Officer who exposed pacifist's murder

Sat, Aug 26, 2006, 01:00

The British soldiers who murdered the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington might have got away with it but for the courage of a fellow officer, Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, who paid for his efforts with his career, writes Dara Redmond

In this year, the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising, I believe it is important to pay special tribute to Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, an Irish-born major in the Royal Munster Fusiliers who, despite robust resistance from his superior officers, played a significant role in exposing some of the most atrocious murders of innocent Irish civilians during the course of that dramatic week.

Francis Vane was born in Dublin in 1861 and entered Oxford Military College at the age of 15. Described by contemporaries as "fearless in the field of battle", he was admired by the soldiers under his command for his relaxed, if somewhat eccentric nature.

In 1899 he was sent to South Africa to serve in the British army under Lord Kitchener and in 1902 was appointed to the position of military magistrate, a post from which he was dismissed shortly thereafter for being pro-Boer.

At the outbreak of the first World War, he re-enlisted in the British army and, probably because of his Anglo-Irish background, was sent to Ireland to promote the recruitment of soldiers to fight in Europe.

In April 1916 he was organising such a campaign in Longford and, on Easter Monday, was having lunch with a friend in Bray when a message arrived ordering him to return immediately to Dublin. Later that day, he reported to Portobello Barracks.

News of the Rising had spread rapidly throughout the city. Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was relaxing at home in Rathmines with his wife, Hanna, and their seven-year old son, Owen, when he first heard that volunteers had taken over key buildings in the capital and proclaimed a Republic. He was a well-known writer and pacifist leader, totally opposed to violence in any form, and was briefly imprisoned by the British authorities in 1915 for campaigning against conscription.

Sheehy-Skeffington was particularly alarmed by eyewitness reports of a breakdown in law and order. Without delay, he made his way into town and, in the words of his wife, "actively interested himself in preventing looting by British sympathisers". He talked to the crowds and enlisted the help of priests and other willing parties to post civic guards in front of specific premises.

At about 7.30pm on Tuesday, Lieut Morris was guarding a checkpoint leading to Portobello Bridge when he noticed a frail, somewhat comical-looking character marching along the middle of the road, swinging his walking stick. "Skeffy", as the public knew him, was returning home from a poorly attended anti-looting meeting, and was followed by a group of hecklers shouting out his name. When he reached the checkpoint, he was taken into custody, with several of his followers, and brought to Portobello Barracks. "Skeffy" was then brought to the cells and placed in detention under the supervision of Lieut Dobbin. When he learned that he was to be held overnight, he asked that his wife be informed - but this request was denied.

About 10.30pm, Capt JC Bowen-Colthurst, an officer with the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, went to Dobbin and ordered him to hand over his prisoner. He told him that he was going out of the barracks with a raiding party and needed to take a hostage for the protection of his troops.

With his hands tied behind his back, Sheehy-Skeffington was installed in an army vehicle, and orders were given to shoot him dead if the party was fired upon. The convoy drove to Rathmines and entered the premises of Alderman Tom Kelly who, according to Colthurst, was a nationalist sympathiser.

When they reached the Church of Our Lady of Refuge, they noticed three youths, Coade, Keogh and Byrne, who had been attending a meeting that evening. As Coade turned to leave, Colthurst ordered an officer to "bash him". The soldier knocked him unconscious with the butt-end of his rifle, and Colthurst then shot him dead on the ground.

The soldiers then moved on to the premises of Alderman James Kelly, which they promptly bombed, and arrested two journalists - Thomas Dickson, editor of The Eye-Opener and Patrick McIntyre, editor of The Searchlight - both of whom had taken refuge in Kelly's shop. As it later transpired, Colthurst and his group had confused Alderman James Kelly with Alderman Tom Kelly. James Kelly had in fact been actively engaged in helping to recruit soldiers for the British army, and Dickson and McIntyre were the editors of papers with strong unionist sympathies.

When the party returned to Portobello Barracks, Sheehy Skeffington and his two companions of misfortune were placed in cells. About 10am, on Wednesday, April 26th, the writer Monk Gibbon, a 20-year-old lieutenant attached to the Army Service Corps, went to see "Skeffy" in his cell. When they met, Sheehy-Skeffington requested that a sum of £8, confiscated from him the previous evening, be given to his wife - and that she be informed immediately of his whereabouts.

Conscious of his obvious distress, Gibbon kindly told him he would try to do his best, and promised to return shortly. Not long after Gibbon had departed, Colthurst entered the guardroom and ordered Dobbin to remove the three prisoners from their locked cells, telling him: "I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them as I think it is the right thing to do."

Skeffington, McIntyre and Dickson were then led out to an adjoining courtyard. As they walked towards one of the surrounding walls, Colthurst ordered a firing squad of seven soldiers to shoot them in the back. Dobbin noticed that Skeffy was not yet dead. He pointed this out to Colthurst who simply told the soldiers to "finish him off".

Later that morning, when Vane returned from a mission outside the compound, Gibbon described what had happened during his absence. Vane was horrified and went immediately to see Maj Rosborough, deputy commander of the garrison.

When Rosborough telephoned Dublin Castle, he was told by senior officers to bury the bodies and to forget about the entire matter. He was also given instructions to leave Colthurst in charge of the men under his command.

Vane went to Dublin Castle on Monday May 1st to confront Gen Friend, Col Kennard and Maj Price. But he was treated with contempt, and told by Price:, "Some of us think it was a good thing Sheehy-Skeffington was put out of the way, anyhow."

Vane applied for a leave of absence and made arrangements to travel to London that evening. The following morning, he went to the War Office to see his old friend Harold Tennant, then serving as under-secretary of state for war in prime minister Asquith's government. Tennant arranged for Vane to see Lord Kitchener in Downing Street on May 3rd.Kitchener sent a telegram to Sir John Maxwell, commander-in-chief of the British forces in Ireland, instructing him to place Colthurst under arrest. Maxwell ignored the order and decided instead that Vane should be dismissed from the army. There was uproar in the House of Commons on May 11th when John Dillon, the nationalist MP, criticised the army's violent repression of the Easter Rising. He focused on the Sheehy-Skeffington murder case, and the fact that Maxwell had refused to place the main culprit under arrest.

By this time, details were also starting to emerge about the murder of 13 innocent civilians in North King Street in Dublin who had taken refuge in what they believed to be the safety of their own homes.

Colthurst was arrested, charged with murder and court-martialled on June 6th. Commenting later on the legal proceedings, Tim Healy, a well-known lawyer and politician, said: "Never since the trial of Christ was there a greater travesty of justice."

Every detail of the case was carefully orchestrated by the military, with prosecutors and defence counsel playing into each other's hands. Colthurst was found guilty but insane, and condemned to be detained indefinitely at Broadmoor criminal asylum. Twenty months later, he was deemed cured and released. On April 26th, 1921, exactly five years to the day after the murders, he emigrated to Canada on a military pension aged 40.

By the summer of 1916, Vane had, in the words of a document released by the British Public Record Office, been "relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case". Senior military officers, politicians and the king all turned down appeals for his reinstatement. When the final chapter of this sad story was written, the military must surely have felt they had won a victory. It may have been so. But it was Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, an officer and a gentleman, who won our respect.

Dara Redmond is a grandson of Thomas MacDonagh, a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation. He has lived in France for most of his life