In Sheehy-Skeffington, and not in Connolly, fell the first martyr to Irish Socialism, for he linked Ireland not only with the little nations struggling for self-expression, but with the world’s Humanity struggling for a higher life – Sean O’Casey.
A plaque connected to the 1916 rising, but often overlooked, is that to Francis Sheehy-Skeffington inside what is today Cathal Brugha Barracks. Feminist, pacifist, vegetarian,journalist and activist, Francis was married to Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, undoubtedly one of the most celebrated feminists in Irish history herself. His death during the rebellion is one of the most tragic episodes of the week, as Francis was not a participant in the rising, but rather had gone to the city on April 25th with the aim of attempting to establish a ‘Citizens Peace Patrol’, to prevent more scenes of looting and criminality among Dubliners following the breakdown of law and order.
The plaque was unveiled on April 1 1970 by Nora Connolly O’Brien, daughter of James Connolly, in the presence of Senator Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, son of Francis, and others. It was sculpted by Gary Trimble, and includes an inscription bearing the words of James Cousins:
‘For whom no power of pride e’er awed
Whose hand would heal where sharp it fell
Smite error on the throne of God
And smile of truth though found in hell.’
Writing in June of 1916, Padraic Colum noted in the pages of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth paper:
I shall remember Francis Sheehy-Skeffington as the happiest spirit I ever knew. He fought for enlightenment with a sort of angelic courage, austere, gay, uncompromising. Since he wrote his student pamphlet on Women’s Liberation he was in the front of every liberalising movement in Ireland. He was not a bearer of arms in the insurrection- he was a pacifist…..But Skeffington is dead now, and the spiritual life of Ireland has been depleted by as much of the highest courage, the highest sincerity and the highest devotion as a single man could embody.
Francis was a well known feminist, having co-founded the Irish Citizen feminist paper in 1912, and adopting the surname of his wife, Hanna Sheehy, upon their marrying. He had been involved with the Irish Citizen Army upon the foundation of the workers army, but left when he felt the organisation to be at odds with his pacifist ideology, i.e moving from a purely defensive role towards militarism. He had attended University College Dublin, where he counted James Joyce among his friends, and was well known and indeed liked in the college on a social level, even becoming auditor of the College L&H (Literary and Historical Society) in 1897.
On April 25th Francis was arrested and taken to Portobello Barracks. While the British were unable to charge him with anything, he was held on the grounds of being an enemy sympathiser. It was at Portobello Barracks that a Captain Bowen-Colthurst would demand Francis be handed over to him, as he was about to lead a raiding patrol and he wished to use Skeffington as a guide and indeed hostage. What happened next is detailed in Michael McNally’s excellent study of the Rising (Osprey Campaigns: Easter Rising 1916) in some detail:
Once outside the barracks, he handed Skeffington over to his second in command with the admonition that if it became clear that the raid had gone wrong he was to shoot the prisoner. Bowen-Colthurst then ran amok, firstly killing a teenager named Coade claiming that he was acting under the provisions of martial law that had been enacted that day, and then raiding the wrong address where he took two journalists as additional prisoners, bringing his three victims back to the barracks where they were held under arrest, but never charged.
The raiding party had destroyed the home of Alderman James Kelly, who was a unionist, mistakenly believing it to be the home of a Sinn Féin councillor. Patrick MacIntyre and Thomas Dickson were the two journalists arrested. They along with Skeffington were executed by firing squad just after 10am the following morning. It was a tragic end for a man who had devoted his life to peace.
Bowen-Colthurst’s actions saw him arrested on 6 June, charged with murder and court-martialled for the unlawful killing of Skeffington and the two journalists. He would plead insanity, successfully, and found himself sent firstly to Broadmore Hospital and then to Canada. Disgracefully, he would be found ‘cured’ in April of 1921, and at age 40 he was to be released with a pension.
The story of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington is just one of the many interesting stories that surround Portobello Barracks, or Cathal Brugha Barracks as it is known today. For this interested in the history of the barracks, I would reccomend the ‘History of Cathal Brugha Barracks’ booklet, issued last year and from which the image of the plaque above is taken. It should be noted that today University College Dublin honours the Sheehy-Skeffington’s with the Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington building.