Was Captain John Colthurst Bowen-Colthurst (photo left) really mad? In the modern-day, his murders during the 1916 Insurrection seemed premeditated, indiscriminate and known by him to be murder at the time. He seemed driven by the desire to kill, and the Uprising presented him with the perfect conditions to allow him to pursue this goal. That he killed innocent civilians, knowing them to be innocent is not in doubt but, as Norway is asking at this time, can a sane man really commit such brutal murders? So, let’s look at the timeline for Bowen-Colthurst’s 24 hours of bloody terror.
The Colthurst family, to which Bowen-Colthurst belonged, had rebuilt Blarney Castle (photo right) in county Cork after a fire, completing it in 1874; looking as it does today. Our murderer was born in 1880 and got a military education at Haileybury and Sandhurst (photo below), in England.
At the turn of the century, he joined the Royal Irish Rifles and fought in South Africa during the Boar War. From there he went to Tibet and India, rising to the rank of Captain, earning a pocket full of medals and returning to Ireland, to marry the Honourable Rosalinda Laetitia.
By the time of Easter Week, 1916, Captain Bowen-Colthurst was an experienced, battle hardened, front line officer of the 3rd Royal Irish Rifles (badge photo right), based in Portobello Barracks (now Cathal Brugha Barracks) in Rathmines. The battalion’s commanding officer, Colonel McCammond, was absent on sick-leave. Due to the longevity of his military service, although Major James Rosborough held the senior rank, Bowen-Colthurst considered himself at liberty to ignore his brother-officers.
His first murder was not, as is often thought, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington but a schoolboy on the Rathmines Road. J.J. Coade and Laurence Byrne were returning home from mass, just after Martial Law had been declared. They met Bowen-Colthurst’s party leaving Portobello Barracks. Challenged by the Captain, the boys tried to avoid trouble by changing their direction, but the soldiers surrounded them. When Coade again tried to walk away, Bowen-Colthurst roared at the soldier nearest to him, “Bash him!” The soldier, lifting his rifle, hit Coade’s face with the butt, breaking his jaw-bone. As the youngster fell to the ground, Bowen-Colthurst walked up to where he lay, drew his service revolver and shot him dead. His murders had begun. The planned raid had the wrong address, targeting the shop of a unionist, Alderman Kelly instead of a rebel councillor, with the same surname. After a brief assault on the premises, four men inside were arrested. They were the adjacent pub’s two barmen and two magazine editors, Thomas Dickson of the Eye-Opener and Patrick J. MacIntyre of the Searchlight. The next morning, Wednesday April 26th, 1916, at 10.05am, Captain Bowen-Colthurst entered the guardroom. He told the Sergeant of the Guard, William Aldridge of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, that he wanted to take the prisoners into the yard behind the guardroom and to shot them. He assembled a seven soldier firing squad and, as Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (photo below) and the two journalists, Dickson and MacIntyre walked across the yard towards a concrete wall, the three were shot.
Fatally wounded they were then, on Bowen-Colthurst’s order, shot again. They were dead. The Captain merely pondered if he would get into trouble for that! None of the officers in the barracks, including Major Rosborough, neither challenged his actions nor attempted to stop him committing more murders.
On Wednesday afternoon, Bowen-Colthurst led a platoon on a trip to search premises on Camden Street. His men flushed out an Irish Volunteer, Richard O’Carroll, a Dublin city councillor. He was marched into the backyard at the point of Bowen-Colthurst’s revolver, who asked,
“Are you a Sinn Feiner?”
“From the backbone out!” said O’Carroll defiantly. Without hesitation, Bowen-Colthurst shot him in the lung. O’Carroll collapsed, writhing in pain and a soldier said,
“Sir, he’s not dead yet.”
“Never mind,” said Bowen-Colthurst, “He’ll die later. Take him into the street.”
Two soldiers dragged him into the gutter, where he remained until a passing bread van picked him up some time later. He lived in agony for the next ten days and died exactly a fortnight before his wife gave birth. The searches on Camden Street continued. Later that afternoon, Bowen-Colthurst stopped a teenager on the street for questioning. When the unidentified boy failed to state his name, he was ordered to get on his knees. As the scared boy went to bless himself, Captain Bowen-Colthurst shot him in the back of his head. Not finding another suspects handy, he led the soldiers back to barracks for a late dinner. An hour later, Captain Edward Kelly found Bowen-Colthurst in the Portobello barracks mess with his head in his arms. Kelly took a seat and observed him for a while. Occasionally, Bowen-Colthurst would raise his head, stare across the room and then fall forward again. After a while, Kelly went to Captain James McTurk of the Royal Army Medical Corp.
“For God’s sake, keep an eye on Colthurst,” Kelly warned. “I think he’s off his head.”
McTurk decided to see Colthurst and found him rational enough, though obsessed with his day’s work.
“It is a terrible thing to shoot one’s own countrymen, isn’t it?” he said.
Part Two of this story will focus on the British officer, Major Sir Francis F. Vane (photo left), who stopped Bowen-Colthurst’s slaughtering, confronted him at his court-martial and founded the Italian Boy Scouts.