Although one normally thinks of Irish Nationalist Republicans as being Catholic, Casement was not the first to come from the Protestant Anglo-Irish Ascendancy. Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, Robert Emmett, John Mitchel, Charles Stewart Parnell and Erskine Childers were heroes of the Nationalist pantheon who were Protestants.
In the 1970s the leader of the Provisional IRA had the impressively Gaelic name of Sean Mc Stíofáin. He was in fact an Englishman called John Stephenson.
Casement had long been interested in Irish history and believed that the Irish had a distinctive character which could not thrive within the existing constitutional framework and relationship with Britain. His interest was transformed from a hobby into a passion by his friendship with Alice Green. She was the widow of the distinguished English historian, JR Green, and built a substantial reputation as a historian in her own right. Her main thesis in her writings was that the English, far from civilizing the savage Irish, had imposed a destructive alien rule on a highly cultured community.
Casement connected his Congo experiences with his analysis of the colonization of Ireland by the English. The English had not only parcelled Irish land out as property, they had distributed it among themselves and appropriated most of its produce. The population of Ireland had been drastically reduced by undernourishment, disease or emigration. This was particularly devastating in the 1840s when the failure of the monoculture crop caused by recurrent potato blight led to widespread famine compounded by doctrinaire economic policies based on ‘free’ trade.
A commission of inquiry investigating the financial relationship between England and Ireland concluded that, since the Act of Union of 1800, the Irish had actually been overtaxed relative to the English. Even the fiercely loyalist Ulster unionist leader, Colonel Saunderson, said, “When Englishmen set to work to wipe the tear out of Ireland’s eye, they always buy the pocket handkerchief at Ireland’s expense.”
It was easy to see the parallels with Leopold’s ‘system’ in the Congo. In 1904, Casement was not anti-English and continued to be employed by the British crown. However, his passion for Ireland led him to start learning the Irish language in that year and he met the Irish nationalist writer, Stephen Gwynn at the Festival of the Glens. He contributed financially to Irish cultural causes. Gwynn described him thus: “What remains in my mind is chiefly the impression of his personal charm and beauty…Figure and face he seemed to me to be one of the finest-looking creatures I had ever seen; and his countenance had charm, distinction, and a high chivalry. Knight-errant he was; clear-sighted, cool-headed, knowing as well as any that ever lived how to strengthen his case by temperate statement, yet always charged with passion.”
Casement resigned from the consular service in 1912. The following year, he helped form the Irish Volunteers. He worked hard to raise funds for the Irish independence movement but was distrusted by some because of his background serving the Crown and because he was too moderate. However, the extreme Clann na Gael leader, McGarrity was devoted to him. A gunrunning enterprise in late July 1914 which he had helped to organise and finance further improved Casement’s reputation.
In September 1914, Casement met the German Ambassador to the US in New York and attempted to secure German aid for Irish independence. In November 1914, Casement negotiated a declaration by Germany which stated, “The Imperial Government formally declares that under no circumstances would Germany invade Ireland with a view to its conquest or the overthrow of any native institutions in that country. Should the fortune of this great war, that was not of Germany’s seeking, ever bring in its course German troops to the shores of Ireland, they would land there not as an army of invaders to pillage and destroy but as the forces of a Government that is inspired by goodwill towards a country and people for whom Germany desires only national prosperity and national freedom.” Casement travelled to Germany and negotiated with Under Secretary of State in the Foreign Office, Arthur Zimmermann and with the Imperial Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg.
The main purpose of his visit to Germany was to talk to Irishmen who were prisoners of war. The plan failed because all Irishmen fighting in the British army did so voluntarily. The Germans, who were skeptical about Casement but nonetheless were aware of the military advantage they could gain from an Irish rebellion against England They offered the Irish 20,000 rifles and ten machine guns with accompanying ammunition. This was a mere fraction of what Casement had hoped for.
Casement did not get much thanks from the Irish Republican Brotherhood for his efforts. They deliberately kept him in the dark and even tried to replace him. He did not learn about the 1916 Easter Rising until the plan was fully developed. The German weapons were never landed in Ireland. The British had intercepted German communications out of Washington and knew there was going to be an attempt to land arms even if the Royal Navy was not precisely aware of where. The arms ship under was apprehended by HMS Bluebell on the late afternoon of Good Friday. About to be escorted into Queenstown (present day Cobh, birthplace of my father) in County Cork on the morning of Saturday 22 April, after surrendering, the ship was scuttled by pre-set explosive charges. Her crew became prisoners-of-war. Casement was put ashore at Banna Strand in County Kerry on 21 April, 1916, three days before the Easter Rising began. He was too weak to travel and was soon arrested on charges of treason, espionage and sabotage and taken straight to London.
Trial and Execution
The trial was something of an embarrassment to the British government. The Treason Act seemed to apply only to treasonous activities conducted on British soil and Casement’s crimes had been committed in Germany. The court decided that a comma be read into the text allowing a broader interpretation.
In his speech from the dock, Casement said that he was being tried by a foreign power which exerted its rights over him and his countrymen by conquest.
“It is a rule derived not from right, but from conquest. Conquest, my lord, gives no title, and if it exists over the body, it fails over the mind. It can exert no empire over men’s reason and judgment and affections; and it is from this law of conquest without title to the reason, judgment, and affection of my own country men that I appeal. I would add that the generous expressions of sympathy extended me from many quarters, particularly from America, have touched me very much. In that country, as in my own, I am sure my motives are understood and not misjudged, for the achievement of their liberties has been an abiding inspiration to Irishmen and to all men elsewhere rightly struggling to be free in like cause.
We are told that if Irishmen go by the thousand to die, not for Ireland, but for Flanders, for Belgium, for a patch of sand on the deserts of Mesopotamia, or a rocky trench on the heights of Gallipoli, they are winning self-government for Ireland. But if they dare to lay down their lives on their native soil, if they dare to dream even that freedom can be won only at home by men resolved to fight for it there, then they are traitors to their country, and their dream and their deaths alike are phases of a dishonorable phantasy.
If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel, and shall cling to my “rebellion” with the last drop of my blood. If there be no right of rebellion against a state of things that no savage tribe would endure without resistance, then I am sure that it is better for man to fight and die without right than to live in such a state of right as this.
Where all your rights become only an accumulated wrong; where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours—and even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them—then surely it is a braver, a saner and a truer thing, to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as these than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.’
In spite of pleas for clemency from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats, and GB Shaw, Casement was hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916 at the age of 51. Casement converted to Catholicism just before his execution. After his execution, Casement’s body was buried in quicklime in the prison cemetery.
In 1965, his remains were repatriated to Ireland. Half a million people filed past his coffin as it lay in state for five days. Thirty thousand Irish citizens, including the frail 85-year-old president, Eamon de Valera, the last surviving leader of the Easter Rising, attended a state funeral with full military honors. Casement’s remains were buried in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
Even before his execution, a smear campaign was underway with copies of the so-called ‘black diaries’ being circulated. The documents show Casement to have been a promiscuous homosexual with a penchant for boys and young men. There was always a strong lobby arguing that these were forgeries.
In August 1916, the English poet Alfred Noyes (I remember being subjected to his greatest hit, “The Highwayman” at primary school – it was voted England’s 15th favourite poem in 1995), was working in the News Department of the Foreign Office.
He wrote: “I have seen and read them and they touch the lowest depths that human degradation has ever touched. Page after page of his diary would be an insult to a pig’s trough to let the foul record touch it.”
Later Noyes was in Philadelphia to give a lecture on English poets, but before he could utter a word he was confronted by Sir Roger’s sister, Nina. “A lady of distinguished bearing rose in the audience and asked if she might say a few words… to my horror and that of the audience, she announced that she had come for the express purpose of exposing the speaker of the evening as a ‘blackguardly scoundrel’. ‘Your countrymen,’ she cried, ‘hanged my brother Roger Casement.’ “
He admitted he might have been mistaken and his admission was seized upon by Casement sympathisers. Twenty years later, Yeats named Noyes in a withering attack: “Come, Alfred Noyes, come all the troop That cried it far and wide Come from the forger and his desk Desert the perjurer’s side”.
In 1957, Noyes tried to make amends when he published The Accusing Ghost or Justice for Casement in which he argued that Casement had indeed been the victim of a British Intelligence plot.
His conversion, and Yeats’s protest in verse, cemented the idea that the diaries were forgeries. However, an independent forensic team published the following verdict:
“The unequivocal and confident conclusion which the Giles Document Laboratory has reached is that each of the five documents collectively known as the Black Diaries is exclusively the work of Roger Casement’s hand, without any reason to suspect either forgery or interpolation by any other hand. The Diaries are genuine throughout and in each instance.”
Jeffrey Dudgeon’s (Dudgeon himself was instrumental in getting homosexual acts decriminalized in Northern Ireland in 1982) annotated 2002 edition of the diaries, accompanied by a perceptive and empathetic biographical treatment, went a long way towards integrating Casement’s nationalist, humanitarian and gay lives.