Sheehy Skeffington’s life, love, and brutal demise are the subjects of a new TG4 documentary, Sheehy Skeffington: Pacifist, by Dearcán Media, a Derry-based Irish language production company.
Frank Sheehy Skeffington was detained, used as a human shield, and executed without trial by firing squad under the orders of Captain JC Bowen-Colthurst of the Royal Irish Rifles, a native of Dripsey, Co Cork, who was later court-martialled for his actions, pleading insanity.
Déaglán Ó Mochain is the founder of Dearcán Media and the producer of the new Sheehy Skeffington documentary. “If he’s remembered at all it’s as the guy who was shot by the crazy British soldier,” says Ó Mochain. “We got a lot of gruesome detail about the execution and about how Bowen-Colthurst was protected by the British army; we could have made the whole documentary about that but we wanted to keep Frank’s story centre-stage.”
Ó Mochain became interested in Frank’s story after filming a documentary on Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Frank’s wife, herself a prominent activist. Their union, based on mutual respect and common beliefs and goals, is touchingly portrayed in Sheehy Skeffington: Pacifist using extracts of their love letters and dramatic re-enactments. When they married, they both altered their names as a symbol of their desire for equal status, a gesture that seems progressive even today.
“They were so far ahead of their time,” Ó Mochain says. “Taking on someone else’s identity as a mark of equality was such a strong thing to do at the time, and they were involved in every type of progression that was happening in Ireland; gender equality, justice for victims of sex crimes, campaigns for secular education.”
Directed by Damian McCann, the documentary accentuates the emotion and drama of the story as well as calling on expert contributors for factual accounts.
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The Sheehy Skeffingtons’ granddaughter, Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, a former lecturer at NUI Galway and herself a feminist campaigner, visits sites connected to her grandfather’s life and death in scenes both emotional and introspective.
“It was a difficult thing to capture on film because you don’t want to intrude on people’s private moments like that,” says Ó Mochain, “But Micheline was a great person to work alongside and she was very tolerant and patient during the shoot. She speaks with great integrity and I hope that comes across as much as her emotional responses.”
Another reason why Sheehy Skeffington’s story deserves to be told, says Ó Mochain, is because in the build-up to the centenary we run the risk of losing sight of the diversity of opinion in the era preceding the Easter Rising; Frank was a pacifist first and foremost, and not a supporter of the armed rebellion.
“The execution of Sheehy Skeffington and the leaders of the Easter Rising polarised opinion, so we have lost all sense of the plurality that would have existed before 1916,” he says. “It seems like you’re either with the leaders of the Rising or against them, but at the time it was a lot more sophisticated than that.”
Filmed in just 12 days, the documentary was funded through the Irish Language Broadcast Fund. Dearcán Media is an Irish language media company; film-making in a minority language comes with its own set of challenges.
“RTÉ and BBC operate on a commercial basis and they’re interested in audience figures. When you’re working in a minority language that can’t be the sole arbiter, so you need support,” says Ó’Mochain. “I always argue that Irish language films have to be better than English language films; to make a non-Irish-speaker watch a film like this you have to really grab their attention.”
Sheehy Skeffington: Pacifist will be broadcast on TG4, March 8, at 9.30pm.