Con Colbert: Willing Martyr or Troublesome Rebel?
Coming from rural West Limerick, Colbert had far-reaching effects in Ireland’s biggest urban centre. The main argument that will encompass this article is that Con Colbert was executed in the 1916 rising, because of his high profile rather than Colbert deliberately taking the position of his commanding officer Seamus Murphy. A historiographical section concerning contemporary ideas surrounding this question will also be delved into. The proceedings of the 1916 court-martial are crucial here in delving into the mind of the British authorities to try to see their reasoning behind the execution. Much of the research done on this topic previously, is considerably uniform in their opinion of Colbert's execution. Many of the arguments put forward are related to Colbert’s Fenian background, his staunch nationalist opinion, and set forth the idea of his willingness to die for the Irish cause. However, not much research has been done on the activities by Colbert that would have made him well known to the British authorities at the time. Concurrently, Seamus Murphy has largely been neglected in the contemporary literature written about Colbert’s execution.
Firstly, much has been deliberated regarding Con Colbert, as well as the executions in 1916. In Revolutionary Lawyers, Foxton contends that the court-martial proceedings for the men executed certainly cannot be viewed as a fair process, as in Eoin MacNeil’s trial, where he was denied the use of Roger Casement as a witness. The literature has discussed the fact that Colbert along with ten others, were not officially acknowledged until the start of this century. This was covered in an article in the Sunday Times in 2015, as the author indicates that this shows the disdain the British authorities had for these men. Per Foster, in his book Vivid Faces, Colbert himself was raised with a strong Fenian tradition from his parents, and was passionate about promoting Irish traditions, even teaching free of charge at St Enda’s. Foster also describes Colbert as being so deeply entranced with the nationalist cause, that he had no interest in women. Similarly, in 16 Lives: Con Colbert, O’Callaghan gives the narrative that Colbert was resigned to the idea of death before the rising. Describing Colbert as a ‘Romantic Patriot’, both O’Callaghan and Foster depict Colbert in very positive nationalist terms. The authors do differ though as Foster merely mentions that Colbert was executed despite his lower rank, while O’Callaghan actually acknowledges Colbert’s large profile at the time.
Concurrently, Sean Murphy’s article ‘1916 (cover story) discusses Colbert’s high profile among na Fianna Eireann and the Volunteers at the time. The literature regarding the topic uses much of the same sources particularly from the National Archives, as well as plenty of witness statements from the Bureau of Military History, many of which are the same. However, much of the literature has failed to properly recognise the position or influence of his commander Seamus Murphy. In fact, there appears to be only one secondary source deliberating Murphy’s role in the rising at all. This was O’Callaghan, mentioning that Murphy was not picked out after the rising due to his low profile among the British authorities. Even here, Murphy is confined to two lines of text, with no in-depth analysis of his position or influence. The consensus among historians up to his point has not properly acknowledged the role of Colbert’s earlier life and his profile during the Rising as part of his execution, or the role of Murphy, owing to the need for further analysis into this issue.
Regarding some of the records from the time of the Rising, the views by many of his fellow combatants, are largely uniform in their opinion of why Con Colbert was executed. Christopher Byrne, a member of the Irish Volunteers, and under the battalion captained by Colbert, believes it was a case of Colbert being very prominent within society at the time. Byrne asserts that there was no change in command at any time during the Rising between Murphy and Colbert and that no uniform change occurred, owing to the large difference in stature and size of both men. Murphy was in full uniform upon the arrival of the British authorities but was simply not picked out by them. Per Byrne, Colbert had previously conducted Volunteer marches in the open which had raised his profile with the British authorities, even marching during WWI recruitments to deter people from signing up. This was in contrast with Murphy, who had a quiet profile, and was not very prominent in the years before the rising.
Similarly, Aine Ceannt, the wife of Eamonn Ceannt, claims that the idea that Murphy deliberately allowed Colbert to take his place is ‘an absolute falsehood’. As well as this, both Annie O'Brien and Lily Curran, members of Cumann na mBan, and in the company of Colbert and Murphy during the Rising, assert that Murphy was still in charge after the surrender, giving orders and even pleading with some to leave so that they not be prosecuted by the British authorities. They also indicate that Colbert’s reaction to the surrender was resigned, and when asked what would happen, he replied whatever the British authorities wished to do to him. This would signify that Colbert was very much aware of his fate as soon as surrender was given, not allowing Colbert much time to consult with Murphy about taking his place, and not showing Colbert as a very willing martyr. Per Ceannt, Seamus Murphy’s wife did not even inquire about her husband, merely asking what fate awaited Eamonn Ceannt and Colbert, indicating that there was little worry that Murphy would be executed and much more opinion that Colbert would. It is clear from these accounts that the people present at the time did not think it to be a case of Murphy allowing Colbert to take the blame as commanding officer, but rather luck on Murphy’s side and the high profile of Con Colbert resulting in his execution. Certainly, friendships with prominent figures such as Eamonn Ceannt would make the thought of Colbert being a target already for the British Authorities a likely possibility.
Looking at the British records of Con Colbert’s court-martial in 1916, they reveal key insights into the thinking of the British authorities. The authorities deemed Colbert’s case not to be of highest importance compared to others, but still requiring a ‘…Field General Court Martial’, as this was not a minor offence. The entire record is very brief, and the evidence given within is minimal, amounting to less than a page of written text. This would indicate the British authorities were particularly keen on quickly executing Colbert, signifying that Colbert was well known to the British authorities before the Rising. The record also states that Colbert was apprehended while wearing a captain’s uniform, meaning that there was certainly no confusion by the British authorities as to Colbert’s rank. Colbert’s hasty court-martial proceedings would indicate that the British authorities were keen on quickly removing Colbert as a threat, and not much concerned with his rank or the role of his commanding officer.
Concurrently, the witness statement given by his sister Elizabeth, reveal some of Colbert’s thinking at the time as well as some of his activities that may have made him known to the British authorities. Elizabeth states that while a member of na Fianna Eireann, Colbert had stolen a union jack from the British Boy Scouts. This would eventually lead to Colbert having to go to court. This indicates that Colbert was very public in his actions against British groups, and it's likely he was prominent to those monitoring Irish Nationalist movements. Elizabeth also notes that Colbert regularly conversed in Irish, and was very open regarding the possibility of an armed conflict in the future. Judging from this witness statement, it is rightful to draw the conclusion that Colbert held a very public figure during the time of the Rising, which certainly made him a target when the Rising was over.
Importantly, the witness statement made by Seamus Murphy sheds light on his role in the execution, and why he was interned and Colbert was executed. Notably, the record states that Murphy’s rank in the Rising was O/C, backing up the previous statements made by Byrne that the British authorities were fully aware of Murphy’s rank. The source mainly details Murphy’s initiation into the nationalist movement. However, it is littered with Murphy’s apparent disinterest in many of the actions done by the Volunteers and the IRB, ‘I do not know at what stage I became Battalion Adjutant, but it followed my becoming Captain of the Company’. Even though he was a member of the inner circles of the IRB, Murphy does not appear to have much influence, or even to care about the meetings’ plans. The idea that Murphy allowed Colbert to take his place, or that this would even be possible, is certainly not backed up by this source, as it seems much more likely that owing to Murphy’s lax approach to the issue, that he simply was not on the radar of the British Authorities as an important person that needed to be executed.
In the end, the execution of Con Colbert as part of the 1916 Rising, would appear to be a result of the prominence of Con Colbert at the time. Certainly, his contemporaries did not think of the execution as a particularly extraordinary occurrence, despite Colbert's lower rank. Historians have largely had a consensus on this topic, as they place an overemphasis on Colbert’s Fenian ideals, painting him as a figure willing to die without objection. Seamus Murphy, who had been largely ignored in the works done by historians, would not seem to be unwilling to take his expected punishment in the form of execution, but it is clear from his own and other people’s accounts that he had a very low profile at the of the Rising. Certainly, Colbert’s court-martial record signifies that there was no changing of roles between Colbert and Murphy. It can be said from looking at the evidence that Con Colbert was execution was not a willing martyrdom by Colbert, but that Colbert was resigned to his fate, knowing the problems he had previously caused the British authorities.
© 2018 Paul Barrett