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'Violet Gibson': New film captures the life of Irishwoman who tried to kill Benito Mussolini

Barrie Dowdall’s new film explores the life of Violet Gibson, who was committed to an asylum for her assassination attempt.

Olwen Fouéré as Violet Gibson
Olwen Fouéré as Violet Gibson
Image: DIFF

AT THE ANCIENT Campidoglio site in Rome on 7 March 1926 Violet Gibson stepped forward from the crowd as Italian leader Benito Mussolini passed through. 

Dressed in dark clothes, the 50-year-old Irishwoman drew her pistol and fired at point-blank range. 

Despite perforating the Italian fascist leader’s nostril, Mussolini was unharmed. Gibson, set upon by the crowd, was arrested. 

She’d spend the rest of her life in Northampton Mental Hospital in England, largely forgotten. 

Despite the fact that Gibson – who grew up in Merrion Square – was one of four people who tried to assassinate Mussolini, and the only one who ever came close to succeeding, she has largely been written out of history.

Her story is now being told by filmmaker Barrie Dowdall, whose film Violet Gibson screens this evening as part of Dublin International Film Festival

Gibson was born in 1876 to a privileged family. Her father was Lord Ashbourne, a friend of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. 

Despite her later daredevil assassination attempt, Gibson was bound by the social mores of her day. ”Victorian women were sequestered but she was an outlier,” said Dowdall. 

The year before her attempt to assassinate Mussolini, Gibson tried to kill herself, he said. 

The bullet she fired into her chest ricocheted off her rib cage. She survived. 

In 1926, Mussolini – or ‘Il Duce’ as he was known in Italy – was adored by Italians and admired by leaders across the world. ”The British loved him. He could do no wrong,” Dowdall told TheJournal.ie. “People were attracted to him.”

Gibson had other ideas. 

Capture Violet Gibson's 1926 Prison ID Card Source: DIFF

Using a mixture of historical newsreel footage and shots filmed on-site in Rome, Dowdall’s film begins with Gibson’s assassination attempt on the fascist dictator. 

Committed to an asylum in 1926, the film follows her attempts to gain clemency for trying to kill Mussolini, who led Italy until his own execution in 1945 during World War Two. 

In the asylum, Gibson writes letter after letter to try gain her release. “She’s using whatever social caché she has to say ‘Look, let me out of this place, I’m not a danger anymore.”

Despite her attempts, she was unsuccessful. She died at Northampton in 1956. 

In trying to bring Gibson’s forgotten story to life, Dowdall includes input from historians and delves into Gibson’s childhood to understood her life and her later actions. 

“I’m attracted to stories about underdogs, people fighting the odds,” said Dowdall, who was inspired by both his wife Siobhan Lynam’s 2015 radio documentary about Gibson and Francis Stoner-Saunders, author of the book The Woman Who Shot Mussolini.

Said Dowdall: “If a man had done this there would probably be a statue of him.”

Violet Gibson screens on Friday 6 March at Lighthouse Cinema at 2pm as part of Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival. 

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