‘Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people than the right to life itself.’
Roger Casement was born at Sandycove, Co Dublin in 1864. He joined the British colonial service and was knighted in 1911 for his work on behalf of African and South American native workers who were being exploited by whites. Casement was one of the great fighters of human rights of the late 19th, early 20th Century. He was probably one of the first Europeans in denouncing colonialism. He opened the eyes of the world to the reality of colonialism. Leaving the colonial service in 1912, he became involved with Irish nationalism, joining the Irish Volunteers.
In 1916, Casement travelled to Germany and arranged German assistance for the Easter Rising. He traveled back to Ireland by submarine, convinced by then that the Rising could not succeed but that he must join his comrades. He was captured at McKenna’s Fort soon after landing on the southwest coast. Casement was later tried in England. To lessen the protests over his expected death-sentence the British circulated small parts of his so-called Black Diaries which purported to reveal his alleged homosexual activity while in colonial service. Recent evidence points to a possibility that these diaries were forged by British intelligence to lessen worldwide condemnation of Casement’s execution.
While the other heroes of the Easter Rising were executed in Dublin after military tribunals and buried there, Casement was treated as a common traitor, throwing his naked corpse into an open grave and covering it with quicklime and buried in an unmarked grave inside Pentonville prison after his execution on 3 August 1916. It was a far more degrading treatment than normally meted out to executed prisoners.
From 1924 onwards, Irish governments supported the Casement family’s petition for his body to be returned home for burial in County Antrim. It was only in 1965, after an appeal by Seán Lemass, another veteran of the rising and by then Taoiseach, that the grave was opened and bones removed from beneath the skeletons of two hanged murderers. An Irish government official witnessed this.
In 1965 Casement’s body was returned to Ireland, where he was given a funeral on 1 March that rivaled that of O’Donovan Rossa. Éamon de Valera, 82 years old and feeling poorly, insisted on attending and gave the graveside oration at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin. Casement had returned to Ireland in 1916 to share his comrades’ fate. In 1965, 49 years later, he was finally able to rejoin them one last time.
Casement’s last wish, to be buried at Murlough Bay on the North Antrim coast may never be satisfied.
UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government released the remains only on condition that they could not be brought into Northern Ireland, as ‘the government feared that a reburial there could provoke Catholic celebrations and Protestant reactions.’
Featured image by Declan Kerr – Irish Art