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‘Shot like a dog’: the murder of Francis Sheehy Skeffington and the search for truth
Francis Sheehy Skeffington - journalist, suffragist, pacifist - was shot without trial in Portobello Barracks in 1916 Photo: National Museum of Ireland

‘Shot like a dog’: the murder of Francis Sheehy Skeffington and the search for truth

By Ed Mulhall

‘I wish to appear for myself, I am the father of the murdered man, Mr. Sheehy Skeffington’. J.B. Skeffington stood up before a crowded Court of Appeal in the Four Courts Dublin on 23 August 1916 at the opening of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the death of his son Francis and two others, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson. In the court room were his son’s wife Hanna, her sister Mary Kettle (whose husband Tom was with the Irish regiments at the Somme), their father David Sheehy MP and other members of their family and the families of the other deceased. Another MP Tim Healy represented Hanna and the Skeffington family but J.B. was determined to represent himself. He alone of the family had seen Francis’s body after his death, having witnessed its exhumation from the prison plot and re-internment in Glasnevin. The Sheehy Skeffingtons' son Owen was also to attend the hearings; on the day his mother gave evidence he accompanied her, described by The Freemans Journal as a ‘bright little lad of ten’.

Presiding over the Commission was Sir John Simon, former Attorney General and Home Secretary. Simon had resigned earlier in 1916 in protest at a bill allowing for the conscription of single men; a decision he later viewed as a mistake, not on the issue itself but rather on the tactics. The Prime Minister Herbert Asquith had considered him as a possible Irish Secretary when Augustine Birrell resigned following the Easter Rising. He was a major figure to chair such a commission but was apprehensive calling it ‘a horrid job’. The other members of the commission were Lord Justice Molony later the last Lord Chief Justice for Ireland and Mr Denis Henry KC MP, newly elected Unionist MP for South Londonderry and future Northern Ireland Chief Justice. The Attorney General for Ireland James Campbell, later Lord Glenavy (who had been appointed in some controversy and was later a Lord Chancellor and the first chair of the Senate of the Irish Free State), represented the Crown. It was a high powered commission appointed after a concerted campaign in Parliament and the Press by Hanna, J.B., their family and supporters, to see some public investigation into the killings. Their aim was, not just to establish the facts of the case, but by so doing to expose some of the excesses of militarism, confirming the pacifist principles Francis Sheehy Skeffington had campaigned and suffered for.

Sir John Simon, circa 1916 (Image: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

Francis Sheehy Skeffington had returned to Ireland in late December 1915 from America. He had spent four months there, writing and lecturing about the war, following his recuperation in Wales from the effects of a hunger strike, undertaken while imprisoned in Mountjoy Gaol for anti-conscription activities. In America he had written regularly for The New York Times and sent back to his own newspaper The Irish Citizen, dispatches and funds, the raising of which was an important part of the US trip. He had an uncomfortable relationship with nationalist leader John Devoy in America and also discussed his concerns about the growing militancy with union leader Jim Larkin who may have sent word back with Skeffington for Connolly saying that his boys ‘were not to move’. His father believed he should have stayed in the U.S.: ‘It would have been better for yourself if they had sent you back to America where you might make a living, I don’t see how you can do that here.’ He added: ‘I must say no other government would have been so lenient. In war when countries are spending thousands of lives and maiming millions they are in no mood for kid glove treatment of those opposed to them at home and it is unreasonable to expect such. Everybody here knows the pros and cons of recruiting, enlistment and conscription. So it is quite gratuitously running into ruin to talk of such matters. Perhaps your own family and especially Owen might have need of some of your consideration not to mention any others.’ These concerns, particularly over his livelihood, and the vehemence with which they are expressed are a regular feature of the father/son correspondence, often tempered by the inclusion of a cheque to assist Frank in his latest financial crisis.

Francis Sheehy Skeffington’s appointment diary for 1916 showed a period of intense activity. Large format, with a page for each day and each hour marked up in fifteen minute sections, he listed all his meetings, events, visits home, tasks completed, often with the names of those attending or met. There were frequently over twenty entries a day. He began a series of lectures starting on 4 January 1916 about his visit to America. He resumed his journalism for many publications including that of his own Irish Citizen for which he was trying to find a new guarantor. (Kathleen Lynn eventually joined Jack White and Dr Maguire, the paper having become a monthly due to lack of advertising in the war environment.) His anti-war activities now concentrated on the issue of taxation, with a campaign to prevent extra taxation being levied in Ireland to support the war. (The committee for the campaign, the Irish Financial Relations Committee, included Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh and William O’Brien). He wrote to John Redmond in March with a list of councils who had passed motions on the issue (Dublin, Limerick Thurles, Athy, King’s County). His work for women’s suffrage also continued with both the Irish Women’s Franchise League and Irish Suffragettes. Through the diary one also saw regular meetings with individuals, his morning visit to the Dublin Bakery Company café, to read the papers or play chess at lunch time. Throughout the period he was becoming more and more concerned at the prospect of serious violence in Ireland.

At that 4 January 1916 meeting, held in the Forester’s Hall and chaired by James Connolly, Skeffington had praised the efforts of the Ford Peace Mission in promoting an end to the war. Constance Markievicz replied to his speech by disagreeing and declaring that there should not be peace until the British Empire was smashed. Reflecting on her remarks and the response they got, Skeffington wrote to The Workers’ Republic saying there was a ‘certain vagueness in the public mind as to what they really want which is desirable to clear up. I desire hereby through your columns, to challenge Madame Markievicz to a public debate on the question – ‘Do we want peace now?’ – in which I would take the affirmative and she the negative side.’ Markievicz accepted and saying she was prepared to show that ‘now as ever England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.’ It was a challenge similar to the one he had made to Thomas MacDonagh nearly a year earlier but now in more stressed times.

Left: Hanna and Francis Sheehy Skeffington together. Right: Hanna Sheehy Skeffington with her son Owen (Image: National Museum of Ireland & Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA)

The debate was held on 18 February 1916 in the Forester’s Hall. In the debate Skeffington argued that there was not the slightest possibility that Germany would defeat England and that therefore it was folly to build hopes on securing freedom for Ireland through the crushing of England and that immediate peace was in the best interest of Ireland, of small nations and of civilisation. He countered the Countess’s repeated assertion that she was prepared to die for Ireland by saying that he was also willing to die for Ireland but he would not kill for Ireland and he considered it absolutely futile to talk of winning Irish freedom by arms. He was arguing a difficult cause as the suffragist Louie Bennett, who also spoke, recalled:

‘There was probably five or six hundred in the hall (chiefly men) for the debate. The debate itself was very uninteresting. Madame has no powers of debate. She re-iterated the same few points in various wild flower phrases, and talked much of dying for Ireland. The open discussion was ominous. The Countess had the meeting with her. Skeffington’s supporters numbered 26. Her supporters spoke in a bitter and sinister vein. I gathered they were willing to watch the war continue, with all its dreadful loses and consequences, if only it led to the overthrow of England and consequent release of Ireland. I broke out of the cowardice of that. I spoke pretty strongly and was listened to with civility. Then Connolly got up and spoke at some length. He spoke strongly in favour of seizing the moment to fight now against England. I gathered he regretted that more were not ready to do it. As always one felt the tremendous force of this man, with his big powerful body, and powerful face and head, and it came home to me that here, in this man, was the centre of danger at this time, and he would be relentless in carrying out a purpose. The meeting depressed me utterly. The spirit of it was bad, sinister, lacking in any idealism to redeem its bitterness.’ 

Hanna, who was there also, noted that Connolly’s intervention had won the argument recalling him saying to Frank afterwards: ‘I was afraid you might get the better of it Skeffington, that would never do.’ Skeffington wrote for Century Magazine that ‘it is the duty of Irish statesmen to use every effort to keep out of war’. He warned against the growing support for the Volunteers and said that when peace came Ireland would stand with other small nations to claim their rights from the community of nations: ‘Shall peace bring freedom to Belgium and Poland, perhaps to Finland and Bohemia and not to Ireland? Must Irish freedom be gained in blood or will the comity of nations, led by the United States, shame a weakened England into putting into practice at home the principles which are so loudly trumpeted for the benefit of Germany.’

Skeffington was meeting Connolly regularly at this time so he was well aware of his growing militancy though not perhaps of the fact that he was now a member of the secret council planning a rebellion. In March, Skeffington was given a copy of the so-called ‘Castle document’ by the editor of New Ireland P. J. Little who in turn had received it from volunteer Rory O'Connor. The document purported to be a distillation of a secret plan by Dublin Castle to seize the headquarters of the Volunteers, Citizen Army, Sinn Féin and other buildings as well making widespread arrests. (While there has been much dispute about its authenticity, a Castle employee Eugene Smith, seems to have been the main source of the document which was printed by Joseph Plunkett in, perhaps, a 'sexed up' format.) Skeffington, Little, Dr Seamus O’Kelly, O’Connor and another journalist L.P. O'Byrne met on a number of occasions to assist in its distribution. (Their aim according to Desmond Ryan was to pre-empt such intervention and prevent bloodshed or insurrection.) Skeffington went with his old college friend J.F. Byrne (with whom he had stayed in the US and who was also acting as a newspaper correspondent) to James Connolly with the document. Connolly encouraged them to get it to members of parliament and Byrne brought it over to London and gave it to Lawrence Ginell MP. Skeffington gave a copy to Alderman Tom Kelly who read it out at a meeting of Dublin Corporation, causing a major sensation as was the intention of Plunkett. (O’Kelly and Little had also given it to the Dublin newspapers. Only one, The Mail published it.) O'Kelly had also given the document to Eoin MacNeill who was greatly concerned. Their contacts continued and when MacNeill began to have doubts about its authenticity on the Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week, Skeffington, O’Kelly O’Connor and Little again met with him to assure him. When they left, Little said to Skeffington: ‘I hope this will work out and there will be no attack on the Volunteers. Skeffington: Please God it will.’

Banner from the Skeffingtons' newspaper The Irish Citizen

Neither Skeffington nor Little were able to refer to the document in their own newspapers although Skeffington did add this item into The Irish Citizen:

‘There is much reason to believe that the military authorities in Ireland are planning a pogrom of those who are opposed to them – are deliberately meditating such action as they know, in the present state of the popular temper, must provoke resistance and lead to bloodshed. To avert this militarist plot, which would deliver Ireland up to a regime of unchecked and undisguised martial law, is the duty of all pacifists’. 

The concerns expressed here were informed not only by his regular contact with Connolly and others involved in militancy but by a number of clashes between the police and Volunteers and Citizen Army members during March and April 1916 (notably in Tullamore and later in the attempt by the authorities to close down the printing press at Liberty Hall).

He wrote to his father: ‘I fear the government means to precipitate matters in Ireland – to provoke armed opposition and get an excuse for drastic measures. After what happened in Tullamore on Monday and at Liberty Hall on Friday, the authorities know the armed men are earnest and if they proceed on the same lines it is because they want bloodshed.’ He added that he believed the anti-taxation movement to be a potential safety valve. He wrote to The Manchester Guardian on the same day, saying that the two events proved that both the Volunteers as shown in Tullamore and the Citizen Army by their resistance in Liberty Hall would resist to the point of 'bloodshed' any attempt to silence them: ‘This is not bluff in either case. These are determined men. If after these unmistakable warnings Dublin Castle proceeds to action in either of these directions, it can only be because Dublin Castle wants bloodshed – wants to provoke another ‘98 and get an excuse for a pogrom.’ He added privately in a letter to Jack White on 5 April, in which he confirmed the new arrangements for supporting The Irish Citizen, that ‘the military authorities are determined to provoke bloodshed, to cause another 98 and get an excuse for a machine gun massacre.’ 

But it was not just from the Dublin Castle side that Skeffington saw danger. He must have been aware, at least indirectly, that something was afoot from the paramilitary groups. The constant armed guard on the Liberty Hall press was one sign. He was in regular contact with Connolly and – by involvement with the ‘Castle Document’ publication – with those close to Eoin MacNeill and Joseph Plunkett. Hanna was approached to be a member of a ‘Civil Provisional Government’ should hostilities break out. The other members were Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh (a Volunteer and member of the IRB), and William O'Brien (union leader and confidant of James Connolly), who had alerted him to the insurrection plans. The Skeffingtons were also told not to leave Dublin at Easter.

All of this added to Skeffington's foreboding. He sent an ‘Open Letter’ to The New Statesman on 7 April. He wrote in the hope that ‘despite war fever, there may be enough sanity and common sense left to restrain the militants while there is yet time.’ He added the context and warning of a ‘machine gun massacre’ outlined in his earlier letters and continued: ‘Irish pacifists who have watched the situation closely are convinced that this is precisely what the militarists do want. The younger English officers in Dublin make no secret of their eagerness ‘to take a whack at the Sinn Feiners’; they would much rather fight them than the Germans’. This was a dangerous situation: ‘Once bloodshed is started in Ireland who can say where or how it will end.’ Skeffington sent the piece to George Bernard Shaw telling him that although it was intended for other papers as well, he thought it unlikely they would print it: ‘…so I am sending you a copy for your personal information, that you may understand all the efforts of men of goodwill to avert bloodshed in Ireland; and perhaps you having an ear to the press maybe able to intervene effectively.’ He was correct, it was only his death which led to its publication in The New Statesman.

Having been in Eoin MacNeill's house earlier in Holy Week discussing the ‘Castle Document’, Francis Sheehy Skeffington must have recognised the importance of the 'countermanding order' printed in the Sunday Independent of 20 April 1916. MacNeill, finally, convinced that the ‘Castle Document’ was a forgery and having got news of the sinking of the Aud issued orders aimed at preventing a rising taking place. Skeffington went to Liberty Hall that Sunday morning where he and William O'Brien discovered that Connolly was in a meeting with other leaders of what was then the Military Council (the other signatories of the Proclamation). This meeting decided to go ahead with the Rising plans on the following morning. Both O'Brien and Skeffington left without knowing this, but having witnessed the extent of the mobilisation at Liberty Hall.

Skeffington was in the city the following morning, Easter Monday, when the Rising began and was witness to one of its early actions. At Dublin Castle, Seán Connolly, the actor whose performance in a James Connolly play Skeffington had reviewed only weeks earlier, fired the first shots of the Rising, killing a policeman. In the battle that followed Seán Connolly was also killed and a British officer wounded. Because of the crossfire no one was attending to the officer, Captain Pinfield. Skeffington went for a pharmacist to assist and both tried to get to the soldier at the gates. (He was eventually pulled inside the Castle before they could help). He told Hanna later: ‘I could not let anyone bleed to death while I could help.’

L: Seán Connolly in costume R: Seán Connolly on stage with other actors including Constance Markievecz (Images: National Museum of Ireland)

Helena Molony had met Skeffington while moving between City Hall and the GPO in Dame St: ‘…he was looking very white and dispirited…when I met him he was really looking distressed. He was standing in the midst of a hail of bullets as if they were raindrops. He was a fighting pacifist. He believed one had to suffer for peace not to inflict peace but to suffer for it.’ 

Roger Webb met Skeffington on the Monday his aunt wrote later: ‘Mr. S held up his hands and exclaimed: ‘This should never have occurred; it is deplorable’ or words to that effect.’

The writer and Abbey theatre manager St John J. Ervine met him that afternoon at the Unitarian Church on Stephen’s Green:

‘We stopped and talked of the rebellion. I was very angry at the rebels because I saw the work of thirty years being blown up in a careless fashion and I expressed myself to him in that manner. He told me that the Government were to blame for the outbreak and made reference to some acts of General Friend which he said were of a provocative character. He said he was opposed to the rebellion because he was a pacifist. His exact words were ‘I'm inclining more and more to the Tolstoian position’. He described the outbreak as a ‘folly, but it's a noble folly’ and said the only possibility of a successful issue lay in a German landing.’

Both Frank and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington made it into the GPO on that day. As he arrived to see Connolly, Frank was horrified at the looting he witnessed. Inside he talked to the leaders about it, finding that they were aware of it but unable to stop it (speeches outside from Mac Diarmada and an armed guard sent with Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh to Clery’s having little effect). Hanna met her uncle Father Eugene Sheehy, who had been imprisoned in Fenian times. He was amazed to see her: ‘“what are you doing here?” I explained that I was bringing a cup of Bovril upstairs to Tom Clarke and then in turn I asked ‘and you, what are you doing?’ ‘Ah’ he replied with a smile, “I am bringing spiritual comfort to the boys.” The old Fenian in him was roused, he stayed in the GPO till its garrison left, burnt out.’

Skeffington began to remonstrate with looters. Eileen Costello, who was staying in the Gresham saw him: ‘I saw a man speaking to a crowd of people from the top of an empty tram car near the O’Connell monument. It was Sheehy Skeffington appealing to the people to be quiet and orderly, to go home quietly, to stay in their home and to keep the peace…people from the slums were breaking and looting a shop (Laurence’s toy shop)’.

Maud Joynt, a feminist, vegetarian and scholar of Early Irish literature, met him on his way home on Portobello bridge: ‘He said he considered the Rising a deplorable mistake for that nothing but success would justify a revolution and that nothing short of a miracle could secure success in this undertaking. I said that I did not believe success could justify such violent methods and he fully agreed with me adding that the rising was a logical outcome of the Western spirit of militarism and the belief that physical force was the only means of winning a cause. He told me as we parted that he feared a great deal of damage would be done in the city during the coming night owing to the absence of police and the excited temper of the mob.’ 

An Irish Independent sketch of the key figures in the inquiry into the circumstances of the Portobello Shootings. (Image: Military Press Bureau)

That evening, back home, the Skeffingtons discussed Frank’s proposal to set up a 'Citizens defense force' to curb the looting and arrange a meeting at the Irish Women’s Franchise League headquarters to organise it. He prepared a notice: ‘When there are no regular police on the streets themselves and to prevent such spasmodic looting as has taken place in a few streets, Civilians (men and women) who are willing to co-operate to this end are asked to attend at Westmorland Chambers (over Eden Bros.) at five o'clock this (Tues.) afternoon.’

On Tuesday morning Frank began to organise small groups with armbands and sticks to patrol the streets. Hanna went back into the GPO to see if she could help with messages and food. William O'Brien met him around noon, O’Brien had seen Connolly, who was unconcerned about the looting as it was another thing the British had to handle. Skeffington told O'Brien that he had heard that two gun boats were landing troops in Kingstown and that he should pass on this information to the leaders. They went to Mrs. Wyse Power's shop to eat and, at her request, Skeffington went out to get some medicine for her daughter in O'Connell Street.

St John Ervine met Skeffington that morning in Sackville Street: ‘he was carrying some walking sticks under his arm and he came up to me and said he was trying to form a special constabulary to prevent looting. ‘You’ll do for one’ he said, and offered a walking stick to me. I thought his proposal was a hopeless one and declined to join him and he went off. Later in the afternoon I met him again, but this time did not speak to him. He was putting up a notice on one of the stone pillars on O'Connell bridge.’

Looking out at Middle Abbey St from Reis’ where he had been setting up a wireless operation for the rebels, William Daly saw Skeffington continuing remonstrating with looters and appealing to them to go home. Future Lord Mayor Alfie Byrne MP was one person he recruited: ‘He had about thirty of us with armbands patrolling the streets near the Pillar. But it got too hot for me. When he went up the street, I went home.’

Captain Bowen-Colturst (centre) at his court-martial at Richmond Barracks in 1916 (Image: Irish Life, June 1916. Full collection available from the National Library of Ireland)

Hanna and Frank met up at the IWFL headquarters in Westmorland Chambers around 5.30 p.m., to see if anyone would turn up for the proposed meeting. When they parted Frank decided to wait a little longer in case some turned up. Hanna recalled: ‘We had tea together and I went home by devious routes, for I was anxious about my boy. I never again saw my husband.’ Frank was on his way home when he was arrested on Portobello Bridge. Julia Hughes witnessed it: ‘I was in Dublin standing On Portobello Bridge when the soldiers came and arrested Mr Sheehy Skeffington. He was giving out leaflets, one of which he gave to me advising the people not to be looting and was not doing anything unlawful or political.’

Next morning Hanna, worried that Frank had not returned home, set out to look for him. She met Nancy Wyse Power at the GPO who told her of Frank’s visit with her mother and she also went back into the GPO to inquire there. In a city full of rumours many were circulating: ‘all sort of rumours reached me – that he had been wounded and was in hospital, that he had been shot by a looter, that he was arrested by the police. I also heard he had been executed, but this I refused to believe.’

On the Thursday morning the writer James Stephens heard that Skeffington was dead: ‘I met D.H…He says Sheehy Skeffington has been killed. That he was arrested in a house wherein arms were found and was shot out of hand.’ Stephens met Hanna on the street later in the day: ‘She confirmed the rumour that her husband had been arrested on the previous day but further to that she has no news.’ Hanna that evening saw Muriel MacDonagh, wife of Thomas MacDonagh ‘wheeling her two babies to her mother’s house; the soldiers had turned machine guns on her house.’ Both women were concerned about the safety of their husbands.

Portobello Barracks, where Francis Sheehy Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson were detained and shot after being arrested in Dublin city during the Easter Rising (Image: National Library of Ireland, L_ROY_08903)

On the Friday morning Hanna wrote a note to Deborah Webb: ‘these are awful times, we have all the horrors of war in our very midst and so many brave Irish volunteers dying. I have no word of Frank since Tuesday evening – he wasn’t a combatant being as you know a thorough pacifist but was arrested I suppose as a ‘suspect’ I have no definite detail but told he is in Portobello barracks under military arrest.’ She went to see a doctor connected with the Portobello Barracks but was prevented by police from doing so. Her sisters Mary Kettle and Margaret Culhane succeeded in getting into the barracks by asking about their brother Eugene, a Lieutenant in the army, also stationed in the city. Once there they inquired about Frank. They were then arrested by Captain Bowen Colthurst as they had ‘been seen talking to Sinn Féiners’. ‘They were refused all information by Captain Colthurst, who said he knew nothing whatever of Sheehy Skeffington and told them ‘the sooner they left the barracks the better for them’. 

Hanna met with John Coade whose son James had been killed by a patrol from the barracks led by Colthurst on Tuesday. He confirmed that he had seen ‘my husband’s body with several others in the mortuary when he went for his son. This a priest afterwards confirmed but he could give me no further information.’ That evening a raiding party of about 40 men led by Colthurst with fixed bayonets raided the Skeffingtons’ house, holding Hanna, their son Owen and a maid at gun point while they searched for incriminating evidence: ‘Colthurst brought my husband’s keys, stolen from his dead body, and opened his study. All my private letters, letters from my husband to me before our marriage, his articles, a manuscript play, the labour of a lifetime, were taken.’ It made a lasting impression on Owen. ‘My mother and I were put under the guard of a young soldier with a rifle and a fixed bayonet – the first I had seen – a young Belfast man who soon revealed that he was thoroughly ashamed of what he was doing. But military discipline is military discipline.’ The house was raided again on the following Monday.

It was only from reading a report in The Irish News that J.B. Skeffington learned of his son’s death. He wrote to Hanna:

‘…dreadful news in the Irish News today saying Sheehy Skeffington killed during fighting…I am sure he was not a fighter but so many outsiders were hurt and he was so interested and indeed reckless he was likely to be in the firing line and even enemies might try to hit him. I fear the dreadful report is only too true. It is a terrible calamity. He may be damaged in some ruins or where not. Have you any reliable news? I don’t know whether I can get to Dublin or not. I feel this is only the last remnant of hope – alas. If you and he had taken refuge and not trusted in revolutionaries. Sorrowfully yours, JB Skeffington.’ 

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