BLOOD FROM THE BLARNEY STONE – PART TWO

Captain John Colthurst Bowen-Colthurst’s murders initially went unchallenged and unpunished. General Maxwell and the authority at Dublin Castle wanted to take no action against Bowen-Colthurst, following the standard military tradition of the headquarters staff giving unconditional support for the actions of fellow-officers in the field. What they failed to comprehend, was the resolve of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (photo left), Francis’s widow and a Dublin-born Major in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, Sir Francis Fletcher Vane.

Major Vane was in overall defence of Portobello Barracks, but spent most of his time on nationwide recruitment drives. He was in Bray when he heard of the Rising, and immediately headed back to Dublin. Taking control of the 300 soldiers at the barracks, Vane personally toured the Rathmines area, placing observation posts. On Wednesday, April 26th, he returned to the barracks after Bowen-Colthurst had murdered the three civilian prisoners. He immediately moved to arrest Bowen-Colthurst and to report the killings to the Castle. What happened next almost defies belief and made the British military indicted in Bowen-Colthurst’s despicable crimes.

Discovering what had happened, Vane had Bowen-Colthurst confined to Barracks pending court-martial. On reporting to army headquarters at Parkgate, Vane found his superiors justifying Bowen-Colthurst’s actions. Royal Engineers arrived and repaired the bullet holes in the barracks walls, so they could not be seen. Vane was removed from command and Bowen-Colthurst was released and allowed to conduct a vicious raid on Mrs Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington’s house for ‘incriminating evidence’! However, Major Vane was determined to prosecute Bowen-Colthurst and went to the Castle (photo above), reporting to Matthew Nathan, Britain’s Under-Secretary for Ireland. Again, his concerns were brushed apart, and yet still Francis Vane would not let it go. On May 2nd he traveled to London and, using his contacts managed to get meetings with Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and Bonham Carter, private secretary to the British Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith (photo right). They clearly realised that there was no comforting Major Vane and, after talking with General Maxwell, they reluctantly consented to a Bowen-Colthurst court-martial, strictly in private. On May 16th, 1916 Major Vane was relegated to “unemployment” and during the summer was sentenced to a dishonourable discharge. The court-martial was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice of England, Lord Reading. Overwhelming evidence quickly convicted Bowen-Colthurst, but he was deemed insane. He was first detained at Broadmoor criminally insane hospital, but then moved to Canada. After 6 months in Canada, Captain John Colthurst Bowen-Colthurst was declared sane and released, with an honourable discharge and full military pension. He spent the rest of his life quietly, dying in 1965.

The widow, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (photo with Margaret Pearse left) had a terrible time just trying to find out what was happening. On Tuesday April 25th, 1916 she had joined her husband in a Camden Street coffee shop. Francis was eager to organise parties of vigilantes to prevent looting. She left for their home, while Francis continued with paperwork in the shop. She waited for her husband to come home and, when he had not appeared by Wednesday morning, she decided to enquire at the barracks for help.

She met a priest on Rathmines Road (photo left), who had heard of Francis’s detention the night before. Assured of his investigation at the barracks, on her behalf, she again returned home to wait again for her husband’s release. Instead of Francis, Captain Bowen-Colthurst and a platoon of soldiers arrived. They tore the house apart, looking for anything that could be used against Sheehy-Skeffington, although he was dead by the time of the raid. They found nothing and after they had left, the priest arrived with the news of her husband’s murder. Major Vane also visited, reassuring Hanna that he would do everything possible to get justice for Francis. That’s when he went to London. Understandably bitter with the whole court-martial and cover-up, Hanna decided to confront General Maxwell in person (photo below). An aid in this was a June 2nd letter from Maxwell, requesting a meeting, at which she was offered £10,000 compensation for the unjustifiable killing of her husband, without any acceptance of guilt or an apology. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington refused any compensation, but accepted permission to leave the country, which was required under the government’s emergency powers. She went to America, raising funds for the surviving Irish volunteers and their families. She also got President Theodore Roosevelt (photo below) to take an interest in her husband’s case.

Major Vane was also continuing to try to get the facts of the case, and the crimes of Captain Bowen-Colthurst made public. The military blocked him at every turn. In 1917, Vane attempted to publish a book on the 1916 Insurrection, but the proof copies were seized and prevented from publication by the military censors. The manuscript was destroyed. This was the first of Vane’s books that was suppressed, for he wrote a book recounting incidents from South Africa, the 1914-18 War and the Irish Insurrection; each one seized and suppressed by the military censor. A broken man, Francis Fletcher Vane and his wife moved to Italy in 1918. His wife died there in 1924 and three years later, Vane returned to London after his political views caused him to fall foul of the Fascist Government of Mussolini (photo below left). In 1930 he eventually got his autobiography published, “Agin the Government – Memories and Adventures of Sir Francis Fletcher Vane” (cover photo right), in which he gave, at last, the full details of the Bowen-Colthurst affair. He alone kept his honour in the crimes of Captain John Colthurst Bowen-Colthurst.

Why had the army gone to such lengths to protect a murderer? Bowen-Colthurst had some influence with the top staff. He had been Aide de Camp to Lord Aberdeen, the Viceroy before Lord Wimborne. Even Major Rosborough, with a reputation of being a kindly man, on hearing of the cold-blooded murders, did nothing. General Lowe only saw an officer that was working with the British forces, and General Maxwell, who the British Prime Minister nickname “Bloody Maxwell” because of his handling of the executions, was only interested in victory over the rebels, at any cost. It somehow feels right, that the honour and justice for a famous Dublin pacifist should be upheld and defended, not just by his grieving family, but by a British army officer, who accepted the disdain of his peers, that the truth would come out. As he said to Major Rosborough, when first demanding Bowen-Colthurst’s arrest,

“Think of the effect these murders will have on the reputation of the Army. Worse still, think of the effect they will have on America and the colonies where there are large amounts of Irish people.”

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