Last April it was reported in The Irish Times that relatives of three men murdered in Portobello Barracks, Rathmines by Captain John Bowen-Colthurst during Easter Week 1916 were seeking an apology from the British government. The three victims were Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre. The former was a well-known radical activist and advocate of political rights for women whereas the latter two were relatively unknown journalists.
The report quoted Micheline Sheehy-Skeffington, granddaughter of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, who said that the killings were completely illegal and wrong and further complained that Bowen- Colthurst had been allowed to live out his life in Canada, where she said he had boasted of what he had done. Bowen-Colthurst was brought before the courts and charged over the murders and was found “guilty but insane”. Ms Sheehy-Skeffington, it seems, does not accept this verdict and maintains that while the perpetrator “showed every sign of being a sadist … he was definitely not insane”.
It is an interesting question. There were certainly some who did not think of him as insane. He was, for instance, greatly admired by his friend Elsie Mahaffy, daughter of the provost of Trinity College, who in her unpublished diary of 1916, describes him as “tall handsome and clever”. The Irish Times on the other hand is happy to describe him as “notorious”, which in itself doesn’t carry any implications regarding his sanity.
When these firing squad murders in Rathmines are discussed, the focus is generally on Sheehy-Skeffington. The famous always command the lion’s share of attention and it seems this pattern persists even into the efforts of relatives to wring an apology from the British, who in their wisdom awarded Bowen-Colthurst a full military pension. If the relatives of Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre had anything to say it was not reported in The Irish Times.
It could be that in the case of Thomas Dickson his relatives did not wish to draw attention to a character many found disreputable. Dickson suffered from dwarfism and appears to have been a man long at odds with society. Capable of great hatred he was no doubt well-accustomed to being stared at and regarded with disgust and horror. A Dublin-born British officer present in Portobello described him prior to his murder as “tiny, a dwarf of about four foot six, a grotesque figure in a black coat with curious eyes”. Experience of social rejection can give rise to a jaundiced view of humanity and it might well be that Dickson’s life and behaviour are open to more than one interpretation.
In 1916 he was running a weekly paper called The Eye-Opener, which specialised in sexual gossip and attacks on the great and the good. He comes across as a sort of dissident malcontent who favoured the poor but hated the well-set-up and inhabited a world far removed from that of the high-minded idealists we are accustomed to reading of in connection with the Dublin of 1916.
In a recent issue of History Ireland Conor Morrissey contributes a fascinating article on Dickson, detailing his many nefarious activities and court appearances. However one charge in particular, that of anti- Semitism, appears questionable. The title of the History Ireland article includes the phrase “Scandal and Anti- Semitism in 1916”. Morrisey himself speaks of the The Eye-Opener as “anti-Semitic” and says it provides “an insight into how a small minority viewed Jews”. This seems to be based largely on a series of articles attacking the Jewish businessman and Corporation member Joseph Isaacs.
Isaacs eventually brought and won a case for libel against Dickson. During the trial it emerged that Dickson had rented a shop on Westmoreland Street from Isaacs and had been evicted for non-payment of rent. It also emerged that he had collected a £10 debt owing to Isaacs and had kept the money. It is clear, I think, that it is more a case of Dickson hating Isaacs than hating Jews and that Dickson was conducting his vendetta against Isaacs for personal reasons. There are no aspersions cast on Jewish people as such in the pages of The Eye-Opener. Indeed Dickson goes out of his way to make it clear that he has no objections to Jews.
We wish it to be clearly understood that because we are discussing Mr Isaacs in our paper, The Eye-Opener has not been started for the purpose of attacking the Jewish Community of Dublin. We recognise that amongst the Jews we have some of the best and most considerate citizens of Dublin. Among them we have straightforward honest and upright men who would be an acquisition to our City Council, men who would not for the sake of public honour betray their own, men whose word is their bond.
On another occasion he remarked:
The reason we call Joseph Isaacs JP TC, the Scotch Jew is not because we have any hatred towards the Jewish race. But because we know that the shoddy clothes merchant is ashamed to let it be known that he is a Jew.
The Eye-Opener is a chaotically written and conceived journal full of rumour and hatred. But whatever it was it was not anti-Semitic, a distinct and virulent phenomenon which in its essence finds fault with Jewish people because they are Jewish.
Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.
One piece featured in Space to Think is this blog post from 2016 about a dispute over a love affair that ended in the courts. Here is an extract:
Whether acting on information gleaned from [his letters from her] or from another source Mrs MacKenzie learned that her son was to visit the Grafton Picture House with Mrs Henry. One afternoon in the late summer of 1926, she pressed her – perhaps unwilling –daughter (also called Frances) into service and the pair made their way into town and slipped into the row behind the lovers in the cinema. The whole business might still have been dealt with privately were it not for what transpired outside the cinema.
Outside on Grafton Street Frances senior approached Simone and told her that if she didn’t accompany her across the road and into South Anne Street she would call a policeman. Simone asked Rubin who the woman was, to which he replied “She is my Mother.” Simone crossed with Frances, agreeing with Ruben that they would meet five minutes later in the Shelbourne Hotel. It was to be a long five minutes. In fact all four crossed the road, stopping at the third parked car.
It is interesting that Mrs MacKenzie confronted Simone rather than Rubin. A sense of unquestioning righteousness is reflected in her strange threat to “call a policeman”. She could, figuratively speaking, have taken Rubin home by the ear and demanded an end to the relationship on pain of severe financial penalty. Indeed she could have done this at home, saving herself and her daughter the train journey. But she was aware that in Rubin’s case it was more than an inappropriate dalliance which could be rationally challenged and that it was less a case of her son being bad than having fallen into the power of “a bad woman”; her Rubin had been bewitched by a Jezebel.