Top 5 Irish people who almost changed history.

The individual stories behind an Irish assassin, a revolutionary, an explorer,  a dictators mistress and a scientist who almost changed history.

5. Violet Gibson.

…..almost assassinated Benito Mussolini in 1926……

In 1944 Italian partisans captured the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini and executed him, hanging his body on display.  However, 18 years previously Violet Gibson could have ended it all for the dictator known as “Il Duce”. In 1926, as Mussolini left an engagement with the International Congress of Surgeons, Violet Gibson, a 50 year old Irish woman shot him.

Unfortunately for history, humanity and Violet she missed and was subsequently attacked by the crowd. It was only the Italian police who saved her by stepping in before the mob killed her. Fearing the backlash for executing or imprisoning a 50 year old woman, the fascist dictator let her go and she spent the rest of her life in a mental asylum in Northampton in England.

It has never been satisfactorily answered exactly why Gibson tried to kill the Italian dictator. Violet was a renegade all her life who also suffered deeply from mental illness. She rejected her aristocratic family background and flirted with lots of the radical ideas of the day from Irish nationalism to theosophy before settling on a radical form of Catholicism.  Accounts at the time blamed everything on the fact she was mentally ill, but how much of this is fascist propaganda is very difficult to tell.

4.Joseph Kavanagh

…..almost became a hero of the French revolution…………….

The French revolution of the late 18th century was one of the great moments that changed history. Its impact was so great that the Chinese communist Zhou Enlai allegedly quipped in the 1960’s that it was too early to tell its influence on history. A prominent participant in the revolution and its aftermath was none other than a Wexford carpenter Joseph Kavanagh.

Kavanagh was a well known revolutionary and became a prominent member of the revolutionary police in Paris. He was involved in the arrest the Duke of Orleans and Charlotte Corday, the assassin of the revolutionary leader Jean Paul Marat. He was drawn to leaders such as Robespierre, one of the architects of the reign of terror during the revolution and for a while it seemed that men like Robespierre and indeed Kavanagh would take France into the 19th century. However in 1794 Robespierre was himself killed and Joseph Kavanagh disappears from history. He may have been killed or possibly escaped before he himself had to face the guillotine….

3.Eliza Lynch

…..almost destroyed Paraguay……

Eliza Lynch started her life in the standard 19th century Irish way – in misery, escaping the famine to go to France. Here anything standard about her life ended. In Paris she met the heir to the Paraguayan dictatorship Francisco Solano and they became lovers.

Eliza and Francisco returned to Paraguay and in 1862 Francisco became dictator. They ran Paraguay like a fiefdom. In 1865 they were instrumental in starting a war with Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay that devastated Paraguay killing upwards of 50% of the population. Solano himself was killed in the defining battle of the war and Eliza after being locked up for a while returned to Europe.

We can only guess what might have happened had Solano and Eliza ran Paraguay for longer, but after their brief reign hundreds of thousands were dead and the country was bankrupt. Eliza had the audacity to return to Paraguay after a spell in Europe trying to get her hands on the estate of Solano. This was accrued through embezzlement and to make matters worse she was attempting to get the money while most Paraguayans lived in abject misery after her reign.

Eliza’s exact role in the regime is hard to tell – opinions vary, some maintain she was the brains behind the operation while others have argued she was merely swept along. Her attempts to recoup the estate of Lopez don’t exactly cover her in glory. In the 20th century she has been resurrected in Paraguay as a hero of Paraguayan nationalism while simultaneously featuring in a book called “the world’s wickedest women”.

2.Daniel Houghton

…..almost became a world famous explorer….

In 1788 Daniel Houghton left modern day Senegal in search of Timbuktu and the source of the Niger River which lie roughly in the middle of the Sahara desert. Born in Ireland in 1740 he had spent much of his life in Africa and was deemed an experienced person to find Timbuktu and the source of the Niger. Neither the Niger River nor Timbuktu were lost but Europeans had pretty much plundered all the Americas by this stage and unfortunately Africa was up next. To exploit Africa they needed to know where things were and no known European had been to Timbuktu since 1512. Houghton was the first step toward European colonisation.

In true European colonial style Daniel paid as much attention to the nearly 2,500 year old accounts of Herodotus as he did to local knowledge. His journey from the outset was plagued by disasters.  Firstly African Merchants tried to kill him as they could foresee the threat posed by European trade and after escaping with his life he subsequently lost all his baggage in a fire.

Eventually he made the disastrous move of hooking up with some Moorish merchants after which he disappeared. A few years later, Mungo Park, the Scottish explorer who followed in his footsteps heard that after he tried to turn back the merchants either killed him or abandoned him to die in the desert. Either way nothing more was heard of Houghton.

Its highly lightly he would never have returned had he found Timbuktu. The inhabitants of the city knew only too well what interaction with Europe meant and they killed the Gordon Laing who reached the city in 1826 fearing his return home would spark a European exploitation.

1.John Tyndall

…….Almost discovered global warming in the 19th century………

One of the leading scientists in the mid 19th century was an Irishman named John Tyndall. Incredibly although he was educated in a hedge school he went on to succeed Michael Faraday as Professor of Physics in the Royal institution. He was also a member of the famous X club, a group of nine scientists who argued that science should be free from religious influence. In his spare time he became a pioneer of mountain climbing being among the first to climb some of the highest peaks in the Alps.

He however claims top spot for, what was considered at the time, one of his lesser discoveries. Tyndall was the first to prove beyond doubt the greenhouse effect which helps to heat the planet. Unfortunately neither he nor any of his contemporaries realised that the human impact of burning fossil fuels could increase this effect. Had he or any his contemporaries realised the greenhouse effect could lead to global warming on the level we face today perhaps the state of the planet could be quite different. However Tyndall even with the rapid industrialisation of the 19th century could never have foreseen the incredible rise in emissions of CO2 of the 20th Century….

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0 comments on “Top 5 Irish people who almost changed history

  1. Jay on

    Good article that is a bit spoiled by the “tabloid like” headers. Eliza Lynch …..almost destroyed Paraguay……. Thats not really a justified statement to make considering she is proclaimed as a national heroine in Paraguay. However the article does make me want to research all these people further.

  2. Tony Dee on

    You forgot Ana Isabel Lynch, She gave birth to the first child of Ernesto Guevara Lynch – Che Guevara. 🙂 Without him Cuba would be a very different place.

  3. Daniel Gilroy on

    William Thompson of Cork should have been mentioned, a man well before his time. Even had an influence on some of Karl Marx thinking. He’s more or less forgotten about now. A GRAT MAN, we could do with him now.

  4. ballybay on

    As for John Tyndall, the Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia is named after him! I know that the Tyndall Centre has come under some criticism recently, as a result of some alleged data misuse, and I mean alleged (as mud slung frequently sticks), but I’m proud to learn that that the great man, about whom I have known for some years, was one of our own.


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