Easter Rising and Captain Bowen-Colthurst

Terrible DutyNext year the centenary of the Easter Rising will be marked by many commemorative events and the publication of articles and books on numerous aspects of this significant event in the history of modern Ireland. A book recently published depicts the life of a little known participant in the rising on the British side, Captain John Bowen-Colthurst, who was responsible for the murder of innocent civilians, including the well-known newspaper editor and Dublin eccentric Francis Sheehy-Skeffington. A Terrible Duty: The Madness of Captain Bowen-Colthurst (Thena Press, 2015) by Bryan Bacon is available online from Amazon. Bowen-Colthurst’s story has significance for Australians as some of his crimes were witnessed by an Australian soldier, who was in Dublin on leave when the rising broke out and who had reported for duty at Portobello Barracks, Rathmines. The soldier wrote a letter home describing his participation in a patrol led by Bowen-Colthurst during which an innocent young man was shot in the street and a number of civilians, including two journalists, were arrested and taken back to the barracks. The next morning Bowen-Colthurst ordered that Sheehy-Skeffington and the two journalists be shot by firing squad. The Australian soldier’s letter was published in the Age newspaper causing a scandal, particularly amongst the Irish-Catholic community in Australia. I tell the story of the Australian soldier’s involvement in these events in Anzacs and Ireland (pp. 68-72). Ultimately, Bowen-Colthurst was court-martialled and found guilty of murder but because he was also found to be insane he was sent to Broadmoor Asylum. Released in 1918, he travelled to Canada in 1921 where he lived a long life, dying in 1965. A Terrible Duty provides a valuable insight into Bowen-Colthurst’s life and character.

Governor Richard Bourke Commemorated

On 3 December 1831 Irishman Major-General Richard Bourke arrived in Sydney to begin a six-year term as the eighth governor of the colony of New South Wales. On the 184th anniversary of Bourke’s arrival, his contribution to the colony was marked by a reception at Government House in Sydney hosted by the current governor General David Hurley and Mrs Hurley. During the evening the invited guests were informed and entertained by talks on Bourke given by Dr Richard O’Brien, who spoke on Bourke’s relationship with his cousin Edmund Burke, Professor Tony Parr, who spoke on Bourke’s period as acting governor in Cape Colony, and Dr Jeff Brownrigg, who spoke on Bourke and music in colonial Australia. This event was followed by a colloquium in Canberra on 7 and 8 December at the Australian National University. Speakers included the three from the Government House reception, who expanded on their topics, and Dr Christine Wright on Bourke’s soldiering, Dr David Roberts on Bourke’s convicts, Dr Richard Reid on Bourke and immigration, Dr Jeff Kildea on Bourke’s law, Prof John Molony on Bourke and Plunkett, Dr Cheryl Mongan on Bourke and his Australian travels, Dr James Warden on Bourke and Batman’s “treaty” with the Aborigines, and Dr David Headon on Bourke’s statue in Sydney. It is proposed to publish the papers in an edited collection.

The Irish at Gallipoli 100 years on

In this centenary year of the Gallipoli campaign the main focus of commemoration in Australia and New Zealand has been the anniversary of the landing on 25 April. For the Irish, however, August rather than April is the most significant month. Although three Irish battalions took part in the landing at Cape Helles as part of the 29th Division, it was in August that the Irish arrived in strength with the 10th (Irish) Division taking part in the major offensive that was intended to break the stalemate which had set in after the original landings three and half months before.

The August offensive also has significance for Australians and New Zealanders as it saw their soldiers engaged in battles which have become iconic in each country’s remembrance of the campaign. For the Australians it is Lone Pine; for the New Zealanders it is Chunuk Bair.

But in each case Irish soldiers of the 29th Brigade of the 10th (Irish) Division fought in support of their Antipodean allies. At Lone Pine the 5th Connaught Ranges assisted the 1st Australian Division by clearing the dead and wounded from the labyrinth of Turkish trenches while the fighting raged around them. At Chunuk Bair the 6th Royal Irish Rifles, the 6th Leinster Regiment and the 5th Connaught Rangers fought alongside the New Zealand Brigade. A few weeks later the soldiers of all three nations fought literally shoulder to shoulder in the struggle to take Hill 60.

In the meantime, the remaining brigades of the 10th (Irish) Division, the 30th and 31st, landed at Suvla Bay on the morning of 7 August and over the following weeks suffered huge casualties trying to extend the Suvla beachhead by capturing the high ground of Kirsch Tepe Sirt, which dominated the allied position.

In the end the Turks held firm against the August offensive, confining the British forces to their narrow footholds around Anzac Cove and Suvla Bay. And in the overall campaign they prevailed leading to the evacuations in December and January.

Gallipoli was a severe defeat for the military forces of the British Empire, and was to have a profound effect on its emerging nations. Anzacs and Irishmen both came away from the peninsula convinced they had been mucked about and butchered by the incompetence of the British generals. But, unlike the Australians and New Zealanders, for whom Gallipoli had a salutary effect on the nation-building process without rupturing relations with the British Empire, the Irish were not so forgiving.

Separatist nationalists, who were opposed to the war, exploited the Dardanelles fiasco to whip up anti-British sentiment, while moderate nationalists began to lose faith in the idea that supporting Britain in the war would assure home rule. For some it was Gallipoli rather than the Easter Rising of 1916 that marked the moment their feelings towards the British began to turn.

So, the Gallipoli campaign is an important event for all three nations, yet the cost was high in lives lost – 8700 Australians, 2700 New Zealanders and more than 3000 Irishmen – and in lives shattered. For that reason alone Gallipoli deserves to be remembered, not only in Australia and New Zealand but in Ireland as well.

Further information: The July/August issue of History Ireland contains an article I wrote outlining the part which the Irish played in the August offensive, while University College Dublin’s History Hub hosts a six-part podcast I recorded called “The Irish at Gallipoli”. In addition, in the Autumn issue of Reveille I rebut an allegation by a New Zealand historian that the 6th Leinster Regiment fled during the battle for Chunuk Bair. Far from fleeing, the evidence indicates that the Leinsters helped save the day when the Turks counter-attacked and threatened to drive the British Empire troops off Rhododendron Ridge, the spur running from Chunuk Bair down to the sea.

21st Australasian Irish Studies Conference

The 21st Australasian Irish Studies conference will be held at Maynooth University from 18 to 20 June 2015. The conference series was initiated in 1980 by the renowned Irish historian Oliver MacDonagh. Keynote lectures will be given by distinguished scholars including Guy Beiner from Israel and the Irish scholars Margaret Kelleher and Terence Dooley. The strong international character of the conference is ensured as a result of proposals from Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Britain, the United States, Spain, Belgium, Serbia, Italy and Korea. Those attending the conference will find it a rich and rewarding insight into the contemporary state of research and writing on diverse areas of Irish history, literature and culture. You can register for the conference online through the conference website.