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21 April 2005 Edition

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Francis Sheehy Skeffington - Remembering the Past


On 26 April 1916, 89 years ago, the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was murdered in Portobello Barracks

Francis Sheehy Skeffington, feminist, pacifist, and idealist, was born in 1878 in Bailieboro, County Cavan. In his formative years, Francis Skeffington, or Skeff as he became known, received his educational instruction from his father, whose views significantly influenced the young boy.

Skeff entered University College with a well-established reputation as a non-conformist. He wore knickerbockers, did not shave, was teetotal and a vegetarian, advocated feminist and pacifist views, and had a habit of circulating petitions in support of his many causes. As a journalist, Skeff often infused his writings with social and political arguments. Like many other contributors to The New Age, Skeff worked against the grain and espoused views that fell under the umbrella of a broadly defined socialism.

James Joyce, with whom he attended school, considered Skeff "the cleverest man at University College" besides himself. Both directed their academic skills toward writing that reflected their nonconformist views. The partnership between Skeff and Joyce, however, did not persist in perfect harmony. Skeff regarded Joyce's decision to run away with Nora Barnacle as contemptuous of womanhood, and Joyce regarded Skeff as too radical in his feminism.

Skeff advocated women's equality and had even changed his own last name in fairness to his wife, Hanna Sheehy. Accordingly, upon their marriage, he had altered his surname to Sheehy Skeffington. Together, they fought for women's suffrage, peaceful resolutions to Ireland's problems, Home Rule, and the promotion of humanitarianism.

Skeff was involved in a wide number of societies and organisations that reflected his views. He was active in the Irish Women's Franchise League, the Socialist Party of Ireland, the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League, the Incorporated Society of Authors, the Proportional Representation Society, the Irish Anti-Vaccination League, and the Independent Labour Party of Ireland.

Skeffington became editor of the Irish Citizen in 1912, and was a regular contributor to the Manchester Guardian, American Call, and L'Humanité. During the 1913 Lockout he was a member of the Peace Committee, which tried vainly to reconcile the workers and employers. When the Irish Citizen Army was formed in 1913, he was elected one of its vice chairs; he had joined on the understanding that its purpose was to defend workers against the police, and after it became a military organisation he left.

On the outbreak of war he began to campaign against recruitment, was arrested in 1915 and sentenced to six months' imprisonment with hard labour, but after six days on hunger strike was released. He then went to America to campaign for the cause of Irish freedom.

A friend of a number of the key figures of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Skeff attempted to convince these men and women to abandon their guns and arm themselves with "weapons of the intellect and will". His resolve did not break the equal resolve of his fellow patriots to fight the British with violence.

Francis Sheehy Skeffington's only role in the Easter Rising was as a neutral party. He attempted to prevent the looting of Dublin's storefronts. A party of British scout troops arrested him and, led by of Captain JC Bowen-Colthurst, took him and two journalists, Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre, as human shields on a raid. During this raid, Francis and two others witnessed the murder of an unarmed young boy, JJ Coade, by Colthurst. The raiding party then proceeded to the home of Alderman James Kelly, a Unionist, but Colthurst had mistakenly identified him as a Sinn Féin councillor. They destroyed his house with grenades. Another Dublin Councillor, Richard O'Carroll, was also shot by Colthurst.

Just before ten o'clock the next morning, the prisoners were taken out from the cells by Colthurst. As Skeff walked across the yard, he was shot in the back without any warning by a firing squad. As he lay there, the two other editors were marched out also and murdered in cold blood without warning.

Later, a senior British officer discovered what had occurred and, after failing to induce Dublin Castle to act, reported it to the Prime Minister. Colthurst was quickly found guilty but insane. He was confined to Broadmoor criminally insane hospital for one year, then released and allowed to go to Canada, where he died in 1965.

The British Government then offered Hannah Sheehy Skeffington £10,000 compensation. She refused and demanded the full facts be made public.

Dubbed a 'crank' for his non-conformist views, Skeffington would often reply: "A crank is a small instrument that makes revolutions."

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