Francis Sheehy-Skeffington

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Francis Sheehy-Skeffington
Born 23 December 1878
Bailieborough, County Cavan
Died 26 April 1916(1916-04-26) (aged 37)
Portobello Barracks, Dublin
Other names Francis Skeffington, 'Skeffy'
Alma mater University College Dublin
Organization United Irish League, Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association, Irish Citizen Army
Movement Women's suffrage, Pacifism/Anti-conscription, Irish independence
Hanna Sheehy, wife of Francis Skeffington in 1916

Francis Skeffington (23 December 1878 – 26 April 1916) from Bailieborough, County Cavan, was an Irish suffragist, pacifist and writer. He was a friend and schoolmate of James Joyce, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Tom Kettle, and Conor Cruise O'Brien's father, Frank O'Brien. He married Hanna Sheehy in 1903, whose own surname he adopted as part of his name, resulting in his being known as Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, and sometimes referred to as "Skeffy".

Early life[edit]

Skeffington was the only son of Joseph Skeffington and Rose Magorian, of County Down. His parents were married at the Roman Catholic Chapel at Ballykinlar in 1869. Skeffy was educated initially at home by his father, a school inspector, and later by the Jesuits at St Stephen's Green before enrolling in University College Dublin (UCD) in 1896. His closest companions at college were James Joyce and Thomas Kettle. He was individualistic in disposition and unconventional in temperament, refusing to shave and wore knickerbockers, long socks and, as an ardent proponent of rights for women, he wore a badge that read Votes for Women. He organised a petition to lobby for women to be admitted to UCD on the same basis as men shortly after he married. He was a well-known figure at UCD and active in student politics and debating societies including the Literary and Historical Society, which he became auditor of in 1897.[1]

At the age of 15, he wrote a letter to his local newspaper, saying that the Irish language was irretrievably dead and "the study of Esperanto would be more useful to the youth of Ireland".[2] Later in life he became fluent in the language, and had a number of Esperanto books in his library when he died.[3]

Career and politics[edit]

When he graduated he worked as a free-lance journalist. His wife, a teacher, was the primary breadwinner. They joined the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association and the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League (the constituency element of the Irish Parliamentary Party). They also supported the Women's Social and Political Union which lobbied for women's rights in Britain.

In 1908 his book Michael Davitt; Revolutionary, Agitator, and Labor Leader was published.[4] In 1912 Skeffington co-founded and was a joint editor of The Irish Citizen newspaper, issued by the Irish Women's Franchise League, and he made contributions to various publications in Ireland, England, France and North America.

During the 1913 Dublin Lock-out he became involved in the Citizens' Peace Committee, formed by various people including Tom Kettle, Skeffy's friend Thomas MacDonagh and others, in an attempt to reconcile the two sides; the workers were willing to negotiate but not the employers. He became a vice-chairman of the Irish Citizen Army when it was established in 1913 on the basis that it would have a strictly defensive role; he resigned when it became a military entity.

Sheehy-Skeffington testified to a tribunal as a witness to the arrest of the leading trade unionist Jim Larkin on O'Connell street and the subsequent police riot against a peaceful crowd that had occurred on the last weekend of August in 1913.[5] His testimony stated that he was in the street with a group of women caring for a person that had already been assaulted by the police when a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police charged towards this group with his baton raised. He reports that it was only because he called out the policeman's number that the man was dissuaded from the violence he had so clearly intended. He said that he was later abused by a gang of policemen showing clear signs of intoxication in the yard of the police station at College Green where he went to make his complaint and that their officers had no control over their behaviour.

He campaigned against recruitment on the outbreak of World War I and was jailed for six months.

1916 Easter Rising[edit]

Sheehy-Skeffington supported Home Rule; he also supported the Irish Volunteers, writing in his Open Letter to Thomas MacDonagh, "As you know, I am personally in full sympathy with the fundamental objects of the Irish Volunteers".[6] However, he was repelled by the movements growing militarism – continuing, "as your infant movement grows, towards the stature of a full-grown militarism, its essence – preparation to kill – grows more repellent to me." He and Hanna took opposing positions towards the Easter Rising – he advocated civil disobedience while Hanna brought food to the rebels located at the General Post Office and the Royal College of Surgeons. On 24 April he went to the aid of the first British soldier to be shot during the Easter Rising, Guy Vickery Pinfield (1895-24 April 1916), a Second Lieutenant (TP) 8th (King's Royal Irish) Hussars. According to a statement by Skeffington's wife: "When the outbreak began on Easter Monday my husband was near Dublin Castle. He learned that a British officer had been gravely wounded and was bleeding to death on the cobblestones outside the Castle gate. My husband persuaded a bystander to go with him to the rescue. Together they ran across the square under a hail of fire. Before they reached the spot, however, some British troops rushed out and dragged the wounded man to cover inside the gate."[7]

Arrest and murder[edit]

During the week of the Easter Rising, Sheehy-Skeffington, who had been living at 11 (now 21), Grosvenor Place, Rathmines, Dublin, was concerned about the collapse of law and order. On the evening of Tuesday, 25 April, he went into the city centre to attempt to organise a citizens' militia to prevent the looting of damaged shops.

He was arrested for no stated, or indeed obvious, reason while returning home, by members of the 11th East Surrey Regiment at Portobello Bridge along with some hecklers who were following him, and, after admitting to having sympathy for the insurgents' cause (but not their tactics), he was held as an enemy sympathiser. Later that evening an officer of the 3rd battalion Royal Irish Rifles, Captain JC Bowen-Colthurst[8] (a member of the Cork family centred on Blarney Castle, sent Sheehy-Skeffington out with an army raiding party in Rathmines, held as a hostage with his hands tied behind his back. The raiding party were ordered by Bowen-Colthurst that he was to be shot if it was attacked.[9]

The former Kelly's tobacconist at Kelly's Corner, where Sheehy-Skeffington was taken

Bowen-Colthurst sought out "Fenians". He went to the home and shop of Alderman James Kelly[10] at the corner of Camden Street and Harcourt Road, from which the name "Kelly's Corner" derives. Mistaking the Alderman (who was a Conservative) for Alderman Tom Kelly, the soldiers destroyed the shop with hand grenades. Bowen-Colthurst took captive a young boy, and two pro-British journalists who were in the shop – Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre – and a Labour Party politician, Richard O'Carroll. He shot O'Carroll in the lungs, and shot the boy as he knelt to pray. Skeffington witnessed and protested at the murders of the boy and O'Carroll on the way through Rathmines – Bowen-Colthurst told him: "You'll be next". The two journalists and Sheehy Skeffington were taken out to a yard in the barracks and shot dead by an ad hoc firing squad on Bowen-Colthurst's orders the following morning.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was not told about her husband's detention or his death. She went around Dublin (including calling to Portobello Barracks with her sisters) seeking to find where her husband was, and only discovered that he had been murdered four days later, when she met the chaplain of the barracks. Bowen-Colthurst attempted a cover-up and ordered the search and ransack of Skeffington's home, looking for evidence to damage him. This event resulted in a Westminster-ordered cover-up, as a result of which Bowen-Colthurst was detained in an asylum for 18 months. He would later retire to Canada on a full pension.

Major Sir Francis Fletcher Vane[edit]

A Dublin-born major in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, Sir Francis Fletcher Vane, was in overall charge of defence at Portobello Barracks but was not present when these executions took place. He arrived shortly afterwards, and was horrified at what had unfolded. He recognised the killings as murder, and called Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington.

He reported his views (that Bowen-Colthurst was mentally deranged) to the deputy commander of the garrison, Major Rosborough. Rosborough telephoned Dublin Castle and was told to bury the bodies. Vane subsequently travelled to London where he met Lord Kitchener in Downing Street on 3 May 1916. A telegram was sent to Sir John Maxwell, commander-in-chief of British forces in Ireland, ordering the arrest of Bowen-Colthurst, but Maxwell refused to arrest him.


The grave of Francis and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

Relating the events six years after the killing, his widow Hanna told how the body

...had been put in a sack and buried in the barracks' yard. The remains were given to his father on condition that the funeral would be at early morn and that I be not notified. My husband's father consented unwillingly to do this on the assurance of General Maxwell that obedience would result in the trial and punishment of the murderer.

Re-interment took place on 8 May 1916 at Glasnevin Cemetery.[11]

Public inquiry, conviction and release of Bowen-Colthurst[edit]

Bowen-Colthurst was eventually arrested on 6 June, charged with murder and court-martialled.

An inquiry, chaired by John Simon, 1st Viscount Simon, took place on 23 August 1916 at the Four Courts which concluded that the proclamation of martial law does not confer on officers or soldiers any new powers, but is a warning that the Government, acting through the military, is taking such forcible and exceptional measures as are needed to restore order. The measures taken can be justified only by the practical circumstances of the case. The shooting of unarmed and unresisting civilians without trial constituted murder, whether martial law has been proclaimed or not. Failure to understand and apply this elementary principle seems to explain the free hand which Capt. Colthurst had been exercising.[12]

Bowen-Colthurst successfully pleaded insanity arising from shell shock as a means of escaping a potential murder conviction. His court martial became a cause celebre and provoked a political furore which culminated in a Royal Commission of Inquiry on 23 August 1916 under Sir John Simon into these murders and others during the Rising, including the murders of civilians in North King Street.[13] He was sent to Broadmoor Hospital briefly and then to a hospital in Canada. He was deemed 'cured' 20 months later on 26 April 1921 and was released with a pension at the age of 40 in 1920.[14]

Sheehy-Skeffington's wife was offered financial compensation by the British government of the day but she refused this. Vane was dishonourably discharged from the British Army in the summer of 1916 owing to his actions in the Skeffington murder case.

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was survived by his wife, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, who became increasingly nationalist-minded, and their son (then aged seven) Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, who attended the secular Sandford Park School with his cousin Conor Cruise O'Brien, (because Hanna refused to send her son to any school with a pro-Treaty ethos), and later played a moderate role in Irish politics.

Personal papers[edit]

The personal papers, details of which can be accessed online, of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and his wife Hanna were donated to the National Library of Ireland.[15]


  • A Forgotten Aspect of the University Question. Privately printed, Dublin 1901 (published with The Day of the Rabblement by James Joyce.)


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Book review by James Connolly
  5. ^ The full text of this testimony can be found in the book: Larkin, James. In the footsteps of Big Jim. Tallaght : Blackwater Press,1996
  6. ^ Bureau of Military History CD 62
  7. ^
  8. ^ Bacon, Bryan (2015). A Terrible Duty: the Madness of Captain Bowen-Colthurst. Thena Press. 
  9. ^ Redmond, Dara (26 August 2006). "Officer who exposed pacifist's murder". The Irish Times. 
  10. ^
  11. ^ Talbot,, Hayden (1923). Michael Collins' Own Story. Hutchinson and Co. pp. 95–115. Retrieved 11 May 2010. 
  12. ^ "Royal Report : Arrest and subsequent treatment of Mr. Francis Sheehy Skeffington, Mr. Thomas Dickson, and Mr. Patrick James McIntyre". Enhanced British Parliamentary Papers on Ireland 1801 – 1922. Retrieved 26 August 2006. 
  13. ^
  14. ^ Caulfield, Max. The Easter Rebellion Dublin 1916. ISBN 1-57098-042-X. 
  15. ^ "The Sheehy-Skeffington Papers" (PDF). National Library of Ireland. Archived from the original (PDF) on 4 October 2006. Retrieved 27 August 2006. 

External links[edit]