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An Irishman's Diary: An Interesting Article

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  • An Irishman's Diary: An Interesting Article

    An Irishman's Diary
    Seamus Martin

    The removal of modern fascia from a shop at the corner of Upper Camden Street and Harcourt Road in Dublin has revealed not only the original shop front but an important and tragic piece of the city's history.

    What used to be an outlet for bridal wear is now an empty store bearing its original markings. At ground level the signs "cigar bonder" and "tobacco blender" are easily recognised in gold lettering.

    The more investigative observer can see in the building's recessed doorways the name Kelly inscribed in the same type. For is the Kelly's shop which gave the name "Kelly's Corner" to the entire crossroads where Camden Street, Harrington Street, Harcourt Road and South Richmond Street come together.

    Bus tickets on certain routes to this day bear the imprint "Kelly's Corner" in blue ink. The shop, one of an inordinate number of tobacconists in Dublin in the early years of the last century, was owned by Alderman James Kelly a justice of the peace and sometime High Sheriff of the City of Dublin. He was a conservative nationalist politician and a bitter enemy of labour leaders such as James Larkin and James Connolly.

    Kelly's political notoriety, half understood by British soldiers during the 1916 Rising, led to the shop, now newly revealed to the public, becoming a central location in events that led to the murder of three journalists, a court martial, a Royal Commission of Inquiry, a botched cover-up of the killings and the dismissal of a British army officer of admirable probity.

    On Tuesday, April 25th, 1916, Dublin was in turmoil. The Easter Rising had broken out the previous day. In Portobello Barracks, now Cathal Brugha Barracks near St Mary's College on Rothmans Road, Captain Bowen Colthurst gathered a picket of about 40 soldiers and marched his men towards Kelly's shop. He seemed to be under the impression that Kelly was a Sinn Féiner and a supporter of the Rising. He also - wrongly, according to evidence at his court martial and the Royal Commission - believed that the declaration of martial law allowed him, as an officer, to take the law into his own hands.

    Francis Sheehy Skeffington, a pacifist with links to Connolly, had been arrested earlier on his way home and brought with the picket as a hostage. Bowen Colthurst told him he would be shot if anyone opened fire on the soldiers as they marched the short distance northwards. The picket had barely reached Rathmines Road from the barracks when Bowen Colthurst shot dead J.J. Coade, a 19-year-old youth from nearby Mount Pleasant Avenue, who was returning from a sodality meeting at the church in Rathmines. He was reported to have struck the lad with the butt of his rifle and then shot him in the back as he walked away.

    Colthurst led his men towards Kelly's, firing shots at random and sending the populace running for cover. One of those who ran was the unfortunate Thomas Dickson, who heard the commotion and entered the shop for safety. Dickson, described in contemporary reports as "deformed" and a "Scotchman" was editor of a paper called the Eye Opener. He was arrested with Patrick McIntyre, editor of the Searchlight, who was already inside the shop. The two men, together with Sheehy Skeffington, were marched back to the barracks and placed in the guard room. On the following morning all three were shot dead on Bowen Colthurst's orders.

    A cover-up began quickly. Bullet-marked masonry was removed and replaced. Sheehy Skeffington's house was raided in the hope that documents retrospectively justifying his murder might be found.

    Major Sir Francis Vane, a young baronet attached to the Scots Greys, was, unlike the most of the officers in the British army's Irish regiments stationed at Portobello, determined to reveal what had happened. He reported the matter to London and spoke personally to Lord Kitchener about it. Bowen Colthurst's reaction was to make an impromptu speech in the officers' mess saying that Vane was a Sinn Féiner and a pro-Boer, that he should not be allowed back into the barracks and should be shot.

    At his court martial Bowen Colthurst was found guilty of the murder of Dickson, McIntyre and Sheehy Skeffington but declared to be insane at the time he committed the acts. It is the received wisdom that he was a religious maniac who believed he had received a message from God to slay the King's enemies and this is borne out by the sentence that he was to be detained at Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum "at His Majesty's pleasure".

    But a statement at the court martial by Dr Parsons of the Royal City of Dublin Hospital said that Colthurst's actions after the murders "might be consonant with manifestations of remorse and regret on the part of a sane man". In one of his remarks to Parsons Colthurst showed little remorse. It any other country except Ireland, he said, it would be recognised as right to kill rebels.

    Another unusual development took place in August 1916 at a Royal Commission of Inquiry on the events. It emerged that Major Balch, the medical officer who had examined the bodies of the three murdered men, had been suddenly transferred to Sierra Leone and could, therefore, not give evidence.

    Colthurst was released from Broadmoor after a five-year imprisonment and started a new life in Canada, where he died in 1966. Sir Francis Vane was, according to official papers released decades later, "relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington Murder Case in the Sinn Féin rebellion". In short, he was sacked for telling the truth.
    "The dolphins were monkeys that didn't like the land, walked back to the water, went back from the sand."