09 April 2016

Missing a unique event recalling
a pacifist voice in Easter 1916

Looking out at the main square in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham from the galleries of the Irish Museum of Modern Art this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

I had planned to go to another 1916 commemoration today … but one of a very different kind.

Pax Christi, the International Catholic Peace Movement, had invited me to Cathal Brugha Barracks, the former Portobello Barracks in Rathmines for a commemoration today [9 April 2016] of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (1878-1916), who was a voice for nonviolence and pacifism in 1916.

However, yesterday’s medical procedures in the Hermitage Medical Centre, left me feeling a little groggy even this morning, and I never made it to this unique commemoration, one of the few pacifist events during this centenary year.

It was organised by Pax Christi as an opportunity to reflect on the values of nonviolence and its practical implications in resolving conflicts exclusively through nonviolent means.

The remembrance ceremony involved a reflection on the life of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and prayers for world peace in the barracks chapel. This was followed by the laying of a wreath in memory of the members of the Irish Defence Forces who lost their lives during United Nations peacekeeping operations.

Afterwards, there was a visit to the museum and the cell where Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was held and the yard where he was illegally executed, alongside two journalists, Thomas Dixon and Patrick McIntyre. A second wreath was laid there in their memory.

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was born in Bailieboro, Co Cavan, in 1878. An only child, he was brought up in Downpatrick, Co Down, where he was educated by his father who was a school inspector, before going to a Jesuit-run school in Dublin.

As a student in University College Dublin, he was friends with James Joyce, Oliver St John Gogarty and Tom Kettle.

Joyce left a fictional portrait of Skeffington in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, under the guise of a student named MacCann, who is described as “a squat figure in a shooting jacket and breeches” with a “blunt-featured face” and “a straw-coloured goatee which hung from his blunt chin.”

Joyce's alter-ego Stephen Dedalus remembers him saying: “Dedalus, you’re an anti-social being, wrapped up in yourself. I’m not. I’m a democrat: and ‘'ll work and act for social liberty and equality among all classes and sexes in the United States of the Europe of the future.” Later MacCann is seen standing in a lobby after class, canvassing signatures on a petition for universal peace and disarmament.

As a student, Sheehy-Skeffington grew his trademark beard, and became known as a teetotaller, a vegetarian, a pacifist and a supporter of the suffragettes. He graduated with an MA in 1902, and a year later he married Hannah Sheehy, a teacher and suffragette from Kanturk, Co Cork.

He began a career as a journalist, writer and playwright, and although he was a principled pacifist he joined the Irish Citizen Army after the 1913 lockout, and became vice-chair. However, when the Irish Citizen Army took a more militaristic turn, he resigned.

When World War I broke out in 1914, he campaigned against recruitment and conscription, and when he was jailed he went on hunger strike.

He argued with leading figures in the IRB and the Irish Volunteers against the planned rising, but to no avail, and the rising began on Easter Monday, 23 April 1916.

On 25 April 1916, as he was returning home to Rathmines from a fruitless effort to dissuade looters in the city centre, he was arrested at Portobello Bridge and taken to Portobello Barracks.

On 26 April 1916, he was executed illegally by a firing squad on the orders of Captain John Bowen-Colthurst (1880-1965), from Dripsey Castle, Co Cork. After killing the three men, the firing squad immediately left the yard, but when movement was detected in Sheehy-Skeffington’s leg, Bowen-Colthurst gathered another group of four soldiers and ordered them to fire another volley into him.

Bowen-Colthurst was probably mentally deranged. Eventually, he was charged with murder and tried by court-martial in Dublin on 6–7 June. He was found guilty but insane. He was released on 26 April 1921, given a military pension, and lived in Vancouver until he died in 1965. Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington died in 1946.

I was disappointed to miss this afternoon’s commemoration, particularly because so many of the commemorations this year are uncritical of the violence and the nationalism of 1916.

The Royal Hospital Kilmainham stands of the grounds of a former priory of the Kinghts Hospitaller (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Later in the afternoon, feeling a little livelier, I visited another former barracks that also features in the events of 1916: the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.

Like the Hermitage Hospital which I referred to yesterday, this was one of the 50 military hospitals in Dublin during World War I, and today it is home to the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA). There I spent some time at two exhibitions.

At ‘De Profundis’ … an exhibition of collected works by Patrick Hennessy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

‘De Profundis’ is an exhibition of collected works by Patrick Hennessy (1915-1980), one of Ireland’s most successful painters in the period after World War II. ‘The Passion according to Carol Rama’ is a selection of almost 200 works by Carol Rama, who is now considered essential for understanding 20th century artistic production.

The Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) was built by William Robinson between 1680 and 1684, on the site of a priory, hospital and almshouse of the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem or Knights Hospitaller.

The priory was supressed at the Reformation in 1541, and until 1617 the buildings were used as the residence of the Lords Lieutenant and the Lords Deputy of Ireland.

In 1679, when it was chosen by King Charles II as the site of a new hospital for retired, old soldiers. The hospital was built by the Duke of Ormonde on the model of the Hotel des Invalides de Paris.

The chapel in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham was dedicated to Charles I, King and Martyr (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The building was opened in 1684, but was not finished until 1701, when the tower and the spire were completed. The chapel was dedicated to Charles I, King and Martyr. The hospital could house 300 pensioners and was divided into three floors: the ground floor for the infirm, the first floor for the officers and servants, and the top floor for the veterans in good physical condition.

In the 19th century, the Royal Hospital became the residence and headquarters of the Commander in Chief of the army, who was also Governor of the hospital.

During the Easter Rising in 1916, the army placed 2,500 troops in the Royal Hospital.

The hospital continued to be used as a home for old soldiers until 1927, and was later used as the headquarters of the Garda Síochána (1930-1950). In 1991, while Dublin was the European City of Culture, the Royal Hospital was became the Irish Museum for Modern Art.

Not an exhibit, and not showing any reserve … in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham this afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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