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


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.


No co-operation


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.


War correspondent



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

bhfuair mé".


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.


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