Michael Kevin O’Doherty, My Parents and Other Rebels (Dublin, 1999); Paul Hughes, ‘From Lakeside to Stateside…’ (Westmeath Examiner, 18 April 2020); Meath Chronicle, 2 September 1899; James Gibbons, ‘An Irishman’s Diary’ (Irish Times, 12 April 2012, available at https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/an-irishman-s-diary-1.499929); registers of births available at IrishGenealogy.ie; William E. Watson and Eugene J. Halus Jr (eds), Irish Americans: the History and Culture of a People (Santa Barbara, 2015, p. 190).
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 06/04/2021
This article was published on: 6th April, 2021
Filed under: Decade of Centenary