Saturday, 3 August 2013

"Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth."

(1 September 1864 – 3 August 1916)

Roger Casement, a former Knight of the realm, was hanged by John Ellis and his assistants at Pentonville Prison in London on 3 August 1916, at the age of 51.

It was the height of World War I. Just over two months previously Casement had been arrested in Ireland (then still ruled from England) on charges of treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. The charges were not surprising as Casement had been instrumental in a failed attempt to arm Irish nationalists with some 20,000 guns provided by Germany.

Casement was a former British Consul  by profession, Casement became famous for his reports and activities against human rights abuses in the Congo and Peru. In 1911, Casement was knighted for his efforts on behalf of the Amazonian Indians, having been reluctantly appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in 1905 for his Congo work.

However, the Boer War and his consular investigation into atrocities in the Congo led Casement to anti-Imperialist and ultimately to Irish Republican and separatist political opinions. He sought to obtain German support for a rebellion in Ireland against British rule. 

At Casement's highly publicised trial for treason, the prosecution had trouble arguing its case as Casement's crimes had been carried out in Germany and the medieval Treason Act 1351 seemed to apply only to activities carried out on English (or, arguably, British) soil. A close reading of the medieval Act allowed for a broader interpretation: the court decided that a comma should be read in the text, crucially widening the sense so that "in the realm or elsewhere" referred to where acts were done and not just to where the "King's enemies" may be. This led to the claim that Casement was "hanged on a comma".

Casement made an unsuccessful appeal against the conviction and death sentence. Among the many people who pleaded for clemency were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was acquainted with Casement through the work of the Congo Reform Association, the Anglo-Irish poet W. B. Yeats and the playwright George Bernard Shaw.

As was the custom at the time, Casement's body was buried in quicklime in the prison cemetery at the rear of Pentonville Prison. In 1965, Casement's body was repatriated to Ireland and, after a state funeral, was buried with full military honours in the Republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin after lying in state at Arbour Hill for five days, during which time an estimated half a million people filed past his coffin. The President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, who in his mid-eighties 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. 

Casement's last wish, to be buried at Murlough Bay on the North Antrim coast has yet to be fulfilled as Harold Wilson's government released the remains only on condition that they not be brought into Northern Ireland. Interestingly, the 1966 British Cabinet record of the decision refers to him as Sir Roger Casement.

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