AN IRISHMAN'S DIARY
THE EASTER RISING of 1916 which occurred exactly 84 years ago today, 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. It was never suggested that they had the remotest
connection with the rebels. Sheehy Skeffington, a well-known pacifist and a determined fighter for votes for
women, was trying to prevent looting when he was arrested. McIntyre, editor of a newspaper called Searchlight,
and Dickson, editor of The eye-opener, seem to have been picked up casually. All three were brought to
Portobello Barracks by Capt. Bowen-Colthurst, who hailed from Dripsey, near Cork City.
No charge was made against the prisoners. No trial was held. After they were detained overnight, Capt. Bowen-
Colthurst decided that all three were to be executed. Lt Dobbin, who gave evidence at the subsequent court-
martial, testified that he 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.
It was a remarkable thing that Bowen-Colthurst was obeyed by the officers under his command. They must surely
have realised on the previous day, when he had shot dead an unarmed 17-year-old boy returning from church, that
he was acting illegally and irresponsibly. An attempted cover-up of the atrocity 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". Also present in the barracks 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 and assisted in organising its defence. He was mentioned in dispatches as a
There was no suggestion that he was other than a loyal British army officer who, like his colleagues, regarded the
Empire as the great benefactor of humanity. Of course, he had what we would describe today as an "attitude
problem". 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 outraged when he heard that 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. It is hard to imagine that Kitchener - who was no humanitarian and who rejoiced in the nickname
"The Butcher of Khartoum", 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. Bowen-Colthurst was tried and found guilty be a military court but immediate intervention was made
on his behalf and he was declared to be insane. Imprisoned in Broadmoor Criminal Mental Asylum, he was
released in 1922 and settled in Canada where he died as late as 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Rising. Whether
he was truly mad or just bad will always be debatable.
Sir Francis Fletcher Vane suffered as a result of his 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.
Apart from his army career, 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
Sir Francis Fletcher Vane deserves to be honoured. Now that a peace process is developing between Ireland and
England, it is the opportune time to raise matters such as the Casement "Black Diary" affair and 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.
Pádraig Ó Cuanacháin
(Excerpt from An Irishman's Diary - The Irish Times, Monday, April 24, 2000)
Review on Imperialism and its Post-Colonial legacy.
Back to Top of Page