Colthurst, John Colthurst Bowen- (1880–1965), army officer and murderer, was born John Colthurst Bowen in Cork on 12 August 1880, eldest son of Robert Walter Travers Bowen JP (who changed the family name to Bowen-Colthurst in 1882 to meet the terms of a relative's will) and his wife, Georgina (née Greer). He was a cousin of the novelist Elizabeth Bowen (qv) and his mother approached Bowen's father for legal assistance when her son faced court martial in 1916. Bowen-Colthurst was educated in Germany, at Haileybury School in Hertford (1894–8), and at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst (1898–9), where he came second in his class. Bowen-Colthurst was commissioned a lieutenant in the 1st battalion Royal Irish Rifles and fought in the Boer war; he was taken prisoner at Reddersburg in April 1900 but was released after the fall of Pretoria. He received the Queen's Medal with four clasps for his service in South Africa. He served in India in 1901–8, taking part in 1904 in the British military incursion into Tibet led by Francis Younghusband. The mission turned into a full-scale occupation of Tibet, involving large casualties among the poorly armed Tibetan forces; Bowen-Colthurst received a medal and clasp for his service.
Bowen-Colthurst led a wild life as a young man but experienced a religious conversion in India and became an evangelical Christian; this led him to organise prayer meetings among the troops under his command and to develop a fanatical conviction that he was doing God's work in fighting for the crown. During the Curragh mutiny in summer 1914, while stationed with the 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles at Tidworth, near Salisbury, he quarrelled with his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel W. D. Bird (an Englishman with whom he was on bad terms). Bowen-Colthurst informed Bird that ‘he did not understand the Irish and never would’ and that as ‘an Irishman first and last and all the time’ he refused to order his men to fire on the peaceful citizens of Belfast – their own kindred (the regiment's recruiting centre was in Belfast) – to please a lot of politicians (Taylor, 19–20). This considerably embittered relations between Bird and Bowen-Colthurst in the opening stages of the first world war: at one point during the retreat from Mons Bowen-Colthurst (who may have been suffering from shellshock) was temporarily relieved of his command after he started to march his company back towards the Germans, declaring that retreat was bad for morale and it was better to fight to the death.
On 15 September 1914, while the battalion held defensive positions at the Aisne during the allied counter-offensive after the battle of the Marne, Bowen-Colthurst led a force in a frontal attack on a German trench; he seems either to have misunderstood an order to reconnoitre or simply to have attacked on his own initiative. He achieved a short-lived success but was soon driven back, his men suffering heavy casualties; Bowen-Colthurst himself was wounded in the chest and right arm. He appears to have been in a frenzied state – he attempted to refuse medical treatment until he had used his knowledge of German to interrogate prisoners. Despite a critical report from Bird, Bowen-Colthurst escaped punishment as he claimed that his immediate superior (subsequently a casualty) had acquiesced in his interpretation of his orders by committing more men to support the attack. This incident foreshadows Bowen-Colthurst's later actions in Dublin during the Easter rising, and demonstrates his ability to rationalise and bend facts to justify himself retrospectively.
After hospital leave he was found to be suffering from nervous exhaustion and to have limited mobility in his right arm. His only brother, an officer in the Leinster regiment, was killed in action in March 1915. From April to July that year Bowen-Colthurst undertook home service with the 11th Rifle Brigade; he was then posted to Portobello barracks, Dublin, where he performed recruiting duties. In this context he may have encountered the women's rights activist and pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (qv), who was engaged in an anti-recruiting campaign in Dublin.
The outbreak of the Easter rising on Monday 24 April 1916 drove Bowen-Colthurst into a frenzy of activity; he later claimed that he feared a general rising and wholesale massacre and lived in imminent expectation of an attack on the barracks (which was subject to intermittent sniping). He led troops from the barracks on several patrols during which he fired randomly at figures in lighted windows (in the belief that they might be snipers) and threw bombs into buildings. On 25 April Sheehy-Skeffington was brought into the barracks after being detained crossing Portobello bridge. At around 11 p.m. that day Bowen-Colthurst led a raid on the tobacco shop belonging to the home rule councillor J. J. Kelly (whom he appears to have confused with the Sinn Féin councillors Tom Kelly (qv) and Seán T. O'Kelly (qv)), taking Sheehy-Skeffington with him as a hostage to be killed if the platoon was fired upon. As the troops made their way to Kelly's shop, Bowen-Colthurst arbitrarily shot dead a young man whom he stopped and questioned outside Rathmines church. The shop was bombed and two journalists found there, Thomas Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, were taken prisoner. Both men in fact held conservative views; Dickson was a unionist and McIntyre ran an anti-Larkin paper which had taken a pro-recruiting stand. (Bowen-Colthurst may have confused the Searchlight, a disreputable gossip sheet also published by McIntyre, with the separatist weekly The Spark.) The following morning Sheehy-Skeffington, Dickson, and McIntyre were taken into the barracks yard and shot without trial on the orders of Bowen-Colthurst, who later falsely claimed that they might have intended to escape; he further attempted to justify his actions by stating that he was as good an Irishman as they were and had lost a brother in the war. Later on the 26 April, when out on patrol, Bowen-Colthurst interrogated the captured Labour councillor and Volunteer officer Richard O'Carroll (qv) before shooting him through the lungs and leaving him mortally wounded in the street.
Major Sir Francis Vane of the Munster Fusiliers, who was stationed at the barracks but had been absent on duty in Rathmines at the time of the shootings, protested to the barracks commander upon hearing of the killings in the barracks yard; he ordered Bowen-Colthurst removed from duty and confined to barracks. Bowen-Colthurst protested that Vane was a rebel and a pro-Boer – he was a supporter of home rule, who had publicly denounced British reprisals against civilians during the Boer war – and that he ought to be shot. Vane found that the higher military authorities took little interest in the case: General Maxwell (qv) regarded Bowen-Colthurst as ‘a hot-headed Irishman’ (Townshend, 290); Major Price (director of intelligence) told Vane that those killed probably deserved it. On Friday of Easter week Vane was relieved of his duties and ordered to hand over the barracks defences to Bowen-Colthurst, who promptly threatened to arrest Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (qv) when she came to enquire about her husband. That evening Bowen-Colthurst raided the Sheehy-Skeffington house and took away large amounts of manuscript material (most of which was never returned), which was sifted for any evidence of treasonable activities (even a child's drawing of a Zeppelin attacking a ship was regarded as evidence). Bowen-Colthurst was later placed in charge of a detachment of soldiers going to Newry. Vane, however, made his way to London and reported directly to Lord Kitchener (qv), who immediately ordered Bowen-Colthurst's arrest. Although this was not the only case of military personnel running amok during the Easter rising and committing murder, Bowen-Colthurst's case involved five murders over several days and implicated several other soldiers and junior officers, who had carried out, or made no attempt to question, his orders. The case was raised in parliament by John Dillon (qv) and became a cause célèbre.
Bowen-Colthurst was court-martialled at Richmond barracks on 6 and 7 June 1916, found guilty but insane, and committed to Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. He did not give evidence in his own defence but numerous character witnesses were called, and T. M. Healy (qv), representing Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, engaged in incisive and highly publicised cross-examination of other officers present in Portobello barracks about their acquiescence in Bowen-Colthurst's actions. This failed to satisfy Vane and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (who complained that Bowen-Colthurst had been under no restraint during his court martial and was allowed to live at a hotel with his family); as a result of their campaign a commission of enquiry headed by Sir John Simon met in August 1916. Its report (submitted in September and published in November 1916) established a greater degree of ex post facto knowledge by the military authorities than had previously been believed. Vane (who was discharged from his recruiting duties and refused permission to fight on the western front) and Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington (who refused offers of compensation for her husband's murder) regarded the verdict of insanity as part of a cover-up, doubted whether Bowen-Colthurst was in fact insane, and believed that his activities had been tacitly approved by senior pro-unionist military figures who wished to exacerbate the rising in the hope of killing off home rule. Vane compared official silence on the murders with the condemnation of the court martial and execution by the Germans of the nurse Edith Cavell for espionage. Vane did not believe that the cabinet had been complicit in the cover-up; Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington did, and regularly contrasted the punishments inflicted on her for her subsequent political activities with the leniency shown to Bowen-Colthurst.
While there was certainly an attempt at concealment, it is more likely to have proceeded from military and official self-protection than from a political conspiracy. Monk Gibbon (qv), who had been present at Portobello barracks, pointed out that while Bowen-Colthurst certainly suffered from mental abnormality, his subsequent attempts to falsify evidence and hide his actions suggest that he may not have been legally insane, since the McNaghten Rules, which then governed the matter, required that the defendant should be either ignorant of the nature of his actions or unaware that they were wrong. The Bowen-Colthurst case was sometimes referred to by advocates of a pardon for British soldiers executed during the first world war as an example of shellshock being accepted as a legal defence for crimes by an officer, while it was not regarded as excusing soldiers charged with desertion.
Bowen-Colthurst was released from Broadmoor to a private asylum in January 1919; he was subsequently released as sane and emigrated to British Columbia. His family home at Oakgrove House, Dripsey, Co. Cork, was destroyed by the IRA in April 1920; according to local tradition this was done specifically to preclude the possibility he might return and settle there. His principal income derived from investments; he owned a fruit farm but this was more a hobby than a source of income. On 2 April 1910 Bowen-Colthurst married Rosalinda Laetitia Butler; they had three sons and one daughter. After Laetitia's death on 1 August 1940 he married Priscilla Mary Bekman; they had a son and a daughter. Bowen-Colthurst died of a coronary thrombosis at Penticton, British Columbia, on 11 December 1965. In 1981 Monk Gibbon recalled him as ‘a sadistic maniac, a political bigot mixed up with religion’ (Levenson, 231); his military career (as well as its final acts) can be seen as a reminder of the dark and brutal side of the Irish involvement in empire.