#OTD in 1916 – Roger Casement goes on trial at the Royal Courts of Justice on a charge of treason.

In the early hours of 21 April 1916, three days before the rising began, Roger Casement was taken by a German submarine and was put ashore at Banna Strand in Tralee Bay, Co Kerry. Suffering from a recurrence of the malaria that had plagued him since his days in the Congo, and too weak to travel, he was discovered at McKenna’s Fort (an ancient ring fort now called Casement’s Fort) in Rahoneen (“Ráth Eoghainín”), Ardfert, and arrested on charges of treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. “He was taken to Brixton Prison to be placed under special observation for fear of an attempt of suicide. There was no staff at the Tower of London to guard suicidal cases.” He sent word to Dublin about the inadequate German assistance. The Kerry Brigade of the Irish Volunteers might have tried to rescue him over the next three days, but had been ordered by its leadership in Dublin to “do nothing” — not a shot was to be fired in Ireland before the Easter Rising was in train.

At Casement’s highly publicised trial for treason, the prosecution had trouble arguing its case. Casement’s crimes had been carried out in Germany and the Treason Act 1351 seemed to apply only to activities carried out on English (or, arguably, British) soil. A close reading of the Act allowed for a broader interpretation: the court decided that a comma should be read in the unpunctuated original Norman-French text, crucially altering 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. Afterwards, Casement himself wrote that he was to be “hanged on a comma” leading to the well used epigram.

Many influential people petitioned for a reprieve for Casement. Copies of diaries alleged to be Casement’s, recording homosexual practices, were circulated, it is said, by the British government to defuse the campaign for a reprieve. The diaries had an inevitable effect on public opinion. Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison, London on 3 August 1916. His remains were later returned to Ireland and re-interred in Glasnevin Cemetery on 1 March 1965 after a state funeral. The “Black Diaries” were widely believed, particularly in Ireland, to be forgeries but a forensic study conducted in 2002, with the support of Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, found them to be genuine.

Image | High Treason: The Appeal of Roger Casement by Sir John Lavery | The painting was commissioned by the presiding judge, Sir Charles John Darling, who invited Irish artist, Sir John Lavery (1856-1941), to record the court proceedings.

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