Francis Sheehy-Skeffington

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (1878-1916), from Bailieborough, County Cavan, was an Irish suffragist, pacifist and writer. He was individualistic in disposition and unconventional in temperament, refusing to shave and wearing knickerbockers, long socks and, as an ardent proponent of rights for women, a badge that read Votes for Women. He organized a petition to lobby for women to be admitted to University College Dublin on the same basis as men shortly after he married.

After he graduated, he worked as a free-lance journalist. He co-founded and was joint editor of The Irish Citizen newspaper, issued by the Irish Women’s Franchise League, and he made contributions to various publications in Ireland, England, France and North America. In 1908 his book “Michael Davitt; Revolutionary, Agitator, and Labor Leader” was published. He also 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. He supported the Women’s Social and Political Union, which lobbied for women’s rights in Britain.

During the 1913 Dublin Lock-out, Sheehy-Skeffington became involved in a peace committee intended to reconcile both factions. He became a vice-chairman of the Irish Citizens Army when it was established in 1913,on the basis that it would have a strictly defensive role, and he resigned when it became a military entity. He also campaigned against recruitment on the outbreak of World War I and was jailed for six months.

Sheehy-Skeffington supported Home Rule but was not a backer of the Irish Volunteers. He didn’t support the Easter Rising; he advocated his pacifist principles and preferred civil disobedience. On April 24, he had gone to the aid of Guy Vickery Pinfield, the first British soldier to be shot during the uprising. On April 25, concerned about the collapse of law and order, he went into the city centre to attempt to organize a citizens militia to prevent the looting of damaged shops.

He was arrested for no stated, or indeed obvious, reason while returning home, by members of the 11th East Surrey Regiment at Portobello Bridge and, after admitting to having sympathy for the insurgents’ cause, but not their tactics, was held as an enemy sympathizer. Later that evening Captain J. C. Bowen-Colthurst, an officer of the 3rd battalion, Royal Irish Rifles, sent Sheehy-Skeffington out with an army raiding party, taking him along as a hostage with his hands tied behind his back. The raiding party had orders that he was to be shot if it was attacked.

Bowen~Colthurst went to the home and shop of Alderman James Kelly at the corner of Camden Street and Harcourt Road. Mistaking the Alderman (who was a Conservative) for a rebel, the soldiers destroyed the shop with hand grenades. Bowen-Colthurst took captive a young boy, two pro-British journalists and a Sinn Féin politician, all of whom had been in the shop. The young boy and the politician were shot. Sheehy-Skeffington and the two journalists were killed the morning of April 26. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington was not told about her husband’s detention or his death and only discovered what had happened four days later, when she met the chaplain of the barracks. Bowen-Colthurst attempted a cover-up and ordered the search and ransack of Sheehy-Skeffington’s home, looking for evidence to damage him.

Bowen-Colthurst was eventually arrested on 6 June, charged with murder and court-martialled. In what most considered a Westminster-ordered cover-up, he successfully pleaded insanity arising from shell shock as a means of escaping a potential murder conviction. He was sent to Broadmoor Hospital briefly and then to a hospital in Canada. He was deemed ‘cured’ 20 months later on April 26, 1921, and was eventually released with a pension at the age of 40. Francis Vane, the officer who had reported the murder, was dishonorably discharged.

Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, his wife, said this of Francis: “My husband was an antimilitarist, a fighting pacifist, a man gentle and kindly even to his bitterest opponents, who always ranged himself on the side of the weak against the strong whether the struggle was one of class, sex or race domination. Together with his strong fighting spirit he had a marvellous, an inextinguishable, good humour, a keen joy of life, a great faith in humanity and a hope in the progress towards good”.

September 2013