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The Life & Legacy of Roger Casement
Sir Roger Casement ‘who laid down his life for Ireland on August 3 1916’ Photo: National Library of Ireland

The Life & Legacy of Roger Casement

By Mary E. Daly

In the first week of August 1917, on the first anniversary of the execution of Roger Casement, commemorative events were held in Co. Kerry, where he had been arrested coming ashore at Banna Stand on the Good Friday prior to the rebellion of Easter week, 1916. Here, historian Prof. Mary E. Daly, assesses the life and legacy of an Irish nationalist and a humanitarian campaigner.

The trial, execution and indeed the career of Roger Casement, the last of the sixteen leaders of the 1916 Rising to be executed, is quite different from the other executed men. He did not take part in the Rising; he was arrested in Kerry on Good Friday, and was being interrogated London when it began. He was the only leading figure who was a Protestant and from an Anglo-Irish family. And he was the only one of the sixteen who was well-known outside Ireland, and Irish republican circles, by reason of his record as a humanitarian – who had investigated the mistreatment of native workers in the rubber industries in both the Belgian Congo and the Putamayo – a remote area in the upper Amazon basin. Casement was a former British civil servant – a member of the consular staff, who was knighted in 1911 by King George V for his investigations in the Putamayo. When he visited the United States in 1912, following his second investigative mission in the Putamayo, US President Taft invited him to the White House to discuss his findings. 

Cargo loads of rubber at Iquitos, Putomayo (left) where Sir Roger Casement (far right) exposed the mistreatement of indigenous peoples by the rubber industries. Casement in his damning report said: ‘It is the commonest thing to hear on the Upper Amazon a trader speak of “my Indians” or of “my river”...An Indian tribe once “conquered” becomes the exclusive property of the successful assailant, and this lawless claim is recognised as a right over a widely extended region...Needless to say, it has no sanction in law, whether in Peru or any other of the Republics sharing the sovereignty of the remote forests in which it prevails.’ (Images: Illustrated London News, 20 July 1912)

Casement retired from the consular service in 1913 and now concentrated his attention on Ireland. His disillusionment with imperialism and its treatment of native peoples provided a link between his views on the Congo, the Putamayo and Ireland. Having grown up in Ulster, and with close friends among Ulster-based Irish nationalists, many of them Protestant, he was deeply affected by the formation of the Ulster Volunteers, and Britain’s failure to tackle Ulster intransigence. He joined the provisional committee of the Irish Volunteers, and he became an active recruiting agent, traveling throughout the country to drum up support. He was also involved with some friends in organising the Howth gun-running

Casement’s distrust of imperialism does not appear to have extended to Germany. He believed that Germany could assist Ireland in securing independence, and that a German victory in war would destroy European imperialism. He was in the United States, fundraising for the Volunteers when war broke out; he travelled to Germany, where he spent the next eighteen months trying to secure German military support, and recruit Irish prisoners of war to fight in a rebellion.  

For many people in Britain and the United States, Casement’s was the only familiar name among the 1916 leadership. He was the dominant figure in the New York Times’ and Washington Post’s coverage of the Rising during Easter Week. Pearse’s identity only became known after the surrender. Casement was incorrectly described as the leader by some Westminster MPs. Although Casement had drawn up plans for a Rising in Germany with Joseph Plunkett, his main purpose in returning to Ireland was to stop the Rising, because he believed that it had little hope of success, because Germany had failed to provide troops.

A panoramic view of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London (left) where Roger Casement was detained while awaiting trial. (Image: Library of Congress, Photographs and Prints Division, Washington DC, 20540 USA)

A rumour swept Dublin during Easter Week that Casement had been executed in the Tower of London. Casement was in the Tower – he arrived there on 28 April – while the Rising was still underway. In Dublin, 187 civilians were court-martialled within a few weeks of the surrender. These trials were brief, held in secret, and not all the presiding judges had legal qualifications; Brigadier-General Blackadder took only three days to try seven of the fourteen who were executed in Kilmainham. The transcript of Pearse’s trial is less than 400 words.

By contrast Casement was tried at the Old Bailey, in front of three judges and a jury, with the full complement of prosecuting and defence counsel, in what could be described as a ‘celebrity trial’. The court was packed with fashionably-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and many who wanted to attend failed to get a ticket. The trial, which lasted three and a half days, was covered in the newspapers. The jury returned a guilty verdict within an hour. Casement also had a right of appeal, which was heard by five judges, and dismissed. However he was refused permission to appeal to the House of Lords.

Bow Street swarmed with crowds eager to witness the trial of the century (L); members of the public queuing to enter the courtroom at Bow Street (C); crowds of onlookers flank Casement's escort as he leaves after the first day of his trial (R). (Images: Illustrated London News, 20 May 1916.)

Casement was charged with treason, in adhering to the king’s enemies, ‘in the empire of Germany contrary to the 1351 Treason Act’. The distinguished lawyer Conor Gearty concluded that the trial was fair, though the English judiciary at the time would have been unsympathetic to Irish nationalism and indeed to men or women from ethnic or class backgrounds that different from the legal establishment. The prosecution was led by Lord Birkenhead – who had played an active role in the formation of the Ulster Volunteers. Casement’s defence team of George Gavan Duffy (son of the Young Irelander), A.M. Sullivan and Welshman Artemus Jones proved no match for Birkenhead and his team; they used Casement’s knighthood and his years as a British civil servant to strengthen the case for conviction. The strongest argument for the defence would have been that Casement had returned to Ireland to try and prevent a futile Rising – but that would have entailed disowning the Rising and those who had been executed or imprisoned. 

The murkiest aspect of the trial concerns the so-called ‘Black Diaries’ – containing reports of Casement’s homosexual encounters. There has been a long-running debate as to their authenticity – analysis carried out by a handwriting expert Audrey Giles in 2002 concluded that they were written by Casement. But regardless of whether they are genuine or forgeries, their use by the British authorities to destroy Casement’s reputation was reprehensible. The diaries were shown to the prosecuting team, who alerted the defence to their existence, apparently believing that they might be used to prove that Casement was insane, and therefore should be acquitted. The British Government was fearful that Casement – the only 1916 leader, who was well-known internationally, and especially in the United States – would be regarded as a martyr if he was executed. American opinion – and not just Irish-American opinion – had become highly critical of the 1916 executions, and demands that Casement be spared the death penalty were mounting. William Randolph Hearst, the US press baron – no obvious friend of Ireland – was prominent in this campaign. When Casement’s appeal was pending, the diaries were shown to King George V, John Redmond, the US ambassador, international journalists, Irish-Americans, and offered to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent a clergyman to view them on his behalf, in a concerted effort to destroy public sympathy for Casement. US opinion was especially important, given Britain’s wish that a neutral United States would join the war on Britain’s side. Despite the diaries numerous people signed petitions for his death sentence to be commuted. They included many Irish MPs and bishops; leading British writers and academics - Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and Arnold Bennett and many others, though not Joseph Conrad who had known Casement in the Congo - and public figures in the USA and South America.

Historian Angus Mitchell of the University of Limerick on the trial of Roger Casement and the circumstances in which the infamous ‘Black Diaries’ were released to the public. 

Casement was the only executed 1916 leader who could make a speech from the dock. He addressed his fellow countrymen arguing that if he was to be tried for treason the trial should have been held in Ireland. He drew extensively on Irish history especially to justify his actions, and he spoke at length about the formation and arming of the Ulster Volunteers, arguing that the tolerance of the Ulster Volunteers gave him and others the right to ‘go forth and do likewise. The difference between us was that the Unionist champions chose a path which they felt would lead directly to the Woolsack [the office of Lord Chancellor – a reference to the prosecuting counsel] while I went a road that I knew must lead to the dock….my “treason” was based on ruthless sincerity… their treason lay in verbal incitements’. He was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August. Though he was brought up as a member of the Church of Ireland, he and his siblings had been baptised as Catholics by his Catholic mother, and he reverted to Catholicism on the eve of his execution.  

After his death Casement became one of the best-remembered of the 1916 sixteen, perhaps because two controversies kept his memory alive: the campaign for his body to be returned to Ireland and the ‘Black Diaries. His connections with Ulster also raised his profile during the anti-partition campaign of the late 1940s/early ‘50s. In 1953 the GAA named its stadium in Belfast, Casement Park. Casement’s body was returned to Ireland in 1965 – a goodwill gesture by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson – on condition that he was buried in Dublin, and not at Murlough Bay in Antrim as he had wished. President Eamon de Valera, who had named a son (Ruairí) after him, marched proudly to Glasnevin Cemetery despite the freezing weather. But it was only in recent years that Casement’s career as a humanitarian has been fully acknowledged in Ireland and the two strands of his remarkable career have been integrated. 

Mary E. Daly is Emeritus Professor of History at UCD and President of the Royal Irish Academy. Her latest book, Sixties Ireland: Reshaping the Economy, State and Society, 1957 – 1973, is published by Cambridge University Press. 


Century Ireland

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