Analysis: there were many obstacles to overcome in bringing the 1916 leader's remains back from Britain to Ireland

By John GibneyRoyal Irish Academy

In 1965, Roger Casement made his final journey, as his remains were repatriated to Dublin from London's Pentonville Prison, where he had been buried following his execution in August 1916. Born in Dublin in 1865, Casement had entered the British consular service and enjoyed a famed if controversial career due to his investigations into the brutal treatment of indigenous peoples under Belgian colonial rule in the Congo and by commercial rubber interests in the Amazon basin.

After resigning from the Foreign Office, Casement became involved in the Irish Volunteers. In 1914, he travelled to Germany to procure weapons for what became the Easter Rising. He returned to Ireland in April 1916 in an effort, it would seem, to call off a rebellion he felt was doomed to failure. Casement was arrested in Kerry having alighted from a German submarine and was in British custody when the rising broke out. He was executed for treason in London's Pentonville Prison on August 3rd 1916 and buried in the prison yard.

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From RTÉ Radio 1 Extra, Irish Icons, International Interest looks at the connections between Roger Casement and the Congo

But Casement’s final resting place is in Glasnevin Cemetery, where he was reinterred 49 years after his death. While his life and posthumous reputation traditionally attract a lot of attention, the story of what one might call his physical afterlife is less well known. The immediate story behind the repatriation of his remains is documented in the twelfth volume in the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series, which covers the years 1961 to 1965.

Calls for the repatriation of Casement's remains been made by relatives soon after his execution and his sister had even purchased a burial plot for him in Glasnevin in 1925. Many others would take up the same cause over the years, with Éamon de Valera taking a particular interest in the matter, but these efforts came to naught until the 1960s.  

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From RTÉ Radio 1, Diarmuid Ferriter talks about the complicated legacy of Roger Casement

In 1963, Seán Lemass, de Valera's successor as Taoiseach, began to re-explore the possibility of having Casement’s remains repatriated as a gesture of goodwill at a time when Lemass was seeking to forge better relationships with both Britain and Northern Ireland. The impending centenary of Casement’s birth in 1965 was another imperative to action. Also looming in the background was the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, which would fall in 1966. And a veteran of the rising and the independence struggle, it was surely no surprise that Lemass took such such an interest in Casement. In late 1964, he wrote to British prime minister Harold Wilson requesting that he consider the matter.

However, there were obstacles to returning Casement for burial in Ireland. The British were wary that such an exhumation and repatriation might create "an undesirable precedent". They were particularly wary of the political implications. The return of Casement’s remains might prove contentious in Britain (due to its likely unpopularity), in Ireland (due to its inevitable popularity potentially giving rise to anti-British sentiment), and also in Northern Ireland (the location of Casement’s preferred final resting place Murlough Bay in Co. Antrim). An assurance that Casement would be buried in Dublin was essential to reaching an agreement.

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From RTÉ Archives, Brian O'Connell reports for RTÉ News on the 1990 release of British Cabinet Papers from 1959, including a letter from the Irish government seeking the return of the body of Roger Casement for re-burial in Ireland

Having located the unmarked grave (using, amongst other sources, the recollections of de Valera, who had spent time in Pentonville in 1917), the long process of exhuming whatever was left of Casement from the yard of Pentonville Prison began in the early evening of February 22nd 1965. Soon afterwards, one of the Irish officials present, Paul Keating (later Ireland’s ambassador to Britain), wrote a lengthy and vivid report of the exhumation for his superiors. 

The work took place behind screens erected to protect it from the eyes of curious inmates. The British had previously insisted on secrecy "not merely because of anxiety about political repercussions but because they were afraid of ghoulish sensationalism by the Sunday papers". Casement’s bones were slowly and carefully extracted from the sodden ground of the prison yard by prison officers (whose "reverence" for the remains was noted) and perhaps "85% of all that could be found" was recovered. Keating reported that tissue and hair remained attached to the skull, even after 49 years. Casement’s remains were returned to Ireland the next day, to be reinterred with a state funeral in Glasnevin Cemetery on 1 March 1965. 

Éamon de Valera at Roger Casement's funeral at Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery in March 1965

There, the matter seemed to end. But there was a coda. At an early stage in the negotiations with the British over the repatriation of the remains, the British had asked if the Irish authorities also wanted to obtain the so-called "Black Diaries" as well. These had allegedly belonged to Casement and contained extensive details of homosexual liaisons. Extracts were privately circulated by British officials to discourage potential appeals for clemency prior to Casement’s execution in 1916. Their authenticity was contested, and the offer of their return was politely but firmly declined. 

But a fortnight after the funeral in Glasnevin, Hugh McCann, the secretary of the Department of External Affairs (as it was then known) noted that he had been in touch with Richard Hayes, the Director of the National Library of Ireland, to ask if it would be possible to authenticate them "in the event of the Casement diaries coming into our custody".

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From RTÉ Archives, Brian O'Connell reports for RTÉ News in 2002 on British forensic tests on the diaries of Sir Roger Casement which have shown the documents to be authentic.

In response, Hayes said that "his personal view is that the diaries are genuine. There is in the National Library much Casement material and there are one or two references in this material which are not inconsistent with the charges against Casement", but, "to sum up Dr. Hayes’s view he is of opinion that the question of the diaries should be let rest". The British were not the only ones to be wary of Casement’s potential afterlife.

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy Vol. XII, 1961-1965, will be published by the Royal Irish Academy in November

Dr John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy's Documents on Irish Foreign Policy series. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ