Anniversary of the murder of an outstanding man of peace
The facts of the killing of pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington in 1916 should not be forgotten, writes Ulick O'Connor
Published 26/04/2015 | 02:30
Today is the 99th anniversary of an event which took place during the Easter Rising of 1916. It occurred in the Portobello army barracks, Rathmines and involved the shooting by the British army of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, aged 37.
Skeffington was an outstanding journalist who had been part of a brilliant group of students to come out of University College Dublin and which included Tom Kettle and James Joyce.
He was also an ardent pacifist, who had gone around the city during the Rising handing out peace pamphlets. A man of great bravery, he went to the help of an unarmed boy who had been shot by British troops, and who died in his arms.
He had been arrested by the British army and taken to Portobello barracks. Next morning, at six o'clock, he was murdered, along with three others, on the orders of a Captain Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles, who chose to accompany his deed by reciting chunks of the Bible to the unfortunate victims.
The event would not have come into proper perspective if it hadn't been for the presence of a young lieutenant, home on leave from France. His name was William Monk Gibbon, and he was the son of the Protestant rector of Dundrum.
Gibbon reported to Major Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, commanding officer of the barracks, who was horrified when he learnt of what happened. What had really shocked Vane to the very core of his being was the remark to him at Dublin Castle by a Major Price: "You know, some of us think that men like Sheehy Skeffington are just as well out of the way."
But it wasn't until June 1916 that Bowen-Colthurst was actually arrested and charged with murder and court-martialled. Conveniently enough, he was found guilty but insane. His 'insanity' ended after a year and a half, and following his release, Bowen-Colthurst moved to Canada from his family home in Blarney, Co Cork. William Monk Gibbon returned to France, where he asked to be transferred to the Royal Army Medical Corps. However, a link had formed between himself and Sir Francis Vane, the commanding officer who admired the young lieutenant's courage in the Skeffington case.
The facts of the Bowen-Colthurst murder would have been suppressed if Monk Gibbon hadn't kept a detailed diary of the events surrounding it, which were later published as a memoir in 1968 called, Inglorious Soldier. I had become a friend of his and he used to say, with a smile, that he would never have finished it if it hadn't been for the constant nagging on my part. I persuaded him to continue his work on the book, to rediscover the past and place before posterity a remarkable story of moral courage; hence the book which he very generously dedicated to me.
In a letter to William Monk Gibbon, Major Sir Francis Vane, who was commanding officer at Portobello barracks, wrote in September 1916:
"I am afraid nothing in Ireland is as it should and might be… In the simplest matters, the English go right off the track in Ireland… The difficulty with the English collectively is that they never think that they can be wrong. I have sometimes made men of the British race paralytic when I have described a battle in which some English unit bolted, or reputable incident of cruelty. It is that extraordinary conviction that they are always right which is the curse in Ireland and elsewhere."
Because he had refused to withdraw his allegations about the affair, according to the Public Records Office, Sir Francis Vane had been dismissed from the army.
"This officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Fein rebellion".
By an extraordinary chance in 1963, I met Captain Bowen-Colthurst in Vancouver at a party. He had never been sufficiently punished for his crime, but spent a year and a half in a hospital for "shell shock". Needless to say we didn't refer to it and he played up his role as a jolly squire straight out of The Irish RM. He couldn't have known that the man who had him arrested, William Monk Gibbon, was a friend of mine and I didn't tell him.
A fine poem commemorating 'Skeff', as he was known to his friends, was written by Eva Gore-Booth on the day of his death.
From Francis Sheehy-Skeffington
Dublin, April 26, 1916
No green and poisonous laurel wreath shall shade
His brow, who dealt no death
in any strife,
Crown him with olive who
was not afraid
To join the desolate unarmed
ranks of life.
Yet not alone, nor all
For at his side does that
scorned Dreamer stand,
Who in the Olive Garden
Whose kingdom yet shall
come in every land.
It should be mentioned that Dr Bill Tormey (a specialist in chemical pathology and general internal medicine and consultant in Beaumont Hospital) has run an excellent campaign to keep the facts of the 'Skeffington case' in the public eye.