Francis Sheehy Skeffington
Francis Joseph Christopher Skeffington
23 December 1878
|Died||26 April 1916 (aged 37)|
Portobello Barracks, Dublin
|Other names||Francis Skeffington, 'Skeffy'|
|Alma mater||University College Dublin|
|Organization||United Irish League, Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association, Irish Citizen Army|
|Movement||Women's suffrage, Pacifism/Anti-conscription, Irish independence|
Francis Joseph Christopher Sheehy Skeffington (né Skeffington; 23 December 1878 - 26 April 1916) was an Irish writer and radical activist, known publicly by the nickname "Skeffy". He was also the real-life model for a character in James Joyce's novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He was a friend and schoolmate of Joyce, Oliver St. John Gogarty, Tom Kettle, and Frank O'Brien (the father of Conor Cruise O'Brien). He married Hanna Sheehy in 1903, whose own surname he adopted as part of his name, resulting in the name "Sheehy Skeffington". They always showed their joined names unhyphenated, although many sources include the hyphen.
Francis Skeffington was born in Bailieborough, County Cavan, and was raised in Downpatrick, County Down, the only son of Dr. Joseph Bartholomew Skeffington, a school inspector, and Rose Magorrian, both of County Down. His parents had been married at the Roman Catholic Chapel at Ballykinlar, County Down, in 1869. 'Frank' was educated initially at home by his father, and later at the Jesuit community in St Stephen's Green, Dublin.
Francis's radical sympathies manifested early on through his enthusiasm for the constructed language Esperanto. In 1893, at the age of 15, he wrote a letter to his local newspaper in County Down stating that "Gaelic" was irretrievably dead and "the study of Esperanto would be more useful to the youth of Ireland". Later in life he became fluent in the language, and had a number of Esperanto books in his library when he died. This enthusiasm was not unusual at the time in leftist circles, and several prominent leaders of the 1916 Easter rising, including James Connolly, were also Esperantists.
In 1896 (aged 18), Frank enrolled in University College, then run by the Jesuits and located on St Stephen's Green in the centre of Dublin. He stayed at the college long enough to earn a master's degree. Skeffington was a well-known figure at the college, individualistic and unconventional in temperament. He was active in student politics and debating societies, including the Literary and Historical Society, which he revived in 1897.
His closest companions in his student days were James Joyce and Thomas Kettle (later to become his brother-in-law). In protest against uniformity of dress, Frank Skeffington refused to shave, and wore knickerbockers with long socks, which earned him the nickname "knickerbockers". He was an ardent proponent of women's rights, and wore a Votes for Women badge. He was an equally ardent advocate of pacifism and vegetarianism, and he denounced smoking, drinking, and vivisection. He was a vegetarian and a teetotaller. But he did permit himself chocolate, and apparently he was often seen with a bar of milk chocolate in his pocket.
Joyce enrolled at University College in 1898; he was four years Skeffington's junior but only two classes below him. He left a fictional portrait of Skeffington in his novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, under the guise of "MacCann", a fellow-student whom Joyce's alter-ego Stephen Dedalus describes as "a squat figure in a shooting jacket and breeches," with a "bluntfeatured face" and "a strawcolored goatee which hung from his blunt chin." Stephen remembers him saying: "Dedalus, you're an anti-social being, wrapped up in yourself. I'm not. I'm a democrat: and I'll work and act for social liberty and equality among all classes and sexes in the United States of the Europe of the future." Later, "MacCann" is seen standing in a lobby after class, canvassing signatures on a petition for universal peace, under a picture of the Czar of Russia, who was a proponent of disarmament. (In the spring term of that year Skeffington would attend the international peace conference called by the Czar.) "MacCann began to speak with fluent energy of the Czar's rescript, of Stead, of general disarmament, arbitration in cases of international disputes, of the signs of the times, of the new humanity and the new gospel of life which would make it the business of the community to secure as cheaply as possible the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number." - Stephen Dedalus expresses indifference to these goals and gestures at the picture of the Czar: "If we must have a Jesus, let us have a legitimate Jesus." To which MacCann replies: "Dedalus, I believe you're a good fellow, but you have yet to learn the dignity of altruism and the responsibility of the human individual."
In the autumn of 1901 Skeffington wrote an essay advocating equal status for women in the University, commissioned by St Stephen's, the new literary magazine of the college.
The essay was refused publication by the Censor, and, at Joyce's suggestion, Skeffington then published the essay as a pamphlet, along with another essay by Joyce himself, which had been similarly censored ("The Day of the Rabblement", a critique of the Irish Literary Theatre). Although Joyce and Skeffington disagreed with each other's politics, they both resented censorship, and agreed to co-finance the print run of 85 copies and distribute the pamphlet to newspapers and prominent Dubliners.
After graduating from University College, Skeffington worked as a freelance journalist, contributing to socialist and pacifist publications in Ireland, England, France and North America. In 1901-02 he taught in St Kieran's College in Kilkenny, where he was a colleague and friend of the school's English, French and history master Thomas MacDonagh; the two also lodged in the same house in Kilkenny City. He then took a job as the registrar of University College.
On 26 June 1903 he married Hanna Sheehy, a teacher at the Rathmines College of Commerce (a forerunner of Dublin Institute of Technology). They jointly adopted the surname "Sheehy Skeffington". Hanna's family were a prosperous farming and milling family in County Cork, and her father had been a Nationalist MP, and had been imprisoned no less than six times for revolutionary activities.
The couple joined the Irish Women's Suffrage and Local Government Association, and the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League (the constituency element of the Irish Parliamentary Party). They also supported the Women's Social and Political Union, which lobbied for women's rights in Britain. Shortly after they married, Francis organised a petition to lobby for women to be admitted to University College on the same basis as men. When the university refused to take that step, Francis resigned from his job as registrar in protest, relying on Hanna to support him for a time. He was President of the Socialist Party of Ireland
In 1907, Francis wrote a novel, In Dark and Evil Days, which remained unpublished until 1916, the year of his death.
In 1912, he and Hanna co-founded the Irish Women's Franchise League. He was made co-editor of the League's newspaper, The Irish Citizen. The Irish Women's Franchise League agitated for votes for women; members included his brother-in-law Tom Kettle and his friend Thomas MacDonagh, as well as all of the non-nationalist suffrage activists of the day. (Nationalist women tended to avoid it, on the basis that the IWFL was seeking to get into the British Parliament, while nationalists were trying to get out).
In April 1911, Francis took part in an amusing protest at a meeting of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. The chamber was holding a public meeting to organize a welcoming ceremony for King George V on his visit to Dublin later that year. To open the meeting, the president of the chamber proposed that "a Citizens' Committee be formed for the purpose of arranging a suitable welcome and preparing and presenting a loyal address to the Most Gracious Majesties the King and Queen, on their approaching visit to Dublin".
Francis counter-proposed that the word "not" be inserted after the word "be", and argued that ignoring the visit was the best compromise to satisfy both supporters and objectors to the visit. "Sean Milroy - a future minister in the Irish Free State - stood to second Sheehy Skeffington's motion, while the chairman, the Earl of Mayo, attempted to maintain order over cries of 'Hear hear!' and 'Put him out!' In an effort to silence the dissenters, Mayo called a vote on Sheehy Skeffington's amendment; 36 supported it while 'some hundreds' voted against." After this, Countess Markievicz proposed another counter-resolution which led to further uproar.
Francis was on friendly terms with Countess Markievicz: for instance he once escorted her to a police court after she had kicked a police officer during a Socialist Party meeting, which Francis had also attended.
During the 1913 Dublin Lock-out, he became involved in the Citizens' Peace Committee, a group formed by various people including Tom Kettle and Thomas MacDonagh, with Joseph Plunkett as secretary, whose goal was to reconcile the employers and workers. The workers were willing to negotiate, but not the employers.
Francis Sheehy Skeffington joined and then became a vice-chairman of the Irish Citizen Army when it was established in response to the lockout. But he lent his support on the understanding that the ICA would have a strictly defensive role; he resigned when it became a military entity.
Sheehy Skeffington testified before a tribunal in 1913 as a witness to the arrest of the leading trade unionist Jim Larkin on O'Connell Street, and the subsequent police assault against a peaceful crowd, which had occurred on the last weekend of August 1913. His testimony stated that he was in the street with a group of women caring for a person who had already been assaulted by the police when a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police charged towards this group with his baton raised. He reports that it was only because he called out the policeman's number that the man was dissuaded from the violence he had so clearly intended. He said that he was later abused by a gang of policemen showing clear signs of intoxication in the yard of the police station at College Green where he went to make his complaint, and that their officers had no control over their behaviour.
He supported the peace crusade of the American car manufacturer Henry Ford; and when Countess Markievicz advocated armed uprising by Irish nationalists, he challenged her to a debate on the subject. She accepted the challenge in an open letter published in James Connolly's newspaper, The Workers' Republic.
Francis Sheehy Skeffington is often considered one of the martyrs of Ireland's 1916 Easter Rising; He was killed for trying to prevent looting. Richard Ellman, the eminent biographer of James Joyce, passes on such a caricature when he writes that Sheehy Skeffington "died at the hands of the British ... when he quixotically tried to dissuade the Dublin poor from looting," or again that he was "arrested while trying to keep the Dublin poor from looting."
Francis Sheehy Skeffington had always supported Home Rule for Ireland. After 1913 he had also supported his friend Thomas MacDonagh's more separatist Irish Volunteers; however he grew increasingly critical of the Volunteers' growing militarism, and in an open letter to MacDonagh published in 1915 in his own paper The Irish Citizen, Sheehy Skeffington wrote: "As you know, I am personally in full sympathy with the fundamental objects of the Irish Volunteers ... [however,] as your infant movement grows, towards the stature of a full-grown militarism, its essence - preparation to kill - grows more repellent to me."
At the outset of the Easter Rising, Sheehy Skeffington opposed the violent methods of the insurgents, advocating a nonviolent form of civil disobedience, while his wife Hanna actively sympathized with the insurgents and joined the group of women who brought food to those stationed at the General Post Office and the Royal College of Surgeons. In contrast, on the first day of the rising (Monday 24 April 1916) Francis risked crossfire to go to the aid of an English soldier outside Dublin Castle. As Hanna recalled the incident six years later: "When the outbreak began on Easter Monday my husband was near Dublin Castle. He learned that a British officer had been gravely wounded and was bleeding to death on the cobblestones outside the Castle gate. My husband persuaded a bystander to go with him to the rescue. Together they ran across the square under a hail of fire. Before they reached the spot, however, some British troops rushed out and dragged the wounded man to cover inside the gate."
Shortly after that incident Sheehy Skeffington was seen climbing up onto the steps of Nelson's Pillar on Sackville Street, and haranguing a crowd of inner-city paupers to stop looting shops. He was hooted and jeered, and his next move was then to cross the street, enter the GPO, and demand to speak to James Connolly, one of the principal leaders of the insurrection, who was also a labour leader and sympathetic to Sheehy Skeffington's socialism. Connolly sent out some armed men to quell the looting. The men climbed an overturned tramcar to berate the looters, and even fired shots over the looters' heads.
The next morning, 25 April, Sheehy Skeffington went back into the city centre and, again according to Hanna, "actively interested himself in preventing looting". He returned to the GPO, emerging around one o'clock, and began to walk around the area pasting up a typewritten flyer. The flyer read:
When there are no regular police in the streets, it becomes the duty of citizens to police the streets themselves and to prevent such spasmodic looting as has been taking place in a few streets. Civilians (men and women) who are willing to co-operate to this end are asked to attend at Westmoreland Chambers (over Eden Bros.) at five o'clock this (Tues.) afternoon.
Sheehy Skeffington then busied himself visiting various people, including priests, to enlist their help in guarding specific shops. That afternoon he had tea with his wife Hanna in one of the tea shops which, astonishingly, were still open in the city centre. Hanna then returned home to mind their child Owen, and Francis went to his meeting. Unfortunately the meeting was poorly attended, and no one volunteered to help Francis stop the looting.
On his way home from the dispiriting meeting, Francis was followed by a crowd of hecklers who were shouting out his nickname, "Skeffy!" This crowd of hecklers turned out to be a crucial cog in the machinery of fate which was to bring on his death. Undoubtedly they were the very inner city poor whom he had been exhorting to refrain from looting - and who would have been familiar with him from his many impromptu speeches on the steps of the Custom House, where he exhorted the passers-by on feminist or socialist subjects. He lived at that time at 11 (now 21) Grosvenor Place in Rathmines, and as he and his hecklers approached the Portobello Bridge, around 7:30 p.m., they were intercepted by soldiers of the 11th East Surrey Regiment. The officer in charge was under orders to keep the road and bridge clear, and felt apprehensive about the disorderly crowd. He detained Sheehy Skeffington, who said that he was "not a Sinn Féiner", but admitted to sympathy for the insurgents' cause, though he was opposed to violence. He was then arrested and taken back to the Portobello Barracks in Rathmines (now the Cathal Brugha Barracks).
Towards 11pm that evening an officer of the 3rd battalion of Royal Irish Rifles, Captain John C. Bowen-Colthurst, took Sheehy Skeffington back out of the barracks, as a hostage in a raiding party. The raid was aimed at the tobacconist shop of Alderman James Kelly, a moderate "home rule" nationalist, whom Bowen-Colthurst had mistaken for a separatist of the same name, Alderman Tom Kelly.
The raiding party, consisting of 25 men led by Bowen-Colthurst, along with Sheehy Skeffington who was held with his hands tied behind his back, left the barracks and headed towards Rathmines Road, where they intercepted two young men who were returning from a meeting of a religious sodality. On the pretext of the lateness of the hour, Bowen-Colthurst detained and threatened them, eventually shooting one of them: a 19-year-old mechanic named James Coade, who was left in the road and subsequently died of his wound. Sheehy Skeffington witnessed this and protested against the shooting as the raiding party made its way through Rathmines. The party continued on down Lower Rathmines Road, and the soldiers stopped at the Portobello Bridge, where half of the men were left at a guardhouse along with Sheehy Skeffington. Bowen-Colthurst gave orders that the soldiers at the guardhouse were to monitor the further progress of the raiding party, and shoot Sheehy Skeffington if either his or their party came under attack from snipers. He also ordered Sheehy Skeffington to say his last prayers in case this were to happen, and when Sheehy Skeffington refused, Bowen-Colthurst said prayers on his behalf.
The raiding party continued on to the shop of Alderman James Kelly, 300 yards away at the corner of Camden Street and Harcourt Road (now known as "Kelly's Corner"). Having heard gunshots which they presumed to be emanating from Kelly's shop, the soldiers destroyed the shop (which was also Kelly's home) with hand grenades. They also captured two men who had taken refuge in the shop, Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre, both pro-British journalists.
That night, Bowen-Colthurst was up much of the night praying and reading the Bible. On the following morning, he ordered the two journalists and Sheehy Skeffington taken out to a yard in the barracks, where he intended to have them shot. He told a subordinate officer this was "the best thing to do". In the yard he assembled a squad of seven men and ordered them to fire immediately at the three prisoners, who until that moment were not aware they were about to die. After killing the three men, the firing squad immediately left the yard, but when movement was detected in Sheehy Skeffington's leg, Bowen-Colthurst gathered another group of four soldiers and ordered them to fire another volley into him. Bowen-Colthurst later reported what he had done to his superior, Major Rosborough; he said he took responsibility for the shooting and that he "possibly might be hanged for it". Rosborough asked him for a written report, and Colthurst was confined to barracks duties. The bodies were hastily buried in the grounds.
In light of this report, it seems there may be some exaggeration in the assertion that Bowen-Colthurst then made "frantic efforts to wipe out all the traces of his crime", as a Father M. Scannell alleged many years later in a letter to Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. According to Father Scannell, Bowen-Colthurst detained several bricklayers from a nearby building site, and ordered them to repair the broken and bullet-impacted bricks in the wall behind where the executed men had stood. The terrified bricklayers would have been surrounded by soldiers with fixed bayonets pointed at them.
Months later, when Countess Markievicz - then in Mountjoy Prison -- first heard of the executions of the leaders of the Easter Rising, she expressed surprise at only one thing: "Why on earth did they shoot Skeffy?" she is reported to have said. "He didn't believe in fighting." The answer to that question is somewhat clearer now, in light of archival documents. A fortnight after the execution, Bowen-Colthurst filed a written report in which he stated he had been under the impression that Dublin was being overrun by rebels who were massacring police and soldiers. He did not know that military reinforcements were arriving and knew that Portobello Barracks was undermanned, with inexperienced soldiers who belonged to disparate units. He also believed Sheehy Skeffington and the two journalists to be "ringleaders" of the uprising. Bowen-Colthurst (1880-1965) belonged to an Anglo-Irish military family centred on Blarney Castle in County Cork, and whose own military career included time in Tibet, in the Boer War, and five weeks with the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front (14 August-19 September 1914), from which he had been sent home wounded and possibly shell-shocked. Bowen-Colthurst had had a brief mental breakdown during the Retreat from Mons and he had initiated a disastrous premature attack at the Battle of Aisnes. Aside from his wounds, this behaviour and his overly aggressive interrogation of German prisoners perhaps ensured that he was sent home from the front.
Bowen-Colthurst's May 9 report stated:
On Tuesday and up to Wednesday morning rumours of massacres of police and soldiers from all parts of Dublin were being constantly sent to me from different sources. Among others the rumour reached me that 600 German prisoners at Oldcastle had been released and armed and were marching on Dublin. I also heard that the rebels in the city had opened up depots for the supply and issue of arms, and that a large force of rebels intended to attack Portobello Barracks, which was held only by a few troops ... We had also in the barracks a considerable number of officers and men who had been wounded by the rebels. ... Rumours of risings all over Ireland and of a large German-American and Irish-American landing in Galway were prevalent. ... I knew of the sedition which had been preached in Ireland for years past and of the popular sympathy with rebellion. I knew also that men on leave home from the trenches, although unarmed, had been shot like dogs in the streets of their own city, simply because they were in khaki, and I had also heard that wounded soldiers home for convalescence had been shot down also. On the Wednesday morning 26 April all this was in my mind. I was very much exhausted and unstrung after practically a sleepless night, and I took the gloomiest view of the situation and felt that only desperate measures would save the situation.
However, this report may not be a reliable guide to Colthurst's motives, as on other occasions, he provided different explanations for his conduct. The report he wrote on April 26, the day of the executions, was as follows:
This morning at about 9 a.m. I proceeded to the Guard Room to examine these two men [Dickson and MacIntyre] and I sent for a man called Skeffongton [sic] who was also detained. I had been busy on the previous evening up to about 3 a.m. examining documents found on these three men and I recognised from these documents that the three men were all very dangerous characters. I therefore sent for an armed guard of six men and ordered them to load their Rifles and keep their eyes on the prisoners. The Guard Room was full of men and was not a suitable place in my opinion in which to examine the prisoners. I ordered therefore the three prisoners to go into the small court yard of the Guard Room. I regret now that I did not have these three men hand cuffed and surrounded as the yard was a place from which they might have escaped. When I ordered these three men into the yard I did not however know this. The Guard was some little distance from the prisoners and as I considered that there was a reasonable chance of the prisoners (from correspondence captured on them the previous evening) to be dangerous characters, I called upon the Guard to fire upon them which they did with effect, the three men being killed. The documents found on these three men have been forwarded to the Orderly Room.
There was another possible explanation for Colthurst's actions, mentioned in passing in the report of the subsequent Royal Commission [on the Arrest on April 25, 1916 and Subsequent Treatment of Mr Francis Sheehy Skeffington...]. This was the suggestion that "a shooting incident" [Coade's murder] at which "Sheehy Skeffington was present ... might have had some bearing upon his subsequent treatment."
The man in overall charge of defence at Portobello Barracks was 55-year-old Sir Francis Vane (1861-1934), a Dublin-born major in the Royal Munster Fusiliers. Vane was not present when these shootings took place, having taken up an observation post at the top of the nearby Rathmines Town Hall. Later on Wednesday morning, when Vane returned to the compound, he heard what had happened during his absence from a young lieutenant attached to the Army Service Corps who was stationed at the barracks. Vane was horrified and went immediately to see the deputy commander of the garrison, Major Rosborough. He told Rosborough he believed that Bowen-Colthurst was mentally deranged. Rosborough then ordered a subordinate to telephone the garrison high command, and also to make an exceptional telephone report to the British high command at Dublin Castle. The garrison high command replied with an order to bury the bodies in the barracks yard. This was done after Roman Catholic rites had been performed by a chaplain. At a later date the bodies were exhumed in the presence of Sheehy Skeffington's father, and then reburied in consecrated ground.
In an interview with the playwright Hayden Talbot six years after the killing, Hanna said her husband's body "had been put in a sack and buried in the barracks' yard. The remains were given to his father on condition that the funeral would be at early morn and that I be not notified. My husband's father consented unwillingly to do this on the assurance of General Maxwell that obedience would result in the trial and punishment of the murderer." Re-interment took place on 8 May 1916 at Glasnevin Cemetery.
Bowen-Colthurst also shot two other men on April 26, shortly after the executions at Portobello Barracks, but they seem to have been involved in the uprising. One of them was Richard O'Carroll, a brick layer, trade union officer, Labour Party Councillor, and the Quartermaster of C Company of the Irish Volunteers. O'Carroll was delivering ammunition to the garrison outpost at Northumberland Road when he was pulled from his motorcycle and shot through the lungs. He died of his wounds nine days later. The other man was one Patrick Nolan, shot by Bowen-Colthurst outside Delahunt's Grocery shop on Camden Street. He was brought to the hospital at Dublin Castle and survived.
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was not told about her husband's detention or his death. She went around Dublin seeking to find where her husband was, and heard rumours of his fate. Her two sisters then offered to visit Portobello Barracks on Friday and make inquiries. Upon revealing their business, the two sisters were arrested as "Sinn Féiners", and questioned by Captain Bowen-Colthurst. Bowen-Colthurst denied any knowledge as to the fate of Francis Sheehy Skeffington, and had them released. Later on Friday Hanna learned the dreadful news from the father of the young boy Coade who had also been shot, and the news was confirmed to her by the chaplain who had performed the funerary rites, and who also worked in the neighborhood.
On that same Friday evening, Bowen-Colthurst and a group of soldiers forced entry into the Sheehy Skeffingtons' home, hoping to find evidence to incriminate Francis as an enemy sympathiser. Hanna, Owen (then seven), and a "young maid-servant" were in the house, where Owen was just being put to bed. The soldiers announced their presence by firing a volley of bullets through the front windows. The soldiers then burst in through the front door, wielding rifles with fixed bayonets, and ordered the three residents to stand under guard while they searched the premises. According to an official report, "All the rooms in the house were thoroughly ransacked and a considerable quantity of books and papers were wrapped up in the household linen, placed in a passing motor car, and taken away. ... A large part of the material removed seems to have consisted of text-books both in German and other languages, as well as political papers and pamphlets belonging to Mr. Sheehy Skeffington." The maid-servant, terrified by the experience, subsequently quit her job. She was replaced by another maid who was subsequently arrested and detained for four days after another raid by the Portobello garrison (this time not ordered by Bowen-Colthurst). But upon examination several months later by a government commission, none of the material was found to be seditious.
The upshot of the various military reports in the immediate aftermath of the shooting was that Bowen-Colthurst retained his rank and still circulated freely, whereas Sir Francis Vane was removed from command. Vane then travelled to London and on 3 May he met the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, in Downing Street. A telegram was then sent to Sir John Maxwell, commander-in-chief of British forces in Ireland, ordering the arrest of Bowen-Colthurst. Three days later Bowen-Colthurst was placed under "open arrest", and then on 11 May under "close arrest". Finally Bowen-Colthurst was charged with murder but to be tried by court-martial, despite the Army Act's stipulation that any soldier charged with murder committed in the United Kingdom could be tried only in a civilian, not a military, court.
Over a hundred spectators attended the court martial held June 6/7 at the Richmond Barracks, Dublin. Once the prosecution and defence counsel had established the uncontested facts of the case, a succession of army officers testified to Colthurst's kindness and decency but also to his occasional eccentricity, excitability and impulsiveness. Four medical experts then provided past and more recent accounts of Colthurst's mental instability. Except to enter his 'Not guilty' pleas and to decline to comment at the end of the proceedings, Colthurst did not speak, as was his right.
There were doubts about the impartiality of the court martial. There was no mention of Coade and no discussion of Colthurst's April 26 report. Similarly off limits were Colthurst's activities in the hours and days following the executions--the murder of Richard O'Carroll for example. Important witnesses (Colonel McCammond, Major Vane, Lieutenants Tooley and Gibbon, Sergeant Claxton), who might have provided different views of Colthurst's mental state, were not summoned to give evidence. Neither defence counsel's arguments nor the medical evidence 'clearly established' Colthurst's insanity at the time of the murders, the standard of proof for insanity required by the Manual of Military Law. Nevertheless, the court found Colthurst 'Guilty but insane' and sentenced him to indefinite incarceration in Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane.
This lenient verdict (avoiding a sentence of death or imprisonment) became a cause celebre internationally and, along with the civilian deaths in North King Street, provoked a political furore which culminated in the appointment of several Royal Commissions of Inquiry. The Royal Commission on the deaths of Sheehy Skeffington, Dickson and McIntyre was chaired by Sir John Simon (a former Attorney General and Home Secretary), and held hearings on 23-31 August 1916 in a public courtroom at the Four Courts in Dublin. 38 witnesses were examined, including Sheehy Skeffington's wife Hanna. The report of this commission constitutes the principal source of facts about the events leading to the death of Sheehy Skeffington. However, much of the evidence presented at the public hearings does not appear in the final report, due to restrictions on the formal terms of reference of the Commission. This additional evidence is known to historians thanks to reports of the oral proceedings published in the Dublin newspapers.
The Royal Commission examined the circumstances of Dickson's, MacIntyre's and Sheehy Skeffington's deaths but not why they were killed. The commission chairman's view was that as a court martial had already determined that Colthurst was insane, there could be no further discussion of his mental state and motives. However, the commission report did present a plausible narrative of Colthurst's actions, April 25-28 (except for the shootings of O'Carroll and Nolan which, during the hearings, the chairman had ruled inadmissible ).
The commission report concluded with three 'general observations'. In the first, the commission absolved Irish Command of responsibility for the murders, declaring itself 'satisfied that the state of things which rendered Captain Bowen-Colthurst's conduct possible was largely caused by the unfortunate but inevitable absence [through serious illness] of Colonel McCammond, the only officer in the barracks whom Captain Colthurst would not have considered himself at liberty to ignore.'
In its second observation, the report singled out Colthurst's April 28 raid on Mrs Sheehy Skeffington's house as being particularly discreditable, especially in the light of his earlier treatment of Mrs Sheehy Skeffington's sisters at Portobello Barracks.
Finally, the report ascribed the complicity of the soldiers involved in Colthurst's misconduct to a misunderstanding of martial law. The Commission found that it was "a delusion to suppose that a proclamation of martial law confers upon an officer any right to take human life in circumstances where this would have been unjustifiable without such a proclamation, and this delusion in the present case had tragic consequences". The Commission concluded that the proclamation of martial law
does not confer on officers or soldiers any new powers, but is a warning that the Government, acting through the military, is about to take such forcible and exceptional measures as are needed to restore order. ... The measures taken can be justified only by the practical circumstances of the case. ... The shooting of unarmed and unresisting civilians without trial constitutes the offense of murder, whether martial law has been proclaimed or not. We should have deemed it superfluous to point this out were it not that the failure to realise and apply this elementary principle seems to explain the free hand which Captain Bowen-Colthurst was not restrained from exercising throughout the period of crisis.
Major Sir Francis Vane, who had sought to have Bowen-Colthurst brought to justice, was dishonourably discharged from the British Army at some time between May and July 1916, owing to an adverse report about him filed by British high commander Sir John Maxwell about his actions in the Skeffington murder case. He went on to be involved with the Boy Scouts, then retired from public life in 1927 and died in 1934.
Captain Bowen-Colthurst was interned briefly at Broadmoor Hospital from which he was released under medical supervision on 21 January 1918, and provided with a military pension. Bowen-Colthurst emigrated in April 1919 to the Canadian province of British Columbia, where he lived for the rest of his life and died in 1965. His obituary did not mention his role in the Easter rising. His remains were buried in Lakeview Cemetery in Penticton, British Columbia.
Hanna Sheehy Skeffington was offered financial compensation by the British government in 1916, but she refused it because it came on the condition that she cease to speak and write about the murder. She became increasingly nationalist-minded, and supported the Anti-Treaty IRA during the Irish Civil War. She refused to send her son Owen to any school with a pro-Treaty ethos, and therefore opted to place him in the secular Sandford Park School when it was founded in 1922. Her sister's son Conor Cruise O'Brien was also placed there. Hanna died in 1946.