SIR ROGER CASEMENT
by Mike McCormack, AOH NY State Historian
August is a significant month in Irish history for not only did Our Lady appear at Knock, but the Land League was formed and Padraic Pearse was born. While those happy events mark our August calendar, so too does the sad reminder of the hanging death of Roger Casement. Born in Antrim on September 1, 1864 to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, at 17 he went to work for a Shipping Company in Liverpool. Three years later he was sent to West Africa where he joined the British Colonial Service and was gradually advanced to a position in the Consulate there. Always a fair and honorable man, he was horrified at the inhumane treatment of native workers and wrote a report exposing those conditions. The story was published and when Casement returned to England in 1904 he was celebrated. He met historian Alice Green who denounced England’s similar exploitation of the Irish. She impressed Casement and in Ireland he looked up her friends: Bulmer Hobson, Eoin MacNeill, and Erskine Childers. He soon became a confident of these men and other nationalists as well.
Casement’s service earned him the post of Consul General at Rio de Janeiro and he sailed off to that enviable post, but even there his sense of fair play was to guide his actions. He wrote a scathing report on the cruelties practiced by whites on native workers on the rubber plantations there. It became an international sensation. He returned to England in 1911 and was Knighted for his public service. He retired from public 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 rule of the Crown. A man of strong nationalist sympathies, he joined the National Volunteers in 1913. He visited London in 1914, but on a different mission – to arrange for 1500 German guns to be brought into Howth. History shows just how successful he was for many a man marched into Dublin on Easter Monday morning shouldering his old Howth gun. When more money was needed for arms, Casement went to New York to see John Devoy who had been raising funds among the American Irish. While there, World War I broke out and he immediately contacted the German ambassador to America seeking aid to win Irish independence. On October 15, 1914 Casement sailed to Germany, carrying a small fortune to purchase more arms.
In 1916, the Germans dispatched the ship AUD with a cargo of arms to land in Co Kerry for the Easter Rising. However, they were half the amount ordered and Casement followed in a submarine, landing on Banna Strand in Tralee Bay on Good Friday, April 21, 1916. He hoped to warn the Volunteers to cancel the Rising as the shipment was inadequate. The British, alerted to the plans, intercepted the AUD and captured Casement. John Devoy stated that American President Wilson knew of Casement’s intentions and warned the British. (New York Times, April 27, 1916, pp. 1 & 4.) After his capture, Casement pleaded to be allowed to communicate with Volunteer leaders to prevent the Rising in which his comrades would be slaughtered. According to Michael McDowell in the Sunday Business Post, March 27, 2016, Casement’s interrogators intimated to him that they thought it better to allow a rising to happen so that its perpetrators could be excised from the British body politic. There, if you want to find it, was perfidious Albion at its most cynical. Found guilty of high treason, he was sentenced to be hanged. A world-wide furor erupted over the severity of the sentence.
Here was a just man, recently praised and 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. In an effort to reverse public opinion, the British government circulated copies of diaries alleged to be Casement’s, which recorded homosexual practices. Much controversy surrounded these Black Diaries, but coming so soon after the public condemnation of Oscar Wilde for similar actions, they had the desired effect. The public furor died down and Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916 – the last of the Easter Executions. For many years after the Irish government finally won its limited freedom from England, official requests were made to have Sir Roger’s remains returned to Ireland. It was not until 1965, that England finally relented, but only after circulating the questionable Black Diaries once more. This time they didn’t reckon on modern analytical methodology, and the diaries were declared to be forgeries. In spite of English efforts to sully the name of this dedicated Irish patriot, Casement’s remains were respectfully received by the Irish people, given a huge State Funeral and re-interred with Ireland’s Republican heroes in Glasnevin Cemetery on March 1, 1965 – just one year before the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. However it was not in accordance with his last wishes; he had requested to be buried in his home county of Antrim, but the government of Northern Ireland refused to accept his remains!
Editors Note: Years later, in 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 asked what was historically significant about that and I replied, Nothing that I could think of. He just smiled and said “drop the first two and last two letters and what have you?” He loved the irony!