Review by Felicity Allen
A book recently published depicts the life of a little known participant in the rising on the British side, Captain John Bowen-Colthurst born in Co Cork, 1880.
Something of a master villain in Rising stories, he was responsible for the murder of at least innocent civilians, including the well-known newspaper editor and Dublin suffragist, pacifist and writer Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. A Terrible Duty: The Madness of Captain Bowen-Colthurst (Thena Press, 2015) by Bryan Bacon is available online from Amazon.
Bowen-Colthurst set out from Portobello Barracks (now Cathal Brugha Barracks) with a small unit of soldiers and Sheehy-Skeffington, who was marched along with his hands tied behind his back. Arrested without cause the previous day as he was trying to stop the wanton looting in the streets, Sheehy-Skeffington was intended to act as a human shield for the soldiery.
After attacking a tobacconist’s shop with hand grenades, Bowen-Colthurst shot a young boy (JJ Coade) and Labour Party politician James O’Carroll. Sheehy-Skeffington protested against the senseless murders, which may have sealed his fate. This tragic tale brings to mind the well-known verse ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ (Matt 5:9).
Bowen-Colthurst next took two pro-British magazine editors (Dickson and MacIntyre), who had been in the tobacconist’s shop, prisoner and marched them all back to the Portobello barracks. Next morning, for no apparent reason, he ordered Sheehy-Skeffington and the two editors to be stood against a wall and shot. The seven soldiers in the firing squad followed his orders despite the doubts that they later admitted to holding about their captain’s sanity.
The three corpses were quickly buried in an unmarked grave inside the barracks.
Another foray into the streets of Dublin followed on Wednesday afternoon, Bowen-Colthurst led a platoon on a trip to search premises on Camden Street. This time his men flushed out a real rebel, Richard O’Carroll, a Dublin city councillor. He was marched into the backyard at the point of Bowen-Colthurst’s revolver, who asked if he was a ‘Sinn Feiner’.
From the backbone out! said O’Carroll defiantly.
Without hesitation, Bowen-Colthurst shot him in the chest. O’Carroll collapsed, writhing in pain and Bowen-Colthurst ordered his soldiers to drag him into the street where he lay in the gutter until a passing bread van took him to hospital. After 10 days of agony he finally died, leaving a widow and a new-born baby.
During this period another officer noticed the captain’s habit of staring fixedly into the distance for long periods of time. He alerted the medical officer Captain James McTurk to the possibility that Bowen-Colthurst was not quite sane.
After speaking with him, McTurk pronounced him ‘rational enough’, which does make you wonder about the mental balance of the other officers in the barracks. Surely people noticed when Bowen-Colthurst ordered a firing squad to form which then shot three people? There are many unanswered questions about this appalling episode in the 1916 Rising.
Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington meanwhile, had no idea of her husband’s whereabouts and searched Dublin for him. Although she went to Portobello Barracks to enquire for him, at the suggestion of the police, she only learned of his death four days later. Bowen-Colthurst met her at the barracks and denied all knowledge of her husband, so what did the police know?
Bowen-Colthurst’s story has significance for Australians as some of his crimes were witnessed by an Australian soldier, who was in Dublin on leave when the rising broke out and who had reported for duty at Portobello Barracks, Rathmines.
The soldier wrote a letter home describing his participation in a patrol led by Bowen-Colthurst during which an innocent people were shot in the street and a number of civilians, including the two journalists, were arrested and taken back to the barracks.
The Australian soldier’s letter was published in the Age newspaper causing a scandal, particularly amongst the Irish-Catholic community in Australia. The story of the Australian soldier’s involvement in these events is told in Anzacs and Ireland (pp 68-72).
Several of his fellow officers suspected that Bowen-Colthurst was insane, but action to control his depredations on the civilian population was only taken at the instigation of a Major Vane, who arrived in the barracks shortly after the killings and was horrified to discover what had happened. His initial report prompted an attempted cover-up (how amazing!), but Vane was not to be deterred, obtained leave, went to London and reported the situation to Lord Kitchener himself.
Even though Kitchener commanded Bowen-Colthurst’s arrest by telegram to Sir John Maxwell, Maxwell refused to arrest him. This is hardly surprising given Maxwell’s role in the suppression of the Rising by vigorous use of his powers of execution.
Ultimately, Bowen-Colthurst was arrested on 6 June, court-martialled. His arrest led to an enquiry into the operation of martial law. The enquiry found that declaring martial law does not confer any new powers on a government and that killing unarmed civilians is still murder.
At his trial, Bowen-Colthurst pleaded insanity on the basis that he was suffering from shell shock. He had fought in the Boer War, the little known Tibetan War of 1904 and had been injured leading a disastrous and unauthorised attack on a German position at Mons in 1914. Following his injuries, he did not recover sufficiently for active service and was returned to Ireland.
While there is no doubt that he was not a well man, his defence was not entirely successful and he was found guilty of murder. Testimony from other officers suggested that his sadistic tendencies towards animals as well as people had been present for many years before he suffered shell-shock. Nevertheless his injuries meant that he was also found to be insane and he was sent to Broadmoor Asylum, then called Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
There has long been suspicion in Ireland that the finding of insanity and committal to Broadmoor was simply a continuing form of ‘cover-up’ of Bowen-Colthurst’s actions. That he was only detained there for 18 months and received his full Army pension on release after killing at least five innocent unresisting civilians does lend some support to that opinion. He travelled to Canada in 1921 where he lived a long life, dying in 1965, aged 85.
He was extraordinarily lucky to survive that long as he was pursued relentlessly by the IRA.
A Terrible Duty provides a valuable insight into Bowen-Colthurst’s life and character.