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Will Roger Casement be saved?
Casement standing in the dock during his trial for high treason Photo: The Graphic, 1 July 1916

Will Roger Casement be saved?

London, 29 July 1916 - A gathering swell of public protest at the impending execution of Sir Roger Casement has so far brought no reprieve from the British government.

In June Casement was found guilty of high treason and was sentenced to death by three judges (led by the Lord Chief Justice) who donned traditional black caps when they passed the sentence of death.

The charge of high treason was defined under a 1351 statute as ‘levying war against the King or being adherent to the King's enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere.’

It is understood that the British cabinet – led by Prime Minister Herbert Asquith – has considered the matter on several occasions, but has declined to change the decision of the courts.

Postcard showing an artist's interpretation of the landing of Casement and Monteith on Banna Strand in April 1916. (Image: National Library of Ireland, EPH A395)

Support from public figures
In a public letter addressed to Asquith, the poet W.B. Yeats noted that he had never written to an English minister on an Irish question before now, but the execution of Roger Casement would have 'so evil an effect' that he was now moved to break this habit.

Yeats noted: ‘The pardon of Sir Roger Casement may give an opportunity for more moderate opinion in Ireland to recover something of its weight.’

By contrast, Yeats referred to the sympathy that the execution would arouse among the young for whom it would not act as a restraint. He continued: ‘There is such a thing as the vertigo of self-sacrifice.’

Left: Letter from Casement to his cousin 'Eilis' (Elizabeth Bannister). He says: 'It seems all a nightmare - and I often waken in the night with a start - to find myself here. But God will bear with me, and bear me up I pray until the great step has to be taken... Don't let me lie here - get me back to the green hill by Murlough - by the McGarrys' house looking down on the Moyle. That's where I'd like to be now - and that's where I'd like to lie.' Click image to view in full. Right: Cover letter which accompanied this letter informing the recipient of the regulations around communicating with a prisoner. Click image to enlarge. (Images: National Library of Ireland, MS 49,154 /12/2)

The call for mercy from Yeats was supported by his fellow writer George Bernard Shaw. Other leading public figures in Ireland, including Cardinal Logue, Agnes O’Farrelly, Douglas Hyde and Lorcan Sherlock have repeated pleas that the the death sentence be commuted.

Further petitions have been signed by 13 Catholic bishops, 2 peers, 26 MPs and 119 representatives of universities and other educational institutions.

A motion from Kerry County Council condemned the fact that Casement was being treated as if he were 'on the level of a common murderer', despite all his humanitarian work over the years.

Irish American opinion
The Gaelic American is not so optimistic as to think Roger Casement can be saved from the gallows. It does however think that future generations will view his story differently.

‘Sir Roger Casement has been convicted. In the eye of the law, by the verdict of the jury and the sentence of the court, he is a traitor to the realm, an enemy of the King and a forsworn villain who must die the death of shame on the abhorrent gallows. In the supreme court of the future that verdict will be reversed and that sentence set aside.

At the judgment bar of history, this felon, now condemned to die for a most high crime, will be hailed as a hero and a martyr...’

Advertisement for an essay written by Casement on the war in the American-German publication Issues and Events framed in the context of Casement's impending execution. (Image: Issues and Events Vol. 5 No. 4, 22 July 1916, Digital Library@Villanova University)

‘His condemnation was assured before he was arraigned, and all that was left to him was to take advantage of the forms of the law and the established procedure of the courts of England to make his defense at the bar of public opinion and his appeal to the verdict of the ages...

Ireland must wait yet a while for freedom. Sir Roger Casement must wait yet a while for his vindication at the bar of the world’s final judgment... 

But just as surely as God reigns in His Heaven, and that justice and righteousness and mercy are always conquerors in the long struggles and innumerable conflicts which mark the upward and onward march of the race of man, just so surely will Ireland yet be independent, the children of Erin be free, and the name and fame of Casement be held in love and honor through the ages of the ages.’

Angus Mitchell talks about Roger Casement's trial and explains the context in which the notorious 'black diaries' were released.

[Editor's note: This is an article from Century Ireland, a fortnightly online newspaper, written from the perspective of a journalist 100 years ago, based on news reports of the time.]


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.