As we are now only one year before the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, it might be well to remember something that was done just one year before the 50th anniversary of that milestone in Irish history. It was the long awaited return of the remains of an Irish patriot from an ignominious grave in Pentonville Prison, England. After years of negotiation, in January 1965, the Brits agreed to return the remains to his home land. However, despite his last wish to be buried at Murlough Bay on the Antrim coast, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson released the remains only on the condition that they not be brought into Northern Ireland, as he feared that it would provoke Catholic celebrations and Protestant reactions. Who was this patriot that he was still feared fifty years after his death? His name was Sir Roger Casement.
Roger Casement was born in Dublin to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. At 17, he went to work for a Shipping Company in Liverpool. He was sent to west Africa where he joined the British Colonial Service and was gradually advanced to a position in the British Consulate. Horrified at the inhuman treatment of native workers in the Congo, he wrote a report exposing conditions there. The story was published and Casement returned to England in 1904 a hero. In London he met Alice Green, a historian who denounced England’s exploitation of the Irish. Her argument impressed him and when he returned to Ireland he looked up her friends: Bulmer Hobson, Eoin MacNeill and Erskine Childers. He soon became their confidant as well as the friend of other nationalist notables. Casement’s service earned him the post of Consul General at Rio de Janeiro and he left for his new posting. There his sense of fair play led to a scathing report on the cruelties practiced on native workers on the rubber plantations. It became an international sensation. He returned to England in 1911 and was Knighted for his public service. Casement retired from the Colonial Service in 1912 and returned to Ireland where his sense of fair play was again aroused – this time by the conditions of his own people under the Crown.
He joined the National Volunteers in 1913 and when he left Ireland the following year, he was on a different mission – to arrange to bring 1500 Hamburg guns into Howth Harbor to support an insurrection. When money was needed to secure more arms, Casement went to New York in July 1914 to see John Devoy who had been raising funds for that purpose among the American Irish. While in America, England declared war on Germany and Casement immediately contacted the German ambassador to America seeking aid. In October, 1914, he sailed to Germany carrying a small fortune to purchase more arms. His persistence paid off and the Germans dispatched the ship AUD with a cargo of arms to Co. Kerry for a planned rising. Casement followed in a submarine, landing on Banna Strand in Tralee Bay on Good Friday, 21 April 1916. No one met him as a delay of 24 hours had been radioed to the AUD, but the ship’s radio was inoperative. The British, alerted to the plans, intercepted the AUD and captured Casement.
Casement was hurried away as a prisoner to London to stand trial. Found guilty of high treason, he was sentenced to be hanged. A world-wide furor erupted. Here was a just man, recently knighted by the Crown for his efforts on behalf of persecuted natives in far corners of the world, sentenced to death by that same Crown for daring to challenge the exploitation of his own downtrodden people. His Knighthood was withdrawn and, in an effort to reverse public opinion, the British circulated diaries alleged to be Casement’s, which recorded homosexual practices. The public furor died down and Casement was hanged and buried in Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916 – the last of the 1916 patriots to die.
In 1965, after years of requests, England finally relented and returned Casement’s remains to Ireland, but only after circulating the despicable Diaries once more. This time they didn’t reckon on modern analytical methodology and the diaries were declared forgeries. Despite the withdrawal of his knighthood in 1916, the 1965 British Cabinet record of the repatriation decision still referred to him as Sir Roger Casement. Casement’s remains lay in state at Arbour Hill chapel for five days, during which time an estimated half a million people filed past his coffin to pay last respects. After a state funeral on March First, the remains were buried with full military honors in the Republican section of Glasnevin cemetery with Ireland’s other national heroes. The President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, who in his mid-eighties and was the last surviving leader of the Easter Rising, defied the advice of his doctors and attended the ceremony, along with an estimated 30,000 Irish citizens – one year before the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in which he was an integral part.
Editors Note: Years later, in a conversation with another great patriot, Joe Cahill, who had once been apprehended bringing arms into the IRA, he asked if I knew the name of the ship he was caught on. I replied ‘Yes, it was the CLAUDIA’. He smiled and asked what is significant about that? I thought for a while and replied I know of nothing in Irish history related to a Claudia. He said, drop the first two and last two letters and what have you? He just loved the irony!