Book review: Guilty but Insane: J.C. Bowen-Colthurst: Villain or Victim?

JOHN BOWEN-COLTHURST, a British Army officer from Cork, became notorious as a result of ordering the death of the pacifist Francis Sheehy Skeffington in cold blood on April 26, 1916, during the Easter Rebellion.

James W Taylor

Mercier Press, €19.99 

At the outset of this book the author stresses that “it is a presentation of the available evidence and allows the reader to come to his or her own informed conclusions.”

The book tells you all you are ever likely to wish to know about the subject’s military career, such as his involvement in the Boer War in which he was captured and held prisoner. Even at this early stage he exhibited mental instability.

He had “an obsessive passion for religion that was to dominate his life,” according to the author. He was opposed to the Pope and the Catholic Church as an institution, but not against individual Catholics.

During the Curragh Mutiny he railed against his commanding Officer Lt Col Wilkinson D Bird for indicating a willingness to obey orders during the Northern crisis, and for not understanding Orangemen. 

This whole controversy might well have put an end to Cothurst’s military career. Bird was anxious to have him removed from any position of authority, but the First World War erupted and they were shipped out to the continent.

They were involved in the first major battle at Mons, where things went from bad to worse between them. 

Colthurst was shot and wounded. He was sent home to Cork to recuperate in October 1914. When efforts were made to return him to the front, Bird blocked this. 

He did not question Colthurst’s personal courage, but did conclude that he “showed a great want of judgement.” 

As a result, Colthurst was left in Dublin to help with training and recruiting. He was stationed at Portabello Barracks when the Easter Rebellion began.

In the midst of the confusion he soon found himself in a position of authority. He decided to lead a raid on the home a local Alderman. 

Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was in the barracks, having been arrested while trying to stop looting. 

Colthurst took him out as a hostage with hands tied behind his back, which, the author notes, “was contrary to every rule of warfare as understood in the British Army at the time.” 

He told Skeffington to say his prayers before leaving the barracks, but Skeffington refused. Cothurst then ordered his men to take off their caps, while he prayed, “Oh Lord God, if it shall please Thee to take away the life of this man forgive him for Christ’s sake.”

During the ensuing raid, Colthurst had two journalists — Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dixon — seized, along with a 19-year-old James Coade, whom he then shot in cold blood. The young man had nothing to do with the rebellion.

Some thought Bowen-Colthurst ordered the deaths of Skeffington and the two journalists back at the barracks, because they had witnessed his murder of Coade.

The three were executed by firing squad. Colthurst believed he behaved correctly, which was further confirmation of his delusional nature.

He was convicted of the killings but was judged to be insane.

After being held in a mental hospital, he was released in 1919 and allowed to emigrate to Canada.

There was no truth to subsequent reports that he engaged in banking. He did become politically involved with the Social Credit Party, but he only got 14 votes when he ran for local office.

Even though Colthurst could be entertaining and affable, those who knew him clearly realised he was bonkers. The book is a phenomenal piece of research, extending over decades.


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