The kind of objects relating to the 1916 Rising which have become part of the National Museum of Ireland’s collection over the last century are varied, and by their very nature includes the most ordinary of objects made extraordinary by the events of the time.
This half brick formed part of the wall at Portobello Barracks, now Cathal Brugha Barracks, until April 1916. Embedded in it is a bullet fired by the firing squad which executed Francis Sheehy Skeffington on the order of British Army officer Captain John Bowen-Colthurst. It was given to Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, Francis’ widow, in 1935, and she donated it to the museum in 1937.
Francis Skeffington met Hanna Sheehy in 1896, and they married in 1903. They shared their socialist and nationalist views, and as ardent feminists, the Sheehy-Skeffingtons co-founded the Irish Women’s Franchise League in 1908. Francis was a committed pacifist, and had campaigned against recruitment to the British Army regiments in 1914 at the outbreak of the war in Europe. He had also opposed the increasing militarisation of nationalist organisations such as the Irish Citizen Army, and when the Rising broke out on 24 April 1916, he went to the city centre to appeal for calm. On the evening of Tuesday the 25th, on his way home to 11 Grosvenor Place, he was arrested and brought to Portobello Barracks. Although a search revealed nothing more than a draft form of membership of a proposed civic guard (to prevent looting in the city), and no charge was made against him, he was detained for further enquiries.
At this time, Portobello Barracks was officially under the command of Colonel McCammond who was absent on sick leave, leaving the command to Major James Rosborough. The barracks was also suddenly filled with soldiers from numerous regiment who were on leave in Dublin when the Rising broke out and reported for duty to their nearest barracks. The site must have been in a state of some confusion. Captain Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles, originally from Dripsey, Co. Cork, was a decorated officer. He had fought in the Boer War and afterwards served in India, including the 1904 British military incursion into Tibet. He had been injured while leading a disastrous attack against a German position on the western front in September 1914 and was sent back to Ireland. He was attached to the 3rd Battalion stationed at Portobello Barracks when the Rising broke out.
It seems Colthurst became quite frenzied at the outbreak of the Rising. In the late hours of Tuesday 25 April he led about 40 soldiers out of the barracks in search of ‘Sinn Feiners’ (the Sinn Fein party were at that time mistakenly believed to be responsible for the Rising), taking Sheehy Skeffington with him as a hostage. As they headed towards the city Colthurst shot dead James Coade, a 19 year old mechanic, on the Rathmines Road. Richard O’Carroll, the Labour Party Councillor and Quartermaster of C Company, Irish Volunteers was delivering ammunition to the garrison outpost at Northumberland Road when he was pulled from his motorcycle and shot through the lungs. O’Carroll later died of his injuries on 5th May. Another man, Patrick Nolan was shot by Colthurst outside Delahunt’s Grocery shop, but brought to the hospital at Dublin Castle and survived.
When the raiding party reached Camden Street they entered the tobacconist shop of Alderman James Kelly, arrested Thomas Dickson (editor of The Eye Opener) and Patrick McIntyre (editor of The Searchlight), and brought them to Portobello Barracks. The soldiers fire-bombed the shop on Colthurst’s orders. Kelly was not present at the time and, though unconnected to the Rising, he was later arrested and interned, and released 16 days later.
At the barracks, Colthurst ordered that the three civilian prisoners be taken from the detention rooms in which they were held and brought to the yard. At about 10am on the morning of Wednesday 26th he ordered a firing squad of 7 soldiers to shoot the three civilian journalists. In a moment of clarity, Colthurst reported the action to his superior, a Major James Rosborough, saying that he had shot the three prisoners on his own responsibility and that he might possibly be hanged for it. Rosborough asked him for a written report, and Colthurst was confined to barracks duties. The bodies were hastily buried in the grounds.
On Friday 29th April Hannah Sheehy Skeffington arrived at the barracks to enquire about her husband, having been told by the police that she should ask there. Colthurst denied all knowledge of her husband, and threatened her with arrest. That evening, he led a party of soldiers in a raid on her home as she was putting her son, Owen, to bed, and took a large quantity of papers and books with the intention of finding incriminating evidence to justify the shooting. One paper that was probably found in this raid and produced at Colthurst’s eventual court-martial was a copy of the widely available Secret Orders Issued to the Military (the forged ‘Castle Document’) with the claim that he found it on Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s person when he was arrested.
Major Sir Francis Vane, serving out of Portobello Barracks, had reported Colthurst’s actions to the authorities in Ireland during the week but found them not only unreceptive to the complaint, but himself relieved of his duties, and the subject of a campaign against his character. He then reported to the military authorities in London, which led to Colthurst being placed under open arrest on 6th May. He was court martialled on 6 June and found guilty of the murders, but insane. He was admitted to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for one year, after which he was found to be recovered and released. He emigrated to Canada on a military pension where he died in 1965, never returning to Ireland. His family home in Dripsey was burned down during the War of Independence as retaliation for the murders.
Sir Francis Vane found that his actions in reporting Colthurst led to the ruin of his career, being relieved of his employment in the military, and all his attempts to publish his experiences were foiled by the military censor.
In December 1935 Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, who had campaigned tirelessly for justice for her husband, received a parcel containing a half brick with a .303 bullet embedded, accompanied by a letter explaining its context from F. McL. Scannell. It tells the story of how he came to have the object.
Dear Mrs Sheehy Skeffington,
The following is an account of how a half brick, in which is embedded a bullet that passed through your husband’s body, came into my possession.
I always considered that you should have it, but considered it too gruesome a souvenir to offer you.
After the three unfortunate victims had been murdered Bowen Colthurst made frantic efforts to wipe out all the traces of his crime which, in the shape of three sets of bullets in the wall, proclaimed to all and sundry who passed that way one of the first actions of ‘a Soldier and a Gentleman’ with which we became so familiar as the struggle went on.
With that object he had several bricklayers, who were working on a large building then being built for the British Government in Dublin, were taken with their tools, in basses, a kind of soft basket without cover but having two handles for carrying them by, to Portobello Barracks.
They were kept surrounded by British Soldiers with fixed bayonets, pointed at them. There were kept for a considerable time in this uncomfortable position, and then harangued at considerable length as to the consequence of divulging anything whatever of what they saw or did.
They were then marched with their ‘escort’ to the wall where the ‘executions’ had been perpetrated, still surrounded by fixed bayonets. They were then instructed to remove all the bricks with bullets in them and replace them with new ones which Colthurst had already a supply awaiting.
While this was being done the soldiers told them where each of the victims had stood. The spot being repaired by the man I knew was where your husband had been placed.
When the work had been completed the old bricks were left in a heap, obviously for the British to destroy.
The bricklayers were once again marched away and given another lecture as to what their fate would be if they breathed a word of what happened in the Barracks. They were kept surrounded by the wall of bayonets for a considerable time, evidently to ensure that their nerves were in the proper condition, before being marched to the gate where with a final caution they were sent away.
It was during this last tirade of frightfulness that the man I knew noticed that a portion of a brick was in his bass. He was too frightened to say anything about it. I met him shortly after and he told me what had happened and made me promise not to give him away. He asked me what he should do with the brick as he was afraid to keep it. I told him I would take it and he gave it to me.
I have kept it in my house ever since.
I tried through some of the ‘Boys’ to get in touch with you shortly after I got it but you were then endeavouring to reach America, and I could not do so.
Although I knew you were the one with the greatest right to it I could not bring myself to offer such a ghastly memento and so rake up wounds which will never be forgotten.
The findings of 1916 court martial remained controversial, and it has been asserted from that time that the military conducted a cover up in order to ensure that his commanding officers could not be held responsible for Colthurst’s actions. A conclusion of ‘Guilty, but insane’ allowed the event to be put down as the actions of an individual mad man.
But the existence of the bullet in the brick raises a question – if Colthurst was responsible for the order to replace the damaged bricks, does this imply that he was aware of what he had done and what the consequences would be, and deliberately attempted to cover the crime? Would such an action then prove compos mentis – that Colthurst was sane?
Evidence given in the court martial portrayed various sides of the officer. Some testified to his character, describing him as kindly and considerate, but more unbalanced after his return from France. Major General Bird’s testimony on made clear that Colthurst recklessly sacrificed his men during the actions around the retreat at Mons and at Aisne in 1914, remarking that when agitated and fatigued he was not responsible for his actions.
Dr Parsons had treated Colthurst on his return from the front and noted his extreme nervous exhaustion at that time. He saw him again at the time of the court martial and opined that he was close to a nervous breakdown, relating how Colthurst talked mostly about the fighting at Mons and how he spent time reading the Bible in the hours before the shooting of the journalists.
Captain E.P. Kelly testified that he witnessed Colthurst in Portobello Barracks on the day of the shootings; ‘half lying across the table with his head resting on his arm, and he looked up occasionally and stared about the room, and then fell forward again with his head on his arm’. Such evidence would suggest Colthurst was suffering from shell-shock, now known as post-traumatic disorder.
However, Colthurst was also known to occasionally commit acts of an ‘eccentric’ nature. A Major Goodman of the Curragh Camp had known Colthurst since 1904, when they were stationed in India. He told of how he shot a dog that had barked during the night. When he asked if the dog was dead Colthurst answered no, but that it was sufficiently wounded to die. This, alongside rumours of previous brutalities against prisoners and civilians, would indicate a tendency towards brutal behavior. Colthurst himself professed that he was carrying out his duty, believing he had the right to shoot rebels under the terms of martial law, and that in any other country except Ireland it would be recognized as right to kill rebels. Certainly, his raid on the Sheehy Skeffington household in an attempt to find incriminating documents would suggest that Colthurst was sane enough to determine what he needed to find to defend his actions.
There are conflicting memories surrounding the repairing of the wall in Portobello Barracks, with one claim that the military organized for the Royal Engineers to fill in the bullet holes, and another, Hannah Sheehy Skeffington, saying that bricklayers were brought in by Colonel McCammond on 7 May, the day after Colthurst was placed under arrest, to replace the bloodstained bricks with new ones. The account in the letter that accompanied the brick is the only one of the three that suggests Colthurst himself organized the repair, but contains no date or other details to support this and may have been a natural assumption at the time on the part of its author.
However there is little doubt that the brick did in fact come from a bricklayer who was forced to repair the wall, and is the material evidence of the attempt to cover the murder of the three journalists in Portobello Barracks in the middle of Easter Week 1916, whether by the military authorities or by Colthurst.