British Atrocities

Last Updated On June 12, 2018
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After the Rising, claims of atrocities carried out by British troops began to emerge. Although they did not receive as much attention as the executions, they sparked outrage among the Irish public and were raised by Irish MPs in Parliament.

One incident was the ‘Portobello killings’. On Tuesday 25 April, Dubliner Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist nationalist activist, had been arrested by British soldiers. Captain John Bowen-Colthurst then took him with a British raiding party as a hostage and human shield. On Rathmines Road he stopped a boy named James Coade, whom he shot dead. His troops then destroyed a tobacconist’s shop with grenades and seized journalists Thomas Dickson and Patrick MacIntyre. The next morning, Colthurst had Skeffington and the two journalists shot by firing squad in Portobello Barracks. The bodies were then buried there. Later that day he shot a Labour Party councillor, Richard O’Carroll. When Major Sir Francis Vane learned of the killings he telephoned his superiors in Dublin Castle, but no action was taken. Vane informed Herbert Kitchener, who told General Maxwell to arrest Colthurst, but Maxwell refused. Colthurst was eventually arrested and court-martialled in June. He was found guilty of murder but insane, and detained for twenty months at Broadmoor. Public and political pressure led to a public inquiry, which reached similar conclusions. Major Vane was discharged “owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case”.

The other incident was the ‘North King Street massacre’. On the night of 28–29 April, British soldiers of the South Staffordshire Regiment, under Colonel Henry Taylor, had burst into houses on North King Street and killed 15 male civilians whom they accused of being rebels. The soldiers shot or bayoneted the victims, then secretly buried some of them in cellars or back yards after robbing them. The area saw some of the fiercest fighting of the Rising and the British had taken heavy casualties for little gain. General Maxwell attempted to excuse the killings and argued that the rebels were ultimately responsible. He claimed that “the rebels wore no uniform” and that the people of North King Street were rebel sympathisers. Maxwell concluded that such incidents “are absolutely unavoidable in such a business as this” and that “Under the circumstance the troops […] behaved with the greatest restraint”. A private brief, prepared for the Prime Minister, said the soldiers “had orders not to take any prisoners” but took it to mean they were to shoot any suspected rebel. The City Coroner’s inquest found that soldiers had killed “unarmed and unoffending” residents. The military court of inquiry ruled that no specific soldiers could be held responsible, and no action was taken.

These killings, and the British response to them, helped sway Irish public opinion against the British.