Socialist Worker

‘Justice can make but one reply’ - how Sylvia Pankhurst helped expose the repression of the Easter Rising

by John Newsinger
Issue No. 2496

Britains shelling reduced parts of Dublin to ruins

Britain's shelling reduced parts of Dublin to ruins (Pic: National Library of Ireland)


Sylvia Pankhurst, the militant anti-war socialist and suffragette, was in Newcastle when she first heard news of the Easter Rising in Dublin in April 1916.

Pankhurst’s response was dramatic.

Writing in the newspaper Woman’s Dreadnought she proclaimed, “Justice can make but one reply to the Irish rebellion and that is to demand that Ireland shall be allowed to govern herself.”

Pankhurst had strong reservations about the wisdom of the Rising. Nevertheless she argued that it “was but a stage in the long struggle for Irish independence”.

The Woman’s Dreadnought sent the 21 year old Patricia Lynch, born in Cork, Ireland, to Dublin.

The result was Lynch’s Scenes from the Irish Rebellion, a genuine scoop.

When Lynch arrived in Dublin, “the barricades were still across the streets and soldiers guarding them”. Buildings were still smouldering and bodies “were being brought out”.

A curfew was still in operation so that workers could not go to work and earn. Even when the curfew was briefly relaxed in the mornings for people to buy food, they had no money.

Many of the poorest Dubliners had been reduced to a condition ranging from “semi-starvation to absolute starvation”.

Lynch had no doubt that the appalling social conditions that existed in Dublin were the real cause of the Rising.

It had long been impossible, she wrote, “for men and women of the working class to live like human beings”.

Deadly

Housing conditions in the city had been “more deadly than the trenches.

“Out of every six children born, one dies.”

Conditions were “a scandal to civilisation”. And now British shelling and military rule had made conditions even worse.

On 20 May, the paper reported that “all the signatories of the republican proclamation have been shot”.

The execution of the wounded socialist James Connolly “shines out as the most cruel”.

But what particularly outraged Sylvia and her comrades was the murder of the socialist, feminist and pacifist, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington.

He had been the Daily Herald’s Dublin correspondent during the Great Lockout of 1913 and was well-known on the British left.

He had been arrested by Captain Bowen-Colthurst, an Irish Unionist. After serving his purpose as a “human shield”, Sheehy-Skeffington was put up against a wall and shot.

Unfortunately for Bowen-Colthurst, his immediate superior major Francis Vane just happened to be a former supporter of Pankhurst’s East London Federation of Suffragettes. He had drilled her 800-strong People’s Army before the war.

He demanded that Bowen-Colthurst be court-martialled and publicly exposed the efforts that were made to cover up the shootings.

Dreadnought published his account of the Rising. This included how “poor Skeffington had been murdered by an officer under my command” and how the authorities “intended to hush the matter up”.

Vane was convinced that “a clique” of Unionist officers had encouraged “indiscriminate shooting for the nefarious purpose of making the rebellion appear as badly as possible in the eyes of the world”.

Vane was dismissed from the army, while Bowen-Colthurst was eventually bought to trial.

He was conveniently found guilty but insane, then held in a mental hospital for just over a year before being quietly released.

John Newsinger is the author of a new book, Sylvia Pankhurst, the Easter Rising and the Woman’s Dreadnought, published by the Socialist History Society

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.