I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Con Colbert



The O’Brien Press






From the Introduction

In Newcastlewest in County Limerick, close to where Con Colbert was born and spent his childhood, a memorial to republican martyrs was erected in 1955. A catalogue informs visitors that Colbert fought in the General Post Office (GPO) during the 1916 Easter Rising, and that he was executed on 7 May. Neither part of this statement is factual. He was elsewhere in Dublin city centre – first in Watkins’ brewery on Ardee Street and then in Jameson’s distillery on Marrow-bone Lane. He was executed on 8 May. Such inaccuracies might seem harmless in themselves — and this first instance merely reflects the centrality of the GPO to how the Rising is remembered — but they are indicative of the manner in which man and myth can become one.

The cumulative effect of a variety of similar errors, superficially innocuous as they may be, combined with a number of pointed and persistent misrepresentations, has been to obscure Colbert’s real role in the preparations for the rebellion, in the battle itself and even in his court martial and execution. The purpose of this book is to bring as much clarity to these issues as the sources will permit, and to present as realistic a portrait as possible of what type of a person Colbert was. Colbert never consciously cultivated a reputation for himself. Others decided to do that after his execution. To encounter a historical figure is all too often to encounter fiction. The first duty of any biographer should be to afford a subject, and an audience, the appropriate complexity – in this case, to separate the man and the myth. Only then is an honest assessment of a life possible. And it should be for his life as much as for his death that Colbert is commemorated.

The Rising was a spectacular display of resistance to the British empire near the height of its power and on an active war footing. The rebel leaders anticipated that they were striking a decisive blow in a struggle for national liberation. The Proclamation of the Republic invoked a tradition of militant resistance, envisioned an independent Ireland, and proposed a pluralist society resting on an anti-imperial foundation. But this was not a simple story. The political and cultural history of Ireland in the years before 1916, and the history of the Rising itself, remains enigmatic and it would be insensitive and irresponsible to draw simplistic conclusions, whether celebratory or condemnatory, on intricate matters.

While overt republicanism and separatism were fringe phenomena during the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, subsequent events would demonstrate that there was an extensive slumbering sympathy for radicalism that was roused by the Rising. Opposition to continuation of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland with direct government from London was the norm, yet the primary proposal of the nationalist majority was for no more than Home Rule, a limited measure of control over domestic affairs for a Dublin parliament. As well as constitutionalist principles, there was a strand of imperial sentiment running through sections of the Home Rule movement, but its moderate claim reflected realism regarding the balance of power in Anglo-Irish relations, rather than idealistic aspiration or conviction.

Unionists, predominantly Protestant and with their power base in northeast Ulster, feared Home Rule as a threat to their political, cultural, civic, economic and religious interests. The nationalist strategy assumed that when the government eventually conceded a compromise reform, which could not be denied indefinitely, unionists would consent once convinced that it was a benign measure. This gamble, democratic as it was, failed to understand the depth of feeling inherent in the unionist — British — imperial dynamic, and was lost at huge cost. Unionism had evolved from a more conciliatory phase earlier in the century to the point where it resolutely refused any concession. Unionists now demonstrated a readiness to defy the common will and even parliamentary opinion.