Roger Casement was born in Antrim on September 1, 1864 to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother. At 17, he went to work for the Elder Dempster 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 British Consulate there. Always a fair and honorable man, he was horrified at the inhuman treatment of native workers in the Congo, and wrote a report exposing those conditions. The story was published, and when Casement returned to England in 1904 he was applauded for his compassion. In London he met Alice Green, a historian who denounced England’s exploitation of the Irish. Her arguments impressed Casement and when he returned to 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 diligent service to the Crown earned him the post of Consul General at Rio de Janeiro, and he sailed off to assume that enviable post. However, once again his sense of fair play guided his actions. He wrote a scathing report on the cruelties practiced by whites on native workers on the rubber plantations along the Putamayo River. 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 inflamed – 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 the following year, but this time he was on a different mission – to arrange for 1500 guns to be brought into Howth harbor. History shows just how successful he was for many a man marched into Dublin on Easter Monday morning shouldering his old Howth gun. When money was needed to secure more arms, Casement was sent 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, World War I broke out. Casement contacted the German ambassador to America seeking aid to win Irish independence and on October 15, he sailed to Germany carrying a small fortune to purchase arms.
His persistence paid off and Germany dispatched the ship AUD with a cargo of arms to be landed in Co Kerry and used in the rising planned for Easter Sunday, 1916. Casement followed in a submarine, landing on Banna Strand in Tralee Bay on Good Friday, April 21. Those who were to meet him there did not. A delay of 24 hours had been radioed to the AUD, but the ship’s radio was inoperative. The Gaelic American newspaper stated that American President Wilson knew of Casement’s intentions and warned the British. (New York Times, April 27, 1916, pp. 1 & 4.) The British, alerted to the plans, intercepted the message and went instead to meet the bewildered Casement who decided to wait on the beach until his contacts arrived. He was captured, identified, and taken to London. At the same time the AUD, disguised as a Norwegian freighter, was stopped by a British ship. Rather than submit, she was scuttled by her crew as Casement was on his way to England. Found guilty of high treason, Casement 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 their exploitation of his own people. In an effort to reverse public opinion, the British circulated copies of diaries alleged to be Casement’s, which recorded homosexual practices. Controversy surrounded these Black Diaries, but they had the desired effect and the public furor died down. 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 independence, official requests were made to have Sir Roger’s remains returned to Ireland. It was not until February 23, 1965, that England finally relented, but only after circulating the questionable Black Diaries once more. However, this time they failed to consider modern technology and the diaries were proven to be forgeries. In spite of their efforts to defame this dedicated Irish patriot, Casement’s remains were respectfully received and given a huge state funeral before being re-interred in Glasnevin Cemetery on March 1- just one year before the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
Editors Note: Years later, in conversation with another great patriot, Joe Cahill, who had once been caught bringing arms in to 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 said drop the first two and last two letters and what have you? He loved the irony!