Cornelius [Con] Colbert was another young man who is also less known for his role in Ireland's 1916 Easter Rising. He was born in 1888 , one of thirteen children, into a small farming community to Michael and Nora MacDermott in Moanleana, Castlemahon, County Limerick.
When he was three years of age, they family to Athea West, Limerick where his father farmed the old family land at Templeathea. He and his siblings attended the Athea National School. From there, he was moved for a brief period to Kilcolman, Ballysteen. When he was a teenager, he left home to live with an older sister in Dublin. His sister found him a place at the Christian Brothers School Secondary School on North Richmond Street (O’Connell Schools). This is where he first met Éamonn Ceantt and Séan Huston. From there, he secured a clerkship (apprenticeship) at Kennedy’s Bakery in Parnell Street where he remained until his death.
Coming from a Fenian and Nationalist background, he was steeped in politics and religion. He became a devout Roman Catholic. He always involved himself in local and national history. He developed a keen interest in the Irish language while still a young boy and picked up some odd expressions from his old neighbours around West Limerick where the language had not yet entirely died out.
When he moved to Dublin, he joined the Gáelic League where he became an avid student of the language. He attended all classes, lectures, and any activities that would enhance his knowledge of Irish culture and his Irish heritage.
In 1909, he enrolled in Fianna Éireann, which was a scouting movement. This movement was first established by Bulmer Hobson in 1903. Hobson was a leading member of the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. He helped plan the Easter Rising, but then went on to oppose it. Hobson and Countess Markievic revived this movement to become a great establishment for young boys, and Colbert applied himself to all the training and other activities that were made available to him. These included proficiency in drilling, marching, scouting, map reading, signalling, the use of small firearms, first aid, and, not least, the Irish language. It was not long before his talents and achievements were noticed and he was soon promoted to the Captaincy, and then to the council.
Patrick Pearse was one of the people who had acknowledged Colbert's skills and strength of character. When Pearse was looking for a part-time instructor at St Edna’s (the Gáelic school founded by Pearse), Colbert was recruited as he was ideally suited for this position. He refused any offers of remuneration for his services. His skills, enthusiasm for his job, and his history of immersing himself in all-things-Irish became so well known that he was recruited to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). He later became head of the IRB circle, which consisted of Fianna Éireann members formed in 1912 by Bulmer Hobson.
Colbert was elected to the Provisional Committee of the Irish Volunteers upon their formation in 1913. He went on to attain the rank of Captain in Éamon Ceannt's 4th Battalion of the Dublin Brigade, thus becoming highly involved in the training and development of his company. Colbert did not allow his diminutive physical stature (just over five feet) deter him. He had considerable presence and made a sizeable impact on everyone that met him. His troops had great respect for him as did his peers and commanders, along with all those young men he had trained at St. Edna’s. At the beginning of the Rising, he and his troops were assigned to Watkins' Brewery and Jameson's Distillery, meeting Ceannt and the main body of the 4th Battalion at Marrowbone Lane.
It has been said that when the order came to surrender on the 30th of April, 1916, he assumed the command of his unit to save the life of his superior officer who was married man. Those who were captured were marched to Richmond Barracks. From there, Colbert was transferred to Kilmainham Gaol.
Colbert would not allow his sister or any of his family to visit him at Kilmainham. He said it would be too painful and grieve them all too much. He gave three buttons from his Volunteer uniform to a Mrs. Ó Murchadh who was also being held a prisoner for her part in the movement. She charged her with giving his Bible to his sister, telling her that they had left him nothing else. Mrs. Ó Murchadha is recorded as saying that the soldier who was guarding the prisoner was crying and said, "If only we could all die such honourable deaths."
Colbert famously moved the white piece of paper that had been pinned to his chest nearer his heart, for the firing squad to aim at – saying, "Would it not be better nearer the heart?"
Cornelius [Con] Colbert was a single man of 24 years, executed by a firing squad on the 8th of May, 1916.
More from this series:
Mary Thorpe is the author of "That's Just How it Was," available on Amazon, Kindle, Gardner's Wholesale Books UK, Bertems, and Inghams.
Now available to order from Waterstones - USA ; England / Ireland