Thursday 23rd May 2010

Captain Bowen Colthurst, Constance Markievicz and the Easter Rising

Civil War palimpsest
Scratch the surface of the Irish countryside and you will soon find that traces of Civil War bitterness still linger.  Witness local Fine Gael Councillor Joe Leonard trawling Rathcormack village seeking objectors when a Markievicz committee set about to erect a memorial to her memory there. 

Constance Markievicz in Citizen Army uniform

The Gore-Booth family’s dislike of Countess Markievicz, down to the last Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth, is legendary.  Their dislike can be better understood when we realise that while she was fighting the British presence in Ireland her family were recruiting for, and working with, the same British army. Given her service to Ireland, dislike of her by any other Irish citizen is less easily understood.  

Captain Bowen-Colthurst
During an investigation of the claim that Markievicz ‘shot an unarmed policeman’ during the Easter Rising, I did find that although Markievicz was innocent of the charge, many innocent people were murdered.  This brought me to the fascinating and bizarre story of Captain Bowen-Colthurst.  Born at Dripsey Castle, County Cork, Ireland, in 1880, Colthurst became a career soldier and was commissioned into the 1st Battalion Irish Guards at age 19.  Rising steadily in rank he served in the Boer War, Tibet and France.

Murder of Sheehy Skeffington and others
The Easter Rising was marked by many extraordinary events, but surely the most disturbing was the summary execution of three journalists – Francis Sheehy Skeffington, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, who had no connection to the rebels.  Sheehy Skeffington, a well known anti-war pacifist and a determined campaigner for votes for women, was trying to prevent looting when he was arrested. Stopped by troops on the Portobello Bridge in the city he was that night taken out as a hostage by the British Army on a raid. During the course of the raid Skeffington witnessed Bowen-Colthurst shoot dead a 17 year old boy.

The other two men, McIntyre, editor of a newspaper called Searchlight, and Dickson, editor of The Eye-opener, seem to have been picked up casually by Capt. Bowen-Colthurst who brought all three to Portobello Barracks.

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington

Although no charge was brought against the prisoners and no trial held, Colthurst decided that all three were to be executed. Lt Dobbin, who gave evidence at the subsequent court-martial, testified that Colthurst said: "I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the right thing to do". Bowen-Colthurst told the three prisoners to stand against the far wall and the guard loaded and fired before the three realised what was happening to them.  When it was felt that one victim had survived he ordered second volleys to be fired into the bodies on the ground.
 
Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin, in an article in the Irish Times, notes that it was a remarkable thing that the officers under his command obeyed Bowen-Colthurst as they must surely have realised that he had been acting illegally and irresponsibly even on the previous day when he shot dead J.J. Coade an unarmed 17-year-old boy returning from church.  The Irish Times reported that, ‘after brief interrogation, Bowen-Colthurst drew his pistol and shot Coade dead.’  An attempted cover-up of the atrocities began immediately, led by the commanding officer in the barracks, Maj J. Rosborough, who explained to British Army Headquarters that the shooting was in response to "fears that the prisoners might be rescued or escape".

Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, the humanitarian.
Also present in the barracks on the night of the Skeffington murder was Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, an officer in the Royal Munster Fusiliers who had distinguished military service in the Boer War and at the beginning of the First World War. He was on leave in Bray when the Rising started but he made his way to Portobello Barracks where he assisted in repressing the rebellion. Although a dedicated member of the British Army, Vane had deep humanitarian instincts.  During the Boer War, he raised strong objections to the atrocities committed as a direct result of policies pursued by two Irish-born Generals - Field Marshal Roberts and Field Marshal Kitchener. It was Roberts who developed the concentration camp; Kitchener added the further refinement of imprisoning Boer women and children in these camps, where, deprived of proper food or medicine, many thousands died. As a result of his opinions, Vane seemed to have attracted the enmity of Bowen-Colthurst who, before the shooting, was heard in the officer's mess denouncing Vane as pro-Boer and pro-Irish.

Vane was deeply upset when he heard that, following the murders, Bowen-Colthurst was allowed to carry out his duties as if nothing had happened. He seems to have made every effort to have him put under arrest and charged with murder, but he received no co-operation from the other officers present. In an action that was quite extraordinary, he obtained leave, travelled to London and arranged an interview with Prime Minister Asquith and Field Marshal Kitchener, now Secretary of State for War, and made a full statement about the affair.

Bowen-Colthurst found guilty
It is hard to imagine that Kitchener — who was no humanitarian and who rejoiced in the nickname "The Butcher of Khartoum" — would have written out a telegram ordering the arrest of Bowen-Colthurst, unless he had been placed under severe pressure by Sir Francis Vane, who probably threatened to go public on the matter if this was not done.  When the court martial was held, several witnesses had disappeared, had been transferred to remote outposts or had died in France.  Nevertheless a military court found Colthurst guilty but immediate intervention was made on his behalf and he was declared to be insane.  Imprisoned in Broadmoor Criminal Mental Asylum he was released, under somewhat questionable circumstances in 1922, and was eventually settled in Canada where he died as late as 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

Sir Francis Fletcher Vane suffered as a result of his concerns and action. He was dismissed from the army, or — as a recently released document from the Public Records Office nicely 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 a campaign for reinstatement, appealing even to the King, but failed in his efforts.  The British Army Council never forgave Sir Francis and Colthurst dismissed him as an Irish sympathiser.
 
Colthurst's mysterious release and sojourn in Canada
Through correspondence with John Wrafter, a Sligo man living on Vancouver Island in Canada, I have learned the following very interesting information.  Collthurst ended his days in British Columbia living firstly Up-Island, then Sooke (14 miles away from Wrafter).  With the IRA on his trail he left Sooke and spent the remainder of his days in Naramata, the Okanagan (B.C.).  Jim Hume a columnist with a local newspaper, the Penticton Herald, wrote that he ‘got to know the old captain fairly well when I worked at the Herald. He never denied the executions, refused comment on half a dozen other alleged executions, and argued he was just doing his duty". 

In one conversation Colthurst told Hume that he was released in 1918 from Broadmoor Asylum under mysterious circumstances; that he lived in London but was tracked down by the I.R.A. following which he ‘was spirited’ with his wife and family to Terrace in Canada.  When the I.R.A. tracked him down again he moved to Sooke and finally, after being followed once more, to the Okanagan.

Jim Hume continues: ‘In the late 1970s, in a smoky Irish pub in Dublin I met with an I.R.A. leader to talk about Bowen Colthurst.  I was viewed with some suspicion until I produced a copy of Colthurst’s obituary.  My unnamed contact lifted his glass and said “God bless Ireland, that’s good news.”  I asked if there was any IRA record of Colthurst’s pursuit story or if it was built on [Colthursts] guilt and paranoia.  The answer was cold: “We were looking for him.  For how long I don’t know.  We would have killed him had we found him”.

Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane

Addendum:  In addition to his army career, Francis Fletcher-Vane was a most interesting man. He was widely travelled, acted as a war correspondent, founded the boy scouts in Italy, was an underwriter at Lloyds, and wrote books including Principles of Military Art, Other Illusions of War, Walks and People in Tuscany. He was even an unsuccessful Liberal candidate in the 1906 election. He died in 1934, no doubt sadly disillusioned with the Empire he had once served loyally and feeling the same sentiments so well expressed by an Irish poet - "In aisce, mo léan, mo léann ní bhfuair mé".

Fletcher Vane deserves to be honoured. Now that a peace process between Ireland and England is in place, is it not an opportune time to raise Vane's dismissal from the British army? And is there not a moral duty on the Irish Government to raise the matter officially? Surely there is some process whereby the British establishment could review the case, re-instate his name on the roll of officers and offer an apology to his descendants. It would be the just and proper thing to do.
I find it interesting and perhaps an example of natural justice that today, ninety four years after the events detailed above, I cannot find a single picture anywhere of Bowen-Colthurst the erstwhile victor; remembered and despised today but his face forgotten and unknown.
 
References: 
Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin’s article in An Irishman's Diary - The Irish Times, Monday, April 24, 2000
Two articles by Jim Hume in the Penticton Herald

Further reading: Constance Markievicz: The People’s Countess
Click HERE to read this very interesting interview with Skeffingtons widow
.

Evidence of Lieutenant Morgan extracted from Sinn Fein Rebellion Handbook published by the Irish Times subsequent to the Easter Rising p86:

"... the three men were taken out into the yard, and he heard shots fired as from the yard. He went into the yard and saw three men lying dead there. He knew Sheehy-Skeffington from his appearance of the night before, when he heard his name mentioned. Witness knew the body. He did not examine the bodies that he saw on the ground, but he saw blood on the ground...

Replying to questions put by the President of the court witness said that when Capt. Colthurst came out of the guardroom he appeared in an excited state, which was not his usual manner.

'to shoot again'
"In your previous evidence you made a statement which you have not corroborated today. You were asked by the prosecutor if you noticed anything regarding one of the bodies and you said, 'nothing in particular'. That is your answer to the prosecutor today. Did you notice anything in particular about one of these bodies?
I did.
What was it?
I noticed a movement of one of the legs of Sheehy Skeffington.
What did you do then?
I sent an officer to the orderly room. That officer was Lieutenant Tooley and what I wanted to know was what steps I was to take.
What was the answer received by you?
The order was that I was to shoot again.
Who sent that order?
Captain Colthurst.
How do you know it was he?
Lieutenant Tooley told me.
What did you do then?
I stood by four men of my guard and I complied with the order.
The President—Perhaps after this evidence counsel for the defence would like to cross examine the witness.
Mr. Chambers (to witness)— What sort of a movement was it that you saw, was it a twinge of a muscle?
I don't know.
Did you believe Skeffington to be then dead, or that he was living?
I believe he was dying.
That he was dead?
I cannot say. In my opinion he was done for..."


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Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane chronology from 1916
1916 In charge of defence at Portobello Barracks in Dublin during the Easter Uprising.
He tried to have Sergeant Bowen-Colhurst arrested for murder of Francis Sheehy Skeffington. Arrest occurred only after Vane took leave and went to London and reported directly to the War Office. As a result of his actions Vane was sacked from the army.
1916-1917 Principles of Military Art published
1917 Wrote a book on the 1916 rebellion - The Easter Rising . Proof copies were produced before publication was prevented by the Army Censor. Manuscript long lost. Also wrote a book War Stories, incidents from South Africa, the First World War and the Easter uprising. This too was suppressed by the Censor.
1918 General election. Vane chaired meetings for Labour and Liberal candidates
1918 - 1927 Resident in Italy, active in support of Scout movement. Left Italy after Fascist suppression of the scout movement.
1924 Tox, Or Everyboy written for his wife as she was dying. Privately published privately in Italy.
1930 The autobiographical Agin The Governments - Memories and Adventures of Sir Francis Fletcher Vane published.
1934 Died aged 73.

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