Tuesday 15 October 2019

16 Lives: Con Colbert & Na Fianna Eireann

John O’Callaghan

Con Colbert was a member of Na Fianna Éireann, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He commanded forces at Watkins' brewery and Jameson's distillery during the Easter Rising. He faced the firing squad at Kilmainham Gaol on 8 May 1916, aged twenty-seven.

Deeply Pious

Con Colbert attended the inaugural meeting of Na Fianna on 16 August 1909 and, displaying the same industriousness and meticulousness as he did in the Gaelic League, soon accumulated influence.

His initial appointment was as captain. He impressed in instructing Fianna classes in drill, small arms, signalling, scouting, map reading and first aid, as well as in leading field manoeuvres. A keen Fianna recruiting agent, much of his summer holidays were spent cycling through the country, especially around Limerick, seeking new supporters.

He was fastidious about his dress and appearance, and tried to instil this trait in Fianna members. Bob Holland recalled how Colbert stressed the importance of personal hygiene: ‘He often lectured boys on how they should keep their bodies. He used to tell them that they should wash their feet as often as they washed their face.’ Colbert had ‘a very dramatic way of speaking’. It seems reasonable to assume that he spoke with a west Limerick accent and, judging by Dubliner Holland’s reference to his ‘broad brogue’, that he never lost it.

Separatist republicanism defined itself in ethical as well as in ideological terms, and Na Fianna emphasised the importance of morality, but, unlike other youth groups of the period, rarely made reference to religion. This was probably because Hobson and Markievicz, as well as recognising how politically divisive religion was in Ireland, did not want Catholic parents to suspect proselytism where none existed. Deeply personally pious, Colbert was a daily communicant and ‘a very good-living Catholic’ according to Holland. He did not curse. He did not eat meat during Lent. Ardently ascetic, Colbert was a non-smoker and did not drink alcohol, joining the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association in 1906.

While he seems to have been driven by a moral as well as a political imperative, his teetotal lifestyle and his emphasis on personal discipline may have been inspired by his reading and interpretation of Irish revolutionary history. On one occasion, when Major John MacBride lectured to Na Fianna on the military aspects of insurgent movements, Colbert challenged his assertion that drunkenness led to indiscipline and defeat. In Colbert’s view, it was a lack of discipline that led to drunkenness rather than the other way around.

‘Purity in our hearts'

Holland suggested that his sole ambition was ‘to free Ireland’, and that this consumed him:

'In fact he never spoke about anything else unless it was connected with Irish History and all his lectures centered around the subject of ‘Why we failed’. His answer to this question was always ‘Drink and want of discipline and loose talk’.'

It is likely that the Fianna maxims of ‘purity in our hearts, truth on our lips, strength in our arms’ appealed strongly to Colbert.

Seán Prendergast’s first impression of Colbert was of a ‘bold, serious type’:

In course of time, however, I had reason to form the opinion that notwithstanding a seemingly hard exterior or appearance, he was of a gentle kind and considerate nature. He carried himself with a proud, confident and military bearing, and took his work very seriously. Zealous and enthusiastic in our cause, he expected all similarly engaged to be likewise. He was reputed to be one of our best officers, had great command of himself and was always worthy of being obeyed. Con was not the type that could be satisfied by doing things by halves or any old way. He sought perfection in every part of his work on behalf of the Fianna.

To become proficient at military drill, for instance, he employed a British army instructor for private lessons on Sunday mornings. Seán O’Neill’s single meeting with the ‘rather small dark-haired boy, with the eye of a seasoned veteran’ was enough to convince him that Colbert was ‘a keen, energetic sort of genius who meant business, business without frills, and that alone only for Ireland’.

Lila Colbert’s assessment of her brother’s attitude echoed that of Holland and Prendergast:

'he took his work for the Fianna and the Volunteers very seriously and spent all his spare time at it. He cycled all over Ireland organising companies. I remember he inspected the Company at home in Athea and there is no fear that he showed them any more favour than he did to any of the others. He was very serious where work for Ireland was concerned.'

Away from the national movement, he applied himself diligently to his personal development:

'When he was at school he felt he had to do his very best at his lessons. And when he worked at Kennedy’s he thought he should improve his position in the best way possible, so he devoted himself to the study of accountancy. He did not waste a moment and no matter how late he went to bed, he would make sure to get up in time by tying the alarm clock to the head of his bed. He had to be at work at Kennedy’s at 8 o’clock.'

The alarm clock certainly seems a more likely explanation for his punctuality than the one Colbert himself apparently gave to Seán Brady:

'I asked him how he managed to get up early in the morning when he gave himself so little sleep. ‘I’ll tell you’, he said. ‘Before getting into bed, I kneel down and make a bargain with a neglected soul in purgatory. If I awake at the required time, I’ll pray fervently for that soul. It never fails, even if I have only a few hours sleep’.'

Con Colbert by John O'Callaghan is part of the 16 Lives biography series on each of the sixteen rebels executed after the Rising.

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News