May Gibney, circa 1916

May Gibney, circa 1916

May Gibney (1893 - 1987)

Sally Smyth's mother, May Gibney, was born in Tralee in 1893. She had two sisters, Kathleen and Anne. Her father was an RIC man in Tralee who died of natural causes in 1903. Her mother was fortunate to have a sewing machine and was able to provide for her daughters by dressmaking. A maternal maiden aunt subsequently took May to live with her in her flat at 31 Temple Street, a large Georgian house now demolished - and rebuilt to house part of the Dublin Institute of Technology. Said aunt was by definition not used to children, and although she and May were very close, she was most strict in her rearing. The ethos of the home was religious, moral, and socially isolating. May attended the Model School in Marlborough Street and later the Kings Inns School, in Kings Inns Street.

Temple Street, part of Georgian Dublin was just beginning to come down the social scale of dwellings, later to become almost a slum area. Aunty did not approve of May's association with the local children, so May's school friends were arbitrarily, without vetting, not welcome at home. May learned a variety of feminine skills at home all of which stood her in good stead throughout her life, needlework, drawing, music (piano), and cooking. She also learned the social manners of her day and how to behave in a "lady-like" way. Aunty was from a middle-class background of County Cavan so one's general bearing had to be obviously decorous. One did not just carry a parcel (if one had to) in any old way, it had to be held poised delicately by its string. One always wore a hat and gloves and one's legs were always covered, and never crossed, and of course in all seasons one wore stockings and high button boots.

Of course May envied the local children their comparative freedom, and would, against all rules on occasions dally with them on her errands. One of these dallyings proved a disaster with months of suffering and penance. Some neighbouring children were playing "mothers" and a rag doll featured largely in the game. May was allowed hold this doll but as she took it, her aunt rounded the corner - no escape presented except a nearby dustbin, so May hopped in still clutching the doll, until Aunty passed in the opposite direction from home. May ran home but found she still had the doll - incriminating evidence. Saint Anthony, the Blessed Virgin and God Himself were called on for help to solve the predicament but she panicked at the idea of calling them to cover a lie. The only alternative was the Devil who solved it immediately by suggesting the fire! Doll was popped in - evidence gone, deal with owner later. Furious activity of "the good girl" followed as she scrubbed the table, dusted the bookshelves, and started preparing tea - with Aunty happily unaware of the mischief.

The following Saturday was obligatory confession, but how can one confess to praying to the Devil ? Long queues at the confessional, May allowed people to pass constantly. One and a half hours later, she was last at the box. She got cold feet so there was no confession. This was repeated every week for months. In the meantime she lost weight, having lost her appetite. She got thinner and thinner. Eventually she made a brave resolution to get rid of this enormous sin. "Bless me Father for I have sinned". "Yes my child, how long is it since your last confession ?" "Months, Father." "Your sins, child?" "I can't possibly tell you, Father." "Come, come, child, you surely have not murdered somebody?" In a great rush; "Much worse than that Father, I prayed to the devil." The priest, relieved, roared with laughter. This to May was worse than the most severe penance and she cried bitterly.

As far as is known May was not initially active Nationally and not a member of Cumann na mBan, although her sympathies would have been strongly with Parnell, whom her mother - now living close by - admired greatly, decrying those who turned against him after the revelations of his private life. Dublin in 1916 was now in the grip of Revolution and many buildings including the General Post Office were occupied by the Irish Forces. May bravely knocked at the door of the Post Office and offered her services. At first she was refused. She mentioned the name of a serving IRA man and asked to see Pearse. Convincing him of her usefulness, she was admitted. She spent Easter Week there among the other women, attending the wounded and performing any other duties required of her. By the end of the week Dublin was nearly gutted, including the GPO, the garrison of which had to surrender to the British. Subsequently, the leaders were executed but not before the women had been ordered by Pearse to disperse and avoid capture. May among others escaped, although she was arrested for a very short time and afterwards released. Soon after Easter Week she met Dick McKee, later to become Commandant of the Dublin Brigade (1918 - 1920), and she joined Cumann na mBan. Dick worked for the publishers and retail booksellers Gills in O'Connell Street. They became close friends and were later engaged to be married. Dick McKee, together with Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune, was shot on Bloody Sunday, 21 Nov 1920, at Dublin Castle by British soldiers. On that evening May and Dick's sister Maura McKee went to Dublin Castle to claim his body but were not given any information by the British authorities. They spent the remainder of the night searching Dublin hospitals, and in the early hours of the following day found all three bodies in the City morgue. They were later buried with soldiers' honours in Glasnevin Cemetery.

Soon after joining Cumann na mBan, May Gibney's Commanding Officer was Kathleen Barry, sister of Kevin Barry, who was hanged by the British authorities three weeks before Dick McKee's shooting. May henceforth became one of the many women selected by the IRA as undercover liaison between the various IRA units throughout the country. This entailed carrying orders of manoeuvres between brigades and also transporting guns. This they achieved through concealment on their persons, presuming on the delicacies of British soldiers not to search women. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. A contemporary phrase coined by Helena Molony comes to mind: guns and chiffon. One of the missions Kathleen Barry allotted to May Gibney was to go to the Carlow Brigade with some orders for the Cumann na mBan branch there. She was first to interview the Brigade Officer, Lar O'Neill, who introduced her to the local Cumann na mBan. These women resented the intrusion of this strange woman from Dublin and were initially most uncooperative, and, in fact, deliberately froze her out of their circle. She was miserable but quietly persistent. It was her first introduction to the combined arrogance of women which she was to experience many times subsequently. May was an inordinately handsome young woman and completely unconscious of her beauty and its effect on others, and, arriving in Carlow, was herself in awe of this closeknit organisation of Carlow Nationalists. Lar O'Neill was a most able character and a fine soldier, apart from his noble bearing. He recognised in May a kindred spirit and they worked well together. May eventually had to return to Dublin but by then Lar was smitten and started a correspondence with her. She was not yet ready for another love, but he persisted. A regular occurrence with sympathisers of Nationalism was house raids by the British. Soldiers would just arrive and if necessary break down the door to gain admission, to raid for guns and papers possibly held on the premises. As aforementioned, May lived in a Georgian house, so anything incriminating she had from time to time she hid in the space on top of the high window frames. None of these things was ever discovered though the entire house was ransacked. On one occasion during a raid May calmly ignored the soldiers and sat playing the piano. She was very nervous and not at all conscious of the tune. When they withdrew she realised she had been playing The Red Flag. These raids occurred on a regular basis and were a constant source of terror to the entire family (now Aunt, mother and two sisters) who were not involved in the struggle, but sympathised with May's idealism.

During the Tan War, Lar had to set fire to an estate house belonging to an Anglo-Irish family in Carlow. This act of punishment was commonly imposed on British landowners living in Ireland, who, being aware of the undercover activities of the IRA, would report them to the British authorities. On this occasion, the family had done just that. Lar informed the woman of the house of his duties, telling her that the house and contents would be burned. He did allow her to remove any small articles of particular sentiment. Before streaming petrol through the house he did a tour of it, looking in drawers and so on. In one, he found a long string of pearls which he recognised as being priceless. These he put in his pocket. He then set fire to the house. As they stood on the lawn he and the mistress of the house chatted. She was a very stoic lady, admitting she had been foolish and should have known better, coming herself from a military background. During the conversation, Lar produced the pearls, stating his belief that they also would hold sentimental value for her. Her gratitude was such that she cried and complimented him. Soldiers of high calibre recognise heroism regardless of what side they are on. In later life, the two became close friends.

In 1921 in Carlow, Lar O'Neill was wounded and arrested. He was sent to Mountjoy Prison, then on to Dartmoor Prison for execution. In Dartmoor, ill or wounded prisoners were allowed to be treated by their own doctors - also prisoners. Lar's injury was a severe gunshot wound in the left underarm. His fellow prisoner/doctor, in treating his injury, kept it in a controlled festering condition. As long as Lar was ill the execution was in abeyance, hence the doctor's decision to keep the wound open for as long as possible. There were rumours of a cease-fire that would allow talks with the British Government. De Valera sent Michael Collins and other plenipotentiaries to England. These tactics saved Lar's life and he was released. The cease-fire did indeed take place. The delegation signed a Treaty relinquishing the six NorthEastern counties of Ireland to the British Crown; the remaining twenty-six counties became the Free State. At home in Ireland this event caused great confusion among Republicans, eventually developing into Civil War. There was now in existence the new Free State/National Army, and those remaining true to the Irish Republican Army. This period of war was more disturbing than the one against the British, as it turned neighbour against neighbour and brother against brother with friendships becoming strained. One instance of this was during a raid on May Gibney's home by Free State soldiers. The Commander of the troops had been one of her close friends. Recognising her address, he ordered his troops to stay put in the tenders while he went on ahead and warned her of the raid, saying that if she had anything incriminating he would put it in his pocket for her before the troops came up. He would then have no need to arrest her. May handed over her material. Acts of humanity such as this were sometimes apparent no matter what the beliefs as May herself discovered on an occasion when she was guarding young Free State soldiers who had been captured by the IRA. May asked a comrade Cumann na mBan officer to allow these teenage soldiers to write to their mothers with the information they were alive and received only the sharp retort; "They should be shot!" May waited until an opportunity presented to return to the young soldiers, when she gave them each a piece of paper instructing them they could write to inform their mothers they were safe, but give no further details. She promised them she would personally deliver these precious letters, knowing she could face court martial for acting in this manner.

In 1922 May was captured by the Free State Army and incarcerated in Kilmainham Gaol for a period of at least five months. During her time in Cumann na mBan she made many friends throughout the country including among her dearest the women she had met in Carlow. Several of these were now fellow prisoners. The gaol Governor was Bill Corri whom most of the women had known and liked during the War of Independence. This man was in a most awkward position, yet within his brief tried to make prison life as easy as possible for his prisoners - consisting solely of Cumann na mBan women. Unfortunately, his good intentions were not universally recognised by them, some of whom made his life very difficult. While it is legitimate to conduct subversion in the hands of the enemy, there are also rules of conduct to be observed. Some prisoners broke many of these rules in such an unethical manner that their methods of subversion proved contrary to their own ends. One of these acts was the burning of their cell furniture in the main compound which nearly set the prison on fire and could have engulfed themselves and those other prisoners, including May who were not party to the act. May herself was released from Kilmainham sometime after August 23rd 1923 and now faced the task of rebuilding her life post-Treaty. In 1929 she married Lar O'Neill in Dublin, where they resided for the remainder of their lives. They had four children, three daughters and one son.

Sally Smyth O'Neill - August 1999