ON THIS DAY: 19 OCTOBER 1888: EASTER RISING LEADER CON COLBERT WAS BORN IN WEST LIMERICK

On this day in 1888, Cornelius “Con” Colbert was born. Colbert was an Irish rebel and pioneer of Fianna Éireann, commanding rebel forces during the 1916 Easter Rising.  For his role in the rising, he was sentenced to death and shot by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, on 8 May 1916.

After learning of the surrender, Colbert said “our cause is postponed to a future generation” before being executed by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol on 8 May 1916.

Born on 19 October 1888, in West Limerick, Cornelius “Con Colbert” was a mid-ranking, conservative, militant and cultural nationalist. A small farmer’s son, he was the fourth youngest of thirteen children. Moving to Ranelagh, Co Dublin at the age of sixteen to live with his elder sister Catherine, he continued his education at a Christian Brothers School.

Following that, he became a bakery clerk in the offices of Kennedy’s bakery in Dublin.

Although he was short in stature, he made a big impression as he quickly rose through the ranks of the Irish forces, from humble beginnings in the Fianna scouts to becoming Captain of the F Company, Fourth Battalion, Inichicore.

Colbert’s “personal life was dominated by Irish Catholicism, his love of the Irish language and his abstinence from alcohol,” writes Dermot Kennedy in a tribute <https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/con-colbert-1916-easter-rising> to Colbert to mark the anniversary of his execution. When Colbert was asked why he thought Irish rebels never succeeded, he was known to reply: “Drink and want of discipline and loose talk”.

Colbert, who has been described by some as an “ordinary man” living in extraordinary times, worked in collaboration with Commandant Ceannt at the South Dublin Union. Colbert’s objective on Easter Monday 1916 was to take Watkin’s Brewery in Ardee Street, in the Cork Street area. His role was to cover Ceannt’s flank. Although Colbert took over the bakery with ease, he discovered it held no real strategic importance.

He informed James Connolly of this and following that, Connolly directed Colbert to take his small unit of less than 20 men and join forces with Captain Séamus Murphy at the William Jameson Distillery on Marrowbone Lane, close to the Guiness Brewery.

They fought intensely with the British with Murphy and Colbert’s men inflicting casualties without suffering any themselves. Suddenly on Saturday morning, the British withdrew.

The Volunteers were in high spirits as they believed that the Rising was going in their favour and were shocked when Thomas MacDonagh turned up on Sunday to tell them of the surrender.

“Our cause is postponed for a future generation…”

Colbert was devastated and broke down in tears. He was so stunned by the news that he declared: “I do not know what to say or think, but if what I think comes true, our cause is postponed to a future generation…we must have been let down very badly as we have not had the support of our people that we had expected.”

Colbert and Murphy were soon joined by Ceannt and the men from the South Dublin Union and together they marched to St. Patrick’s Park to surrender. At Richmond Barracks, he was sorted by the G-men of the Dublin Metropolitan Police.

At a trial almost completely absent of evidence, Colbert was found guilty and sentenced to death. His death penalty is one of the oddest because he had fought a clean fight at Marrowbone Lane and, technically, was not even in charge of the siege—Captain Murphy was.

The Volunteers were in high spirits as they believed that the Rising was going in their favour and were shocked when Thomas MacDonagh turned up on Sunday to tell them of the surrender.

Colbert was devastated and broke down in tears. He was so stunned by the news that he declared: “I do not know what to say or think, but if what I think comes true, our cause is postponed to a future generation…we must have been let down very badly as we have not had the support of our people that we had expected.”

Colbert fought bravely during Easter Week, first at Watkin’s Brewery on Ardee Street, then at Jameson’s Brewery and Marrowbone Lane.  Only a single witness testified against him at his court-martial.  Although the evidence was inaccurate, it mattered little in what was effectively a show trial.

After what was essentially a show-trial almost completely absent of evidence, Colbert was found guilty and sentenced to death. Only a single witness testified against him. His death penalty is seen as one of the oddest owing to the fact that he had fought a clean fight at Marrowbone Lane and, technically, was not even in charge of the siege — Captain Murphy was.

Colbert’s sentencing and how it occurred could be described as an unlucky twist of fate.

Christopher Byrne, a 2nd Lieutenant under Colbert, related the story of Colbert’s sentencing in his 1948 Witness Statement.

Byrne said that “Con Colbert and I were intimate friends.” He went on to state that: “I wish to record that Séamus Murphy was in charge in Marrowbone Lane and Con was second in command. The commands remained so until the surrender.”

He continued: “Séamus Murphy was in our batch and in full uniform, but he was not picked out. The question of Colbert taking Murphy’s place does not arise at all, it was just that good luck favored Murphy and he was deported with us to Knutsford. Colbert and Murphy did not, and could not, exchange uniforms, as Colbert was a very small sized man and Murphy was very tall and well-built. Murphy was a very manly fellow and certainly would not shirk facing a court-martial and its sentence had he been picked out for it.

“In my opinion, what saved Murphy’s life was the fact that he was not very prominent before the Rising and was not, as far as I know, known to the police. Against this, Colbert made himself very prominent during the anti-recruiting campaign for the British Army that was then in full swing before the Rising.

“He wore kilts and frequently pulled down Union Jacks and recruiting posters and helped to break up meetings. He also drilled the Fianna in the open,” Byrne said.

In the end, Colbert was more heartbroken about the defeat – and the way the local Dubliners had turned against the rebels – than he was about his own death sentence.

“We are all ready to meet our God,” he said. “Now that we are defeated, outside the barrack wall, the people whom we have tried to emancipate have demonstrated nothing but hatred and contempt for us.

“We would be better off dead as life would be a torture. We thank the mother of God for her kindness in her intercession for us that we have had the time to prepare ourselves to meet our Redeemer.”

After being transferred to Kilmainham Gaol, he was told on Sunday 7 May that he was to be killed by firing squad the following morning. Unlike some of the other rebels, Colbert did not wish to meet with his relatives. During his time in prison, he wrote ten letters, and he did not allow visits from his family; writing to his sister, he explained that he felt a visit “would grieve us both too much.”

The night before his execution, he sent for fellow prisoner Mrs. Ó Murchadha, the wife of the man in charge of Marrowbone Lane, who was also being detained at Kilnainham.

He told her: “I am one of the lucky ones…I am proud to die for such a cause. I will be passing away at the dawning of the day.” When Mrs. Murphy asked of the fate of Éamonn Ceannt, Colbert replied: “He has drawn the lucky lot as well.”

Clutching his bible, he informed her that he was leaving it to his sister.  In an expression of his faith, he asked her would she say a Hail Mary for the souls of the faithfully departed when she heard the shots fired in the morning for Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin and himself.

According to Mrs. Ó Murchadha, the soldier who was guarding Con Colbert began crying.  She reported him saying “If only we could die such deaths.”

According to Christopher Byrne: “He cut all the buttons off his tunic and gave them to Mrs. Murphy, and gave her his watch for me. Father Morrissey was with him up to the time he died. Con got a pin from the priest and scratched something in Irish on the watch and put the date on it.”

Colbert’s “lips were moving in prayer” as he marched to his death

Fr. Augustine, the Capuchin priest who was with Colbert at the end,  tells a touching story of how Colbert told the soldier preparing him for execution that he should pin the white square higher to cover his heart, making it easier for the firing squad.

The soldier was so moved he asked to shake Colbert’s hand, then gently tied his hands behind his back and blindfolded him.

Colbert was the the final man executed in Kilmainham Gaol on 8 May, 1916.

Following Colbert’s death by firing squad, Fr. Augustine wrote to the editor of the Evening Herald on 1 June 1916 to correct what he believed was an inaccurate account of Colbert’s final hours.

The letter is published in Piarais F. Mac Lochlainn’s book, ‘Last Words, Letters and Statements of the Leaders Executed After the Rising at Easter 1916’.

Fr. Augustine said that Colbert’s “lips were moving in prayer” as he marched to the Breaker’s Yard. He was executed between 3:45 and 4:05 a.m. on May 8th.

His very unlucky death was the result of his love for Ireland and the fact he was known to the G-men of the DMP. His biggest crime appears to have been his relentless love of his country.

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

Colbert’s legacy is palpable in both his native Limerick and in Dublin; Fianna Fáil Cumann in University of Limerick is named after him, and Con Colbert Road in Dublin is named in his honour.  Colbert Railway Station in Limerick City is named after him, as is Colbert Street and the local community hall in his native Athea, County Limerick.

 

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