Credit: Capuchin Archives

ON THIS DAY 24 October 1877: Patriotic Priest and Capuchin Friar Fr Albert Bibby was born

Fr Albert Bibby (1877-1925) was a Capuchin friar who ministered to some of the executed rebels of the 1916 Rising. He was born Thomas Francis Bibby on 24 October 1877 at 17 Regent Street, Bagenalstown, Co. Carlow. He was the only son among five children of Julia Bibby (née Coogan) and John Bibby, a shopkeeper at that address. Both of his parents hailed from Kilkenny city, where the Bibby family had a long history as merchants and millers.

In his early childhood, his parents returned to Kilkenny, where his father had a shop at 17 High Street. He received his early education from the Christian Brothers, serving Mass in the Capuchin Friary close to his home.

At the age of 13, he attended the Seraphic College at the Capuchin friary in Rochestown, Co. Cork. He entered the order as a Kilkenny novitiate in 1894 at the age of just seventeen. He chose to take the name Albert as his religious name. From this time, he developed a keen interest and expertise in beekeeping, something which he pursued throughout his life. He professed holy vows a year later in 1895 and solemn vows in 1900. He was ordained a Catholic priest on 23 February 1902 at the age of 25.

In that same year, he was among the first group of Irish Capuchins to receive university degrees, graduating with a BA from the Royal University of Ireland (RUI), the successor of the Queen’s University of Ireland, which was in turn replaced by Queen’s University Belfast, with the Cork and Galway colleges forming the National University of Ireland, along with University College Dublin.

Immediately on incorporation, the Royal University broke with the “godless” convention, by setting examinations for, and awarding degrees to students of colleges with a religious heritage, notably Magee Presbyterian College, and the Catholic University of Ireland (that included St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth and University College Dublin).

Fr Bibby spent parts of his post-novitiate formation in Rochestown and Kilkenny,  and by the time of his ordination, he had joined the Capuchin community of St Mary of the Angels on Church Street, Dublin where he spent a substantial chunk of his subsequent ministry, including the years 1913-22.

The Irish Capuchin Franciscans have been ministering in Ireland since 1615 and today are widely known for their work through their Friaries, in hospitals, hospices and through the stoic work of all involved with Brother Kevin Crowley in the Capuchin Day Centre for Homeless People. Their work is testament to Capuchin spirituality, which is based on the Passion of Christ, and their crosses do not bear a corpus because it is the friar who is to take Christ’s place.

Similarly, Fr Bibby’s community sought to provide spiritual and material help to the poor, with the Friary situated in a working-class area. Fr Bibby took a special interest in the temperance movement, conducting temperance missions and retreats throughout Ireland. He was also passionate about the Irish-Ireland movement, joining the Columcille branch of the Gaelic League and attaining fluency in the Irish language. His passion and love for the language was clear, and he was sometimes mistaken for a native Irish speaker, often preaching missions in Gaeltacht areas entirely in Irish.

He attended the Irish college in Ballingeary, Co. Cork, where fellow students in the July to August 1906 session included signatory of the 1916 Proclamation Thomas MacDonagh, along with Tomás MacCurtain, Brian O’Higgins, Kathleen Sheehy and Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha. Through his Irish-Ireland activities, he met many of those who would become the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising, regarding some as close friends. He was widely known and esteemed among diverse classes of people in Dublin and beyond, owing to such activities, to his priestly ministry, and to his personal qualities of unpretentiousness, humility, personal holiness, kindness and amiability. During the course of the first world war, he offered different forms of assistance to the families of men in British military service.

In Easter week 1916, the Irish Volunteers occupied several positions close to the Church Street Capuchin community, setting up a headquarters and first aid station adjacent to the friary. Bibby was one of several friars who ministered throughout the week to the spiritual, physical and emotional needs of the insurgents and civilians, particularly the wounded and the dying, splitting most of his time between the Richmond hospital and the North Dublin Union (where many of the area’s residents sought refuge). In unspeakable scenes, on the Friday of that week, Fr Bibby administered the last rites to two youngsters who, upon climbing the union’s clock tower, were shot dead by a British sniper. The surrender order was issued that Saturday, the very next day, by Patrick Pearse, but prior to its receipt by the Volunteer detachment, Fr Bibby assisted in arranging an overnight truce in the area to allow the wounded to evacuate to the Richmond.

In the days that followed the suppression of the Rising, Fr Bibby and other friars visited prisoners, both male and female, in Kilmainham jail and Richmond army barracks. The friars would hear confessions, offer comfort, and would take messages back to their families regarding the prisoners’ locations and circumstances. Unlike the Kilmainham chaplain, Fr Bibby and his fellow Capuchins were sympathetic to the imprisoned rebels.

He was one of the friars who ministered to the eight rebel leaders who were to be executed in Kilmainham on the mornings of 4 and 8 May; and accompanied at least two of them (Michael O’Hanrahan and Seán Heuston) to their deaths, witnessing their last moment before death by firing squad, and anointing their bodies. Fr Bibby also consoled the families of those executed, with O’Hanrahan’s sister recalling:

‘These priests were marvellous. They saved the reason of many people whose sons and brothers were executed’

         (BMH, WS 270, p. 12).

Fr Bibby felt a sense of peace radiate from Séan Heuston and was struck by his selflessness, patriotism and genuine piety. Deeply moved, he wrote an account of Heuston’s last minutes for the Catholic Bulletin that was denied publication owing to strict censorship restrictions. However, a separate account that he later wrote made it into print in the Capuchin Annual of 1942 and 1966. In September 1917, Fr Bibby visited the republican prisoners who were on hunger strike in Mountjoy jail, including Thomas Ashe, not long before his death from the effects of forcible feeding.

During the war of 1919-21, Fr Bibby often visited imprisoned republicans. He helped IRA men on the run to secure safe houses, and carried messages between them and their families. A regular correspondent with prominent republicans and their families, he was particularly close with Tom Clarke’s widow and their three sons.  At least once, he communicated messages between Michael Collins and intelligence operatives. On the day before the execution of Kevin Barry (31 October 1920), he led a large crowd of protesting UCD students in a public recitation of the Rosary outside Mountjoy jail, and later would visit Barry in his cell to minister to him on the eve of his execution. Fr Bibby himself was arrested and questioned in Dublin Castle by the British military during a night raid of the Church Street friary (16-17 December 1920). He was arrested after several hours.

Letter from Kathleen Clarke to Fr Albert Bibby, 7 October 1916. Image courtesy of the Irish Capuchin Provincial Archives.

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He was also sympathetic to the anti-treaty position, and with his fellow Capuchin Fr Dominic O’Connor, ministered to the anti-treaty troops who seized the Four Courts in April 1922, and he sought to act as a mediator between them and the Free State provisional government. He was present in the Four Courts when it was attacked by the Free State troops, and he and Fr O’Connor accompanied the garrison’s injured to hospital both during the three-day bombardment and siege (28-30 June).  They helped to negotiate the garrison’s surrender, and would once again minister to the troops after the surrender.

Witnessing to their unwavering duty to all people, they then ministered to the anti-treaty garrison in the Hamman Hotel. Over the next several months, Fr Bibby would visit imprisoned opponents of the treaty.  His diary which relayed events in the Four Courts during the first day of the bombardment and published later that day in a republican organ, angered Free State authorities and was blasted as an ‘abuse of sacred office’ linking Catholic piety with ‘the forces of anarchy’ in an official complaint lodged on the 21 July 1922 to Archbishop Edward Byrne of Dublin about Bibby and O’Connor’s activities.

One month after the episcopal ban on giving the sacraments to anti-treaty republicans, Bibby was transferred to Rochestown, where he was not allowed access to diocesan faculties. He claimed to have been told by the Capuchin provincial that no Bishop in Ireland would allow him the faculties. He wrote a letter and statement to the Capuchin’s minister general protesting against what he described as ‘penalisation’, including a decision to translate him to America. In the letter, he made an unequivocal declaration of his ‘absolute impartiality’ throughout the conflict commencing in 1916, writing:

‘My mission as a Priest was not to any one section or party, it was to “embrace all in one sentiment of charity”’ (‘Case of Father Albert’, p.2).

After a period of time assigned to a parish in Ilford, Essex, assisting in parochial work, he was duly transferred to California in June 1924. Regarded as shy, independent and gentle, he was an idealist with a deep, mystical faith. Accounts state that he had such little regard for the small things and comforts in life, that his lack of them in keeping with his vow of poverty, presented no obstacle to his pursuit of an ideal. He was thin, austere and somewhat haggard in appearance, with spectacles and had a moustache and a goatee beard.

He also suffered from ill health due to his frail build, and during his time spent in Church Street, he was to survive a serious bout of enteric fever. He was visibly weakened by years of heavy emotional and mental strain which he endured during the troubles. In fact, concerns for his health were the outward reason for his transfers to Essex and the US. After just a few months in California, he was made the first superior of the Capuchin community of Santa Inés, one of 21 California missions founded by Spanish Franciscans in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

He fell seriously ill and was hospitalised in Santa Barbara, where he died on 14 February 1925 at the age of just 48 and was buried outside the mission’s chapel. In a letter from Fr. Dominic O’Cononr to De Valera, he describes a poignant scene, visiting Fr. Bibby on his deathbed. Describing his loneliness in exile in America, he quoted a defiant Fr. Bibby as saying:

“It is better to die in agony for freedom than live in luxurious slavery.”

10 years later, in 1935, Fr. Dominic was to die in a motor car accident and was laid to rest in Oregon (he had also been moved to America). 33 years later, in June 1958 his remains and those of Fr Dominic were repatriated to Ireland, an effort which was funded by the Old IRA in the USA and Ireland. Flown from New York to Shannon Airport, the remains of the two friars were received in the midst of celebration with thousands turning out to pay their respects to the much-loved priests. After an overnight stay in the Oratory in Shannon Airport, the silver-grey metal caskets draped in the Tricolour were then taken by cortege to Cork city, being greeted along the journey through every town and village.

After the solemn requiem Mass in the Capuchin’s Holy Trinity Church, which was attended by then-President Seán T. O’Kelly, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera, and other dignitaries of Church and state, the remains were reinterred in the Rochestown friary, outside Cork. Representatives from the Capuchin Order, the Irish Army, and Brigade units of the Old IRA from all over Ireland were also present at the Mass, whilst officers from the Old IRA formed a guard of honour outside the Church.

On that Saturday morning, Fr. Bibby’s family including his sister Agnes, nephew Patrick and second cousin Mrs James Ryan were present, occupying special positions in the Church where the Solemn High Mass was celebrated. Immediately afterwards, the caskets were lowered into the graves and the patriot priests were finally laid to rest in their home soil on 14 June 1958.

 

Fr Bibby arriving at his Mission in Santa Inés, California, 1924

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