1916: Con Colbert was an ordinary man in extraordinary time

Con Colbert was not an intellectual nor an orator, but he was shot after the Rising for his love of country, writes John O’Callaghan 
1916: Con Colbert was an ordinary man in extraordinary time

BORN on October 19, 1888, in west Limerick, Con Colbert was executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol on May 8, 1916.

He had commanded rebel forces during the Rising, before surrendering and being sentenced to death. Colbert was a mid-ranking, conservative, cultural and militant nationalist.

He was not one of the seven signatories of the Proclamation. He was not a renowned orator, ideologue, or statesman. There were a dozen figures more senior than him in his Irish Volunteer battalion.

He was not a bohemian or intellectual. He was a small farmer’s son, one of 13 children, who became a bakery clerk: he was representative of the majority, petty bourgeoisie cohort of the revolutionary generation. Frequently, rebels entered the independence movement through the Gaelic League, which offered self-improvement to those with limited opportunities for upward mobility. Colbert was no different.

While the traditional focus on his gallantry is warranted, there were ambiguities in his behaviour and character.

Venerated as a martyr, he came to be defined by his favourite phrase, ‘for my God and my country’.

He was an ordinary man, however, worried about his family, his finances and his romantic relationships, even if the end love of country trumped all other concerns for Colbert the patriot.

A resident of Dublin from his early teens, Colbert always pined for rural west Limerick. But it was by assuming overlapping roles in the revivalist and republican networks of the capital that he contributed most to the cause.

As a member of the Gaelic League, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Volunteers, he bridged the transition between cultural renewal, separatist conspiracy and public declaration of force.

In Patrick Pearse’s Scoil Éanna, he ran a militaristic programme of physical drill. Of the 16 men put to death in the wake of the insurrection, five had taught in some capacity at Scoil Éanna, the others being Patrick Pearse and his brother, Willie Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Joseph Plunkett.

Scoil Éanna and the Na Fianna youth movement, both Irish-Ireland organisations, were not unique in their concentration on values of social responsibility, self-respect, self-discipline and masculinity.

Na Fianna operated in a Gaelic nationalist rather than an imperial context, but had its roots in contemporary international fears about the perceived moral and physical decline of the next generation, so many of whom were to be sacrificed in the 1914-1918 war.

Colbert’s boyish and innocent looks should not disguise the gravity of his actions. He was without scruples in his recruiting practices and, like many of those he trained, he was willing to kill and be killed.

He soldiered harmoniously with Catholic, Protestant and dissenter alike, but Colbert had little tolerance for alternative political perspectives. Like many nationalists, moderates and militants, he failed to appreciate the Ulster unionist position.

He envisioned independent Ireland as a Gaelic utopia and could be accused of being a Little Irelander. He saw no distinction between culture, politics and independence.

His poetic portrayal of the ultimate Irishman was heavily autobiographical. ‘Conchobar Dubh’ was a fine, physical specimen, a champion hurler, a scholar of national history and an idealist who struggled for freedom, with the gospel as his sword. It is safe to assume that Conchobar Dubh would also have been an Irish language, music, dance and dress enthusiast.

Colbert identified the union with Britain as an imperialist imposition, the primary source of Ireland’s economic and social woes, and assumed its sundering would be a cure-all.

Rebellion, for Colbert, was about the assertion of national sovereignty and liberation from colonisation, rather than any specific political programme.

Important questions about the democratic credentials of the Rising ,and the appropriateness of the use of physical force, remain, but to dismiss Colbert as nothing more than a man of violence would be to do an injustice to him and his ideals.

His influence was intellectual and psychological, as well as military, focusing not only on how to fight for freedom, but emphasising the value of ethical citizenship, the Irish capacity for self-government, the right to self-determination and the legitimacy of the claim to independence.

He fought bravely during Easter Week, first in Watkins’ brewery, on Ardee Street, and then in Jameson’s distillery, on Marrowbone Lane. Only one witness testified against Colbert at his court-martial, namely Major James Armstrong, an Irishman home on leave from the western front. His evidence was inaccurate, but it mattered little in what was a show trial.

Alongside the other men shot in Kilmainham, Colbert was buried in Arbour Hill military prison cemetery, without a coffin, in quicklime, in a trench that constituted their common grave.

It is probably wishful thinking to suggest that Colbert might have found a way to avoid the errors that his comrades made when in power. There is little chance that he would have pushed for the greater separation of Church and State in the first half-century of independence, or for more enlightened social policies.

A more likely scenario is that Colbert himself would have been alienated politically from the Free State that emerged from the revolution.

John O’Callaghan is author of Con Colbert in the 16 Lives biography series from O’Brien Press. He lectures in St Angela’s College, Sligo. His other publications include The Battle for Kilmallock (Cork, 2011); and Plassey’s Gaels: GAA in the University of Limerick (Cork, 2013).

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