Friday 24 May 2019

My 1916: Cold-blooded murder in Rathmines

The murder of civilian Francis Sheehy Skeffington was one of the most shocking incidents of the Rising. Kim Bielenberg talks about his feminist legacy with his granddaughter Micheline

Justice seeeker: Micheline Sheehy Skeffington’s grandfather was murdered during the 1916 Rising
Justice seeeker: Micheline Sheehy Skeffington’s grandfather was murdered during the 1916 Rising
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

In the National Museum in Dublin there is a brick with a bullet embedded it. The bullet was shot by the firing squad that killed Francis Sheehy Skeffington at Portobello Barracks on the morning of April 26 during the Easter Rising.

Troops shot the civilian Sheehy Skeffington on the orders of Captain JC Bowen-Colthurst in one of the most notorious incidents of the Rising. His wife Hanna, a leading campaigner for votes for women, did not find out that her husband was dead for four days.

Almost a century later, the couple's granddaughter, Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, looks back on the lives of Francis and Hanna with pride and certain sadness.

The murder has dominated the life of her family. As a result of the murder, her father, Owen Sheehy Skeffington, a well-known senator, had lost his father when he was just six-years-old.

A desire to fight injustice has passed through the family. Micheline herself won a landmark Equality Tribunal case last year against her former employer, NUI Galway, for discrimination after the university failed to promote her. She had discovered that 16 men and only one woman had been promoted to senior posts. "I felt I had to take the case to honour my grandparents," she says.

So how did her grandfather incur the wrath of a British captain, and end up before a firing squad without charges being laid against him? He just had the misfortune of finding himself the captive of Captain Bowen-Colthurst, a soldier who was later described by one of his superiors as "deranged".

In some ways, Francis Sheehy Skeffington was a man ahead of his time as a feminist campaigner. When he married Hanna Sheehy, he took her name, and she took his.

"Men don't even do that now a century later," says Micheline.

"He was a close friend of James Joyce. They were like polar opposites. Joyce would taunt him. Joyce was debonair and devil-may-care while my grandfather was more earnest; Joyce didn't have time for his politics, but they were both so eccentric that they got on well."

Francis sympathised with republican ideals, but told one of the eventual leaders of the rebellion, Thomas McDonagh, that he found violent methods "repellent".

As a result of their pacifist views, Francis and Hanna did not play any military role in the Rising. In fact, on the first day of the rebellion, Francis tried to go to the assistance of a British soldier, after he heard he was dying on the street.

Micheline says: "Hanna went to the GPO to bring the rebels food and pass on messages. Francis went into the centre of town to try to stop looting. He wasn't concerned about property, but the image of the revolution. He didn't want the revolutionaries to be seen as ruffians."

He was picked up by the troops at Portobello Bridge on his way home, and held as an 'enemy sympathiser'.

Sheehy Skeffington was taken as a hostage as Bowen-Colthurst led a raiding party, with the threat that he would be shot if the soldiers came to any harm.

Sheehy Skeffington protested when the frenzied Bowen-Colthurst shot a boy on the street and also a Labour party politician.

On the following morning, Francis and two journalists, who had no part in the Rising, were gunned down by the firing squad. Micheline tells how two days later Hanna was putting her son Owen to bed at the family home in Rathmines when troops arrived.

"The house was raided by Bowen-Colthurst, because he wanted to find incriminating evidence against Francis to justify his killing. Of course, they had no evidence.

"They smashed windows, and broke in the door. They took drawings by six-year-old Owen of zeppelins and sinking battleships, and tried to use them as evidence of collaboration with the Germans."

Captain Colthurst was eventually charged with murder and found guilty but insane. He spent just a year in an asylum in Britain, but was deemed "cured" not long afterwards, and lived on a pension until 1965.

Young Owen travelled with his mother to America, where she made speeches about British injustice.

Micheline says: "Hanna had great charisma and Carnegie Hall was filled to capacity the first time she appeared there. The papers were printing her entire speeches, especially when she got to San Francisco."

Micheline recalls how the death shaped the views of her father: "I strongly remember when I was growing up that my father was very anti-military himself. He had a horror of children playing with guns. I remember him saying 'Don't point that gun at me'.

Owen Sheehy Skeffington worked as a lecturer in Trinity College, and became well known as a campaigner against corporal punishment. She followed his path into academia and is a botanist in Galway.

Although the rank injustice suffered by the family in 1916 became a cause celebre almost immediately, Micheline says she has never been invited to 1916 commemorations.

"It doesn't really bother my brothers and me. We are not that keen to be associated with military commemorations."

Part of her wariness stems from the fact that both her grandparents were pacifists who opposed military methods, even though they sympathised with the views of the republican participants in the Rising and were friends with some of them.

"I often wonder what Ireland would have been like if the some of leaders of the Rising, like Connolly, had survived - they believed in equality for women.

"They were the cream of the leaders who should have run a new Ireland and they were taken out. The people who replaced them were mediocre and unimaginative."

Irish Independent

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