The execution one hundred years ago today of Roger Casement in Pentonville Prison, London, brought to an end a life’s work which has left a lasting legacy both in Ireland and overseas.
Looking back at Casement’s life with all the benefit of historical reflection, perhaps what stands out most is the generosity of spirit and selflessness which led him to take a central role in the Irish independence movement as well as to spend much of his life in the African and South American continents campaigning against the terrible abuse of the rights of people happening there at the time. For Casement, these endeavours were not two separate parts of his life. When an outbreak of Typhus hit Connemara in 1913, he wrote to newspapers describing Lettermullan as “an Irish Putomayo”, linking conditions there to the suffering he had witnessed in the Amazon. Indeed, Casement would constantly work to alleviate and draw attention to abject conditions in the Ireland of one hundred years ago with all the determination and passion that he did in Putomayo and the Congo.
Casement’s life, not least for his leading role in the organisation of the Easter Rising, has had a profound impact on the unfolding of history on this island over the past hundred years. It is very important, then, that we have come together to remember Casement today, to honour his memory and to reflect on his life on the centenary of his execution and to do this in the company of his family.
Roger Casement was born in Dublin in 1864. Following the deaths of both his parents, he was reared by his uncle in the Glens of Antrim. He joined the Gaelic League in 1904 during a stint at home from his consular tasks abroad, and over a number of years became increasingly committed to the cause of Irish nationalism. The years leading to the Easter Rising he spent travelling to the United States and Germany, liaising with Irish nationalists and the German authorities to build support for a rebellion in Ireland.
After many years traversing the globe, Casement made his final trip home to Ireland on board a German submarine in April 1916 to rendezvous in Co. Kerry with the Aud, a ship carrying arms from Germany for the Rising. Through the confusion of circumstances surrounding the landing, the arms were never landed and Casement was arrested at Banna Strand. Imprisoned in London and tried on charges of high treason in a case which attracted much controversy, he was hanged at Pentonville Prison where his remains would lay for nearly 50 years. In 1965 they were repatriated to Ireland for a State funeral and were laid to rest at this spot.
Towards the end of his trial, Casement gave his famed speech from the dock in which he set out the rationale for his actions leading up to the Easter Rising. Addressing himself, he said, ‘not to this court, but to my own countrymen’, Casement declared that only the Irish people had a right to sit in judgement on questions of his loyalty. At the heart of his speech was his assertion that it was the right of the people of Ireland to decide upon the future of their country, a right he compared to ‘the right to life itself… the right to feel the sun or smell the flowers, or to love our kind.”
It is very clear that, as an Irish nationalist, Casement was motivated by a deep sense of the injustice he witnessed in the suffering which affected many in Irish society and an equally strong belief in the right of the people of Ireland to decide their own futures. This belief was shared by the other fifteen executed leaders and indeed all of the men and women who took part in the Rising and the subsequent journey to Irish statehood.
Now, one hundred years on, we are committed to live up to the ideals and aspirations of Casement and these men and women, in particular their aspiration for an Ireland that “declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation”.
An Irish Chaplain at Pentonville Prison attended Casement in his last hours and I think it is very fitting that Fr. Gerry McFlynn, a member of the Irish Chaplaincy Service’s Prisoner Outreach in London is here with us today. Fr. McFlynn will now lead us in prayer in remembrance of Roger Casement.
03 August 2016