In the aftermath of the Easter Rising, 16 men were executed for taking part in the fight for Ireland’s freedom. Naturally, the majority of the attention falls upon the leader and the signatories of the Proclamation. It would, however, be a grave injustice to not remember the other gallant men who willingly made the ultimate sacrifice for Ireland; among the foremost would be Con Colbert.
Cornelius Colbert was born in Moanleana, Castlemahon, County Limerick; the ninth of thirteen children born to Michael and Nora Colbert. His family had strong nationalist sympathies; an Uncle had participated in the failed Fenian Rising of 1867. Known as “Con”, even as a boy he had a lively interest in local history and the Irish language which was still spoken by the older people of the time. When Colbert’s mother died while he was still a young boy, he moved to Dublin to stay with his sister so as to take some of the financial stress off of his father. He attended the O’Connell school where the Christian Brothers inspired in the young Colbert a great love of his country and its history. Upon graduation, he took a position as a bookkeeper at Kennedy’s Bakery where he would be employed until his execution.
Colbert joined the Gaelic League and became a fluent Gaelic speaker. He was an early member of the Irish youth organization Na Fianna Éireann which had been founded in 1909 by Bulmer Hobson and Countess Markievicz as an Irish alternative to Englishman Robert Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts which promoted British imperialism. Like other scouting organizations the Fianna learned skills such as signaling, map reading, drilling, rifle practice and camp life, but was unique in the emphasis placed on Irish language, history, folk law and culture. Na Fianna Éireann became a passion for Colbert to which he would devote all his spare time and his meager earnings. He was the Fianna’s most successful organizer; on his summer holidays cycling from town to town where he would gather a few boys and organize a new slaugh (troop).
Colbert’s energy and dedication soon drew notoriety. Hobson, who was also a key figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), realized that Colbert’s energy and natural charisma could be used to attract new members to the IRB’s ranks. Colbert was sworn in to the IRB where he soon displayed the energy and enthusiasm as for the Fianna. Con also came to the notice of Padraig Pearse, who offered Colbert the position of part-time drill instructor as Pearse’s St. Enda’s school. When Pearse suggested that he pay Colbert a small fee for his services, Colbert became so indignant that Pearse would think he would accept pay for what he considered a duty that Pearse had to apologize for offending him. As one of his friends noted Colbert’s “soul burned for everything Gaelic and Irish’. The only rival for his attention was his deep devotion to his faith; Colbert attended mass daily and was a strict teetotaler. A week before the Rising, Colbert approached Tom Clarke’s wife Kathleen to protest a céilidhe being held during Lent, not realizing that the céilidhe was being used as cover for a planning meeting for the rising. Kathleen Clarke, unable to tell him the true motive for the event tried to laugh him off by saying “He should dance now, for later they may be dancing at the end of a rope”; it was a prophetic comment she would later regret.
Colbert had joined the Irish volunteers on their formation and, despite his youth, was made a Captain in the 4th Battalion led by Proclamation signer Eamonn Ceannt. On the first day of the Rising, Colbert and 15 men seized control of their objective of Watkin’s Brewery, a strategic outpost to block the arrival of British reinforcements. Colbert sent a dispatch to the GPO that all was quiet in his sector, prompting James Connolly to redeploy Colbert and his men to reinforce the Marrowbone lane position being held by a group of Irish Volunteer and Cumann na mBan already there and under attack. That attack repelled, Colbert’s men and the rest of the garrison held the position for the rest of the week without casualties; Colbert drawing praise for his leadership and strategic knowledge. It was therefore with some shock that Colbert and the garrison received the order to surrender.
Realizing the likely fate of those who commanded during the rebellion and knowing that the actual commander of the Marrowbone lane garrison was a married father; Colbert told the British authorities that he was the commanding officer of the unit. He was court-martialed on the 4th of May 1916 and his death sentence confirmed on 7 May. A woman of Cumann na mBan also imprisoned in Kilmainham saw Colbert at Mass; he waved at her as if to say goodbye.
Before his execution, Colbert asked to see the wife of one of his men. He told her he was proud to die for Ireland. Colbert said he was leaving his bible to his sister and handed her three buttons from his uniform telling her “They left me nothing else,” and asking that when she heard the volleys of shots in the morning for Éamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin and himself would she say a Hail Mary for their souls. A young British soldier who was guarding Colbert began to cry.
At the time of his execution, a member of the firing party came into Colbert’s cell to affix a white target on his breast. Seeing where the Guard had placed it, Colbert asked “Wouldn’t it be better if it was closer to the heart?” and shifted the target accordingly. The soldier asked for Colbert’s hand, and not realizing his intent. he put out his left one; the soldier said “No the other one” and when Colbert put out his right hand the soldier grasped it and shook it before binding him and leading him to the Stonebreakers yard and the firing squad. Colbert was 27 years old at the time of his execution.
Na Fianna Éireann, which in life was Colberts passion, were named for the Fianna, the mythical band of warriors of Irish legend . In his life and death, Con Colbert showed himself a worthy member of their ranks. Heroes such as Con Colbert should never be forgotten.