Sir Francis Vane’s quest for justice after Easter Week

Published in Features, Issue 2 (March/April 2016), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 24

ONE OF THE FEW BRITISH OFFICERS TO DISTINGUISH HIMSELF ON AND OFF THE BATTLEFIELD IN IRELAND IN 1916

By James Quinn

‘For my young friend Owen’—Francis Vane’s signed photograph dedicated to six-year-old Owen Sheehy-Skeffington. Vane had become friendly with the Sheehy-Skeffington family after offering his condolences on the murder of Francis and informing his widow, Hanna, of his own efforts to bring Capt. Bowen-Colthurst to justice. (NMI)

‘For my young friend Owen’—Francis Vane’s signed photograph dedicated to six-year-old Owen Sheehy-Skeffington. Vane had become friendly with the Sheehy-Skeffington family after offering his condolences on the murder of Francis and informing his widow, Hanna, of his own efforts to bring Capt. Bowen-Colthurst to justice. (NMI)

The events of Easter Week 1916 saw heroism in many different forms. Not least was the moral heroism shown by a Dublin-born British army officer, Sir Francis Patrick Fletcher Vane, whose dogged attempts to bring a fellow officer to justice and expose some of the most brutal murders of the Rising cost him dear.

When the Easter Rising broke out on 24 April 1916, Francis Vane was visiting friends in Bray and quickly made his way to Dublin. As an experienced officer, he was entrusted with the defence of Portobello Barracks. Having established an observation post in the tower of Rathmines Town Hall on 26 April, Vane was heckled in the street by civilians shouting ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ He soon discovered that the well-known pacifist and radical campaigner Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and two journalists, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre (both of whom were actually unionists), had been summarily executed by firing squad in the barracks that morning on the orders of Captain J.C. Bowen-Colthurst. He later learned that Bowen-Colthurst had also shot dead at least two other innocent civilians during raids, a young man named Coade and Richard O’Carroll, a trade unionist and leader of the Labour Party members of Dublin Corporation.

Vane immediately went to see Major James Rosborough, the O/C at Portobello, and insisted that he arrest Bowen-Colthurst. Rosborough informed Bowen-Colthurst that he was confined to barracks, but made no attempt to enforce the order. In fact, on the evening of Friday 28 April Bowen-Colthurst led a military raid on the Sheehy-Skeffington home in Rathmines. Before entering the house and without warning, he ordered his men to fire a volley through the windows, and then they burst through the front door with fixed bayonets.

Hanna, her son and maid were kept at bayonet point while the house was ransacked and large numbers of papers and books taken away. So desperate was Bowen-Colthurst to find incriminating material that might justify his action that he even confiscated a child’s drawing of a Zeppelin raid.

Sees action during the Rising
At the time, Vane knew nothing of this, and was himself employed on several raids throughout the city. On 27 April he cobbled together a makeshift force of soldiers from different regiments to lead an attack on rebel positions in the South Dublin Union. The fight proved to be a tough one: the Union’s maze of lanes and corridors were tenaciously defended by members of the 4th Dublin Battalion, ably led by Commandant Éamonn Ceannt and his adjutant Cathal Brugha, two of the outstanding insurgent commanders of the Rising. It took almost five hours of hard fighting to dislodge the Volunteers from most of the complex, costing the attacking forces six dead and nine wounded.

 Hanna and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington on the day of Hanna’s release from Mountjoy Jail in August 1912, after serving two months for breaking windows in the GPO, the Custom House and Dublin Castle in the cause of women’s suffrage. (NLI)

Hanna and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington on the day of Hanna’s release from Mountjoy Jail in August 1912, after serving two months for breaking windows in the GPO, the Custom House and Dublin Castle in the cause of women’s suffrage. (NLI)

Even then the Volunteers were not overwhelmed but fell back on a strong position in the Nurses’ Home, which Vane judged to be impregnable and where they remained until the general surrender on 30 April. Throughout the fight, Vane admired the Volunteers’ bravery and military skill, and later contradicted General John Maxwell’s report on the Rising by writing to the press to claim that the insurgents had observed the laws of war and made all reasonable efforts to avoid civilian casualties. After the general release of Irish prisoners in June 1917, Vane made a point of calling on W.T. Cosgrave, one of the leading Volunteer officers in the Union, to congratulate him on the courage and chivalry shown by his men.

While leading the attack, Vane himself had shown considerable initiative and coolness under fire as he directed the troops under his command, never even flinching as bullets whizzed by: the writer Monk Gibbon, who served under him, regarded him as one of the few conscientious and decisive officers he had observed on the British side during the Rising. Gibbon, who came to know and greatly admire Vane, noted that ‘his unprepossessing exterior—he was as ugly in his own way as Socrates—furnished a strange contrast to the beauty and balance of his mind’. For his bravery and leadership, Vane was recommended by Brigadier General Maconchy for a mention in despatches, although this was not approved by his superiors. Looking back on the Rising, Vane spoke of how it was ‘more than painful to me to be forced to fight my countrymen in my native city’, but consoled himself with the thought that his presence had probably saved some innocent lives.

Still no action against Bowen-Colthurst
On 1 May Vane was ordered to hand over his duties at Portobello to Bowen-Colthurst, who had still not been disciplined and was now denouncing Vane as a pro-Boer and rebel sympathiser who should be shot. Incredulous that no action had yet been taken, Vane attempted to report the murders to General John Maxwell, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of British forces in Ireland, but was referred to Major Ivon Price, his chief intelligence officer, who seemed unconcerned and hinted that Sheehy-Skeffington had got what he deserved. Vane believed that the Irish military authorities not only knew what had happened but were attempting to exonerate Bowen-Colthurst. Determined to expose the murders, he went to London on 2 May and reported them to John Redmond and the secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener, who immediately ordered the arrest of Bowen-Colthurst.

On his return to Dublin Vane visited Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (Francis’s widow and a formidable campaigner in her own right) to offer his condolences and inform her of his efforts to bring Bowen-Colthurst to justice. He found the task considerably more frightening than leading the assault on the South Dublin Union. He met Hanna’s six-year-old son Owen outside the house, however, and, always comfortable with children, befriended him and called to the door holding the boy’s hand. Understandably, the reception he received was chilly at first, but the atmosphere thawed as he explained his abhorrence of the crime and his efforts to ensure that it was not covered up. When he finished speaking, Hanna shook his hand and assured him that she believed that he would have prevented the murders had he been able to do so. Afterwards Vane showed all the sympathy he could to her and Owen, taking the boy on excursions around Dublin. After visiting the zoo, Vane took him to the Gresham Hotel for supper. As the boy looked at the menu, Vane suggested that he try the chicken. Owen replied, ‘No, I never eat meat. My father never ate meat’, and then, after a moment’s pause, added, ‘My father can’t eat even vegetables now’.

Bowen-Colthurst court-martialled
Primarily because of Vane’s actions, Bowen-Colthurst was court-martialled at Richmond Barracks in Dublin on 6–7 June 1916. Found guilty but insane, he was confined to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, from which he was released after three years. The lenient treatment afforded to Bowen-Colthurst for cold-blooded murders was contrasted by many Irish newspapers with the severity of the sentences inflicted on the insurgents, and contributed significantly to undermining respect for British authority in Ireland.

The verdict failed to satisfy Vane or Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and, as a result of their efforts, a commission of inquiry under Sir John Simon was set up on 23 August 1916. Its report blamed the confused command structures operating at Portobello and the inexperience of Bowen-Colthurst’s fellow officers for creating a ‘considerable laxity of control’ and allowing him to operate with impunity; it attributed no responsibility to the Irish high command. Vane regarded the report as a whitewash and believed that Bowen-Colthurst’s actions had been tacitly approved by senior pro-unionist military figures to create further civil turmoil, which would prevent the Home Rule Act from coming into effect. He also believed that the executions of the insurgent leaders had been deliberately carried out ‘in the most brutally stupid manner’ to aggravate the situation.

The yard of Portobello Barracks, where Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and two journalists, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, were summarily executed on the orders of Capt. Bowen-Colthurst. (NMI)

The yard of Portobello Barracks, where Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and two journalists, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, were summarily executed on the orders of Capt. Bowen-Colthurst. (NMI)

Embarrassed his military superiors
Vane’s actions had embarrassed his military superiors, who saw to it that he was not employed for the rest of the war. Saddened by the devastating casualties suffered by the Munster Fusiliers on the Western Front, he made repeated requests to join them. He put down a casualty rate of almost 90% among junior officers to their inexperience, and believed that had there been some older heads like himself there some young lives might have been saved. Vane’s requests were turned down every time. In 1916 he published the handbook The prin-ciples of military art, which included a strict code of behaviour for officers and urged conciliation of Germany. He also wrote a book on the Easter Rising, but its conclusions reflected badly on the military authorities and publication was prevented by the censor.

Bowen-Colthurst was court-martialled at Richmond Barracks in Dublin on 6–7 June 1916. Found guilty but insane, he was confined to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, from which he was released after three years.

Bowen-Colthurst was court-martialled at Richmond Barracks in Dublin on 6–7 June 1916. Found guilty but insane, he was confined to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane, from which he was released after three years.

After the war Vane was appalled by the fierce desire for revenge against Germany that characterised the 1918 general election in Britain, and blamed the crude wartime propaganda that had demonised the Germans. He believed that, once the fighting was over, those involved should put all bitterness aside to prevent the rancour of war from festering and leading to further blood-letting in the future. He went to live in Italy, continuing to work with the scouting movement, but was repelled by the authoritarianism and brutality of Fascism and returned to England in 1927. Here he wrote his autobiography, which, fittingly for a lifelong dissident, was entitled Agin the governments (1929). Some contemporaries regarded Vane as an impractical idealist or even a crank, but his dissidence was always driven by humanity and profound moral courage, and he was one of the few British officers to distinguish himself on and off the battlefield in Ireland in 1916.

James Quinn is Managing Editor of the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Read More:
Vane’s career pre-1916

Further reading

Monk Gibbon, Inglorious soldier (London, 1968).
P. Maume, ‘John Colthurst Bowen-Colthurst’ and ‘Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’, in L.W. White & J. Quinn (eds), 1916: portraits and lives (Dublin, 2015).

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