By Gearóid Ó Dubhthaigh
The circumstances surrounding the murder of the life-long pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington during the 1916 Rebellion probably did more than any single incident to bring British rule in Ireland into disrepute. Although his memory has been largely neglected in Ireland it is honoured by pacifists throughout the world
He was born Francis Skeffington, an only child, in Bailieboro, Co. Cavan, in 1878, and was educated by his father, a medical practitioner, whose idealism was infectious.
As a student at University College Dublin, Francis Skeffington – or “Skeff” as he was now known among his friends – earned a reputation as a nonconformist; he didn’t shave, was a tee-totaller, a vegetarian, a suffragist, and a pacifist. He was a contemporary of James Joyce. When their writings were turned down by the college magazine, they collaborated to publish their rejected articles in a pamphlet. Despite this success, their partnership did not persist; Skeffington regarded Joyce’s elopement with Nora Barnacle as contemptuous of women, while Joyce considered Skeffington to be ridiculously idealistic and much too radical in his feminism.
Another student, Hanna Sheehy (1877-1946) became his wife in 1903. She was born in Kanturk, Co. Cork, where her father was an Irish Party MP and her uncle, a priest, was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). At an early age she became an outspoken suffragette. When they married he prefixed Hanna’s surname to his own, and hence forth called himself Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. Together they pursued social and political ideals through their involvement in many radical societies.
After graduating he served as editor to various publications and wrote for a variety of periodicals, urging political leadership. Among his more important works are a biography of Michael Davitt (1846-1906), founder of the Irish Land League, whose idealism and life he so admired; a one-act feminist comedy “The Prodigal Daughter”; and a novel “In Dark and Evil Days” which offered a quasi-historical account of the rebellion of 1798.
During the Lock-out of 1913, his efforts to encourage negotiations between employers and the workers came to an abrupt end as riots erupted. When the Irish Citizen Army was formed, he was named vice-chairman, after it was decide that the organisation would remain purely as a defence front against police brutality. He left when it took on a militaristic character.
When the first world war broke out in 1914, he began a campaign against recruitment. In May 1915 he delivered a lecture pledging to resist the introduction of conscription and was sentenced to six months hard labour for “seditious acts”. However, after a six-day hunger-strike, he was released and his sentence suspended, under the “Cat and Mouse” Act. His wife had gone on hunger-strike in 1913 when she was imprisoned for throwing stones at Dublin Castle.
As a friend of a number of key figures in the IRB, he attempted to convince them to forego violence and to arm themselves with “weapons of the intellect and will”. On bank holiday Monday, April 24th, 1916, the Easter Week Rebellion broke out in Dublin. The unarmed metropolitan police abandoned the city centre resulting in shops being looted. On Tuesday, April 25th he went into the city to put up notices to discourage this looting. Returning home in the early evening, he was arrested at Portobello Bridge as an enemy sympathizer and taken to Portobello Barracks, which garrisoned about 300 soldiers mainly from the Royal Irish Rifles and the Ulster Militia Battalion.
Later that evening, Captain Bowen-Colthurst, who hailed from Dripsey, near Cork city, gathered a picket of about 40 soldiers and marched them towards Kelly’s tobacconist shop, at the corner of Upper Camden Street and Harcourt Road. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was brought as a human shield. Bowen-Colthurst seemed to be under the impression that Kelly was a supporter of the insurrection, and that the declaration of marshal law allowed him to take the law into his own hands. In fact, Alderman James Kelly was a prominent conservative nationalist.
The picket had only reached Rathmines Road when Bowen-Colthurst struck and then shot dead in cold blood a 19-year-old youth J.J. Coade, who was returning home from a sodality meeting at Rathmines church. Bowen-Colthurst then led his men towards Kelly’s, firing shots at random. There he arrested two newspaper editors who happened to be in the shop at that time; Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre. Together with Francis Sheehy-Skeffington they were marched back to the barracks and placed in the guard room for the night. No charge was made against them.
On the following morning Wednesday 26th, all three prisoners were told to stand against a wall and before they realised what was happening, they were shot dead on Bowen-Colthurst’s orders. A cover-up began immediately, led by the commanding officer in the barracks. Royal Engineers removed and replaced the bullet-marked masonry. Bowen-Colthurst himself led a raid on Sheehy-Skeffington’s home in an effort to find incriminating evidence. However, the case became a cause célèbre, thanks to the efforts of Sir Francis Fletcher Vane (1861-1934), an officer of exceptional moral courage in the Royal Munster Fusiliers.
Vane was a hereditary peer born in Dublin of an Irish mother and English father. Although an army officer he wrote against the atrocities committed during the Boer War in South Africa. Retired from the army he subsequently stood unsuccessfully for parliament as a Liberal candidate, and was active in the anti-war and suffragette campaigns. At the outbreak of the First World War he returned to the army, and with the rank of Major he was sent as a recruiting officer to Dublin. He was stationed at Portobello Barracks but was not present when these acts of violence were taking place.
When he returned on Wednesday 26th, Vane was outraged that Bowen-Colthurst was allowed to carry out his duties as if nothing had happened. On reporting the matter he found no support for decisive action. Vane obtained leave, travelled to London and managed to secure a meeting with the private secretary to Prime Minister Asquith and Field Marshal Kitchener, Secretary of State for War. As a result Bowen-Colthurst was tried and found guilty but insane by a military court martial held in private so as to spare the Government adverse publicity. Initially imprisoned in Broadmoor Criminal Mental Asylum, he was released in 1922 to settle in Canada where he died in the mid-1960s.
Vane was dismissed from the army, or as official papers released decades later put it: “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Féin rebellion”. For a number of years he waged an unsuccessful campaign for reinstatement, even appealing to the King. In addition manuscripts of various books he wrote were seized and suppressed by the military censor.
When the details of the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington were first made known in the British House of Commons by the nationalist MP John Dillon they aroused widespread indignation. Hanna was devastated by her husband’s senseless execution and was disgusted by the way in which British authorities handled the affair. Soon afterwards she travelled to the United States and even succeeded in enlisting the interest of President Theodore Roosevelt in her campaign to uncover the truth. Eventually the British Government offered her £10,000 compensation which she promptly refused, since she fiercely opposed the partition of Ireland.
She supported the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War, was a founding member of the Fianna Fáil Party, but later left it to act as assistant editor of the Republican paper An Phoblacht during the 1930s.
Although Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was raised as a Catholic it seems that by the end of his life, he had become what would today be known as a secular humanist. His only child, Owen Sheehy-Skeffington was an outspoken Senator.
This article by Gearóid Ó Dubhthaigh email@example.com has been issued as a leaflet for Pax Christi.