Bullet in the brick: Murder of Sheehy-Skeffington

Until 1916, this half brick formed part of the wall at Portobello Barracks, now Cathal Brugha Barracks, in Rathmines.

By Brenda Malone, Irish Examiner


Embedded in it is a bullet shot by the firing squad which executed Francis Sheehy-Skeffington on the order of British Army officer Captain John Bowen-Colthurst.




Journalist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was a nationalist and committed pacifist. When the Rising broke out he went to the city centre to appeal for calm.

The next evening, on his journey home, he was arrested and brought to Portobello Barracks.

Captain Bowen-Colthurst of Dripsey, Cork, was stationed at Portobello Barracks at this time. In the late hours of Tuesday April 25, the second day of the Rising, he led about 40 soldiers out in search of rebels, taking Sheehy-Skeffington with him as a hostage.

As they headed towards the city, Colthurst shot dead 19-year-old mechanic James Coade, and Irish Volunteer and Labour Party councillor Richard O’Carroll.

When the raiding party reached Camden Street they arrested journalists Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, and brought them to Portobello Barracks.

At about 10am on the morning of Wednesday April 26, Colthurst ordered the three civilian prisoners be taken to the yard, where a firing squad shot them. The bodies were hastily buried in the grounds.

Captain JC Bowen-Colthurst:IRA burned home in 1920.

Bowen-Colthurst was court martialled on June 6, and found guilty but insane. He was admitted to Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum for one year, after which he was found to be recovered and released. He emigrated to Canada on a military pension and he died there in 1965.

Some years after the murders, the story of how the brick with the bullet came to have been removed from Portobello Barracks came to light, when the dead journalist’s widow, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, received a letter from Francis McLoughlin Scannell.

He explained how several bricklayers working near Rathmines were taken to Portobello Barracks at bayonet point by British Army soldiers. They were taken to the wall where the ‘executions’ had been perpetrated, still surrounded by fixed bayonets.

They were then instructed to remove all the bricks with bullets in them and replace them with new ones. The brick was accidentally removed from the barracks by one of the bricklayers, who gave it to Scannell for safekeeping.

He sent it to Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington in 1936, who donated it to the National Museum of Ireland.

Oakgrove, Killinardrish, CO Cork – the Bowen-Colthurst family home.

Captain Bowen Colthurst’s home Oakgrove, near Carrigadrohid, Co Cork, was burnt down by the IRA in June 1920, mainly in response to fears it was to be occupied by British military amid heightening War of Independence violence locally.

Cattle and the caretaker had been ‘cleared out’ from a farm of the Bowen-Colthurst family before the house was burnt.

However, the family had been boycotted ever since the murder of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington in 1916.

In May of that year, as hostility was being expressed towards the Bowen-Colthursts in the surrounding Macroom district of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), police were placed on constant patrol around Oakgrove to prevent any action against the family.


By June, the main house had been vacated due to what RIC county inspector Thomas Tweedy described as “strong ill feeling” towards Captain Bowen-Colthurst and his family throughout the neighbourhood.


Sheehy-Skeffington: Pacifist a documentary on the life of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington airs on TG4 tomorrow, Tuesday, at 9.30pm

Brenda Malone is a curatorial researcher for the National Museum of Ireland’s ‘Proclaiming a Republic: The 1916 Rising’ exhibition, which opened last week at the Collins Barracks museum in Dublin. Read more about items in the National Museum collections in her blog: ‘The Cricket Bat that Died for Ireland’.

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