Cornelius 'Con' Colbert From a boy scout to rebel leader with a cause
Limerick native wept openly when told he had to surrender, writes Leanne Blaney
Executed by firing squad at the age of 27, Cornelius 'Con' Bernard Colbert came from a long lineage of Fenian and nationalist activists.
Born the son of a farmer on 19 October 1888 in Moanlena, Colbert, along with his 12 siblings, enjoyed a childhood rich in local history, national affairs and the Irish language. After the death of his mother Nora (née McDermott) at 37, the family began to leave Limerick in order to earn a livelihood and at 16, Colbert moved to Dublin to live with his elder sister Katherine at 7, Clifton Terrace, Ranelagh Road.
Having completed his secondary education at the CBS on Richmond Street and following a brief spell at Skerries College, Colbert became a junior clerk at Kennedy's Bakery on Britain Street (now Parnell Street). As a keen advocate of Irish manufacturing, who always ensured his clothes were manufactured in Ireland, the position allowed him the opportunity to pursue his nationalist interests. He became an active participant in various Gaelic League activities, including the national boy-scout organisation, Na Fianna Éireann.
Initially, appointed captain of the Inchicore Fianna branch, he rose to become the Chief Scout of Ireland. Proficient in Irish and confident that previous nationalist rebellions had failed solely because of "drink… want of discipline and loose talk", Colbert employed a British army instructor for private lessons in military drill. Though small in stature and quietly-spoken, Colbert proved an effective drill instructor and by 1910 was employed part-time at St Enda's.
Having joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood in 1907, he helped commence the secret drilling and military training of IRB members at the National Foresters Hall, Parnell Square in 1913. As captain of F Company of the Fourth Battalion, Dublin Brigade, he was responsible for the selection and training of those who would serve as Volunteer officers during the Rising.
Ironically, given that Colbert was a dedicated pioneer, during Easter Week he was responsible for commanding the garrison at Watkin's brewery on Ardee Street and later successfully defending the Jameson distillery on Marrowbone Lane. Blindsided by the order for general surrender issued by Patrick Pearse, Colbert allegedly wept openly when it was passed to him from Thomas MacDonagh.
In Kilmainham, while awaiting execution, he refused visitors for fear it would prove upsetting, with the exception of asking to meet the wife of one of his captains, Séamus Ó Murchadha, who was also a prisoner in the gaol.
"I asked why he did not call for his sister Lila. He said he did not like to cause her trouble." Instead he spent the time writing letters to his family, as well as to "the nicest girl in Dublin" Lucy Smyth, a member of Cumann na mBan who had spent Easter Week as a volunteer in the GPO.
Born: 19 October 1888, Castlemahon, Co Limerick
Educated: Athea NS, North Richmond St CBS, Dublin
Affiliation: IRB/Irish Volunteers
Career: Clerk, drill instructor
Died: 8 May 1916, Kilmainham Jail
Leanne Blaney is a social and transport historian who recently completed her PhD in the School of History (UCD)