The pen and the sword – Oliver O’Hanlon on poet and writer Monk Gibbon

His experience of the first World War led to a crisis of conscience

Few writers enjoyed the longevity of Monk Gibbon. Though now slightly faded from the public imagination, he was once a popular poet and writer who produced an abundance of material in a range that included novels, travel books, biographies and literary criticism.

He continued to write and teach into his eighties. The son of a Protestant clergyman, he was born William Monk Gibbon in December 1896. Educated at St Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Gibbon was studying at Keble College, Oxford, when the first World War broke out.

He joined the Royal Army Service Corps and was sent to France where he served behind the lines as a transport officer. While in Dublin on leave, he witnessed the Easter Rising breaking out. Gibbon was one of the last people to speak to the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington before his execution at Portobello barracks (now Cathal Brugha barracks) in Rathmines.

The meeting left a lasting impression on Gibbon, who found that Skeffington had “something dignified about him” and he felt a sense of “horror and distress” on seeing Skeffington’s lifeless body being removed on a stretcher after his execution (not long after he had spoken to Gibbon). This, together with the execution of James Connolly, inclined Gibbon towards the republicans. He described himself as “half a Sinn Féiner” from that juncture.

Gibbon stated that he was “little more than a boy” when he first put on uniform and that his military career went through various phases from initial enthusiasm to “disillusion, and finally embitterment”. He would later come to decry the “infinite waste and folly which war entails”.

After the war, Gibbon claimed that he lived a “life of relative idleness” before going to study farming on the Channel island of Jersey. He then worked as a schoolteacher at a small boarding school for boys in North Wales. It proclaimed itself to be “a school for the Sons of Gentlemen”, recalled Gibbon in one of his memoirs.

The constant demands of the post left him feeling overwhelmed. He kept up with what was happening in Ireland by reading publications such as the Irish Statesman. Edited by George Russell (AE), Gibbon occasionally contributed to the weekly journal and to read it in his free time at the school brought him back to a “more congenial world”.

After Wales, Gibbon had a stint of teaching at Château-d’Oex in Switzerland. He was awarded a silver medal for poetry at the 1928 Tailteann Games. That year, he married Mabel Winifred Dingwall. He went to teach at a school in Swanage in Dorset in the early 1930s. These various periods abroad provided abundant source material for his subsequent books, many of which were autobiographical, including the 1935 book The Seals. It deals with a trip to Arranmore off the coast of Donegal and the subject of culling seals. His 1968 book Inglorious Soldier, looks at his experience of the first World War that led to his crisis of conscience.

He wrote books on Yeats and AE but of all his writing, Gibbon felt that Mount Ida was his best literary achievement. Running to over 470 pages and recounting his time living in Wales, Rome and elsewhere, it has been described as an “autobiographical novel on the theme of love”.

Gibbon claimed to have spent seven or eight years working on it and praised his wife who showed “interest and persistence” in it, encouraging him to complete it. He also claimed that Jawaharlal Nehru, former prime minister of India, had a copy of the book by his bedside.

Gibbon’s contemporaries praised his poetry, including Padraic Colum, who believed that he was oftentimes overlooked, saying that Gibbon “never had the public recognition his poetry deserves”. Katharine Tynan remarked that his poems had “quiet force and distinction”.

In more recent times, Eavan Boland praised Gibbon’s work as it was “free of the trivial, the painstaking casualness of so much contemporary poetry”. Boland contended that the single unifying theme of Gibbon’s prose and poetry work was that of the “dispossessed romantic”.

Following the funeral of the grand old man of Irish letters at St Paul’s Church, Glenageary in November 1987, Bruce Arnold remarked that Gibbon’s home on Sandycove Road was “always a haven for writers”.

His Sunday evening gatherings at the house, which was a short walk from Joyce’s Martello tower, were known to bring an eclectic mix of creative people together. Attendees included the actor Micheál Mac Liammóir and the Wicklow-born dancer Ninette de Valois. Gibbon was also noted for his encouragement of younger writers.

He was buried in the graveyard of St Nahi’s Church, Dundrum where his father had served as rector of Taney parish for over 30 years. An inscription on the gravestone reads “sing in that scented night, invisibly, and as you always do”, which is taken from one of his poems.

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