Despite literary figures’ pleas for clemency, Roger Casement was hanged for his part in the Rising after a four-day trial in London.
By Ryle Dwyer
Following his transfer to London on Easter Sunday, Roger Casement was questioned by Basil Thompson, head of the Criminal Investigative Division at Scotland Yard, and Admiral William ‘Blinker’ Hall, the head of Naval Intelligence.
They knew the rebellion was planned but rebuffed Casement’s effort to be allowed plead with those in Dublin to call off the Rising.
Hall had already withheld information from British authorities at Dublin Castle, as he wished for the Rising to go ahead so the London government could be manipulated into suppressing Irish nationalism.
“It is better that a cankering sore like this should be cut out…”
Casement was charged with high treason. The British had also obtained private diaries in which he recorded details of his homosexual interests and practices.
The Attorney General, Frederick E. Smith, wished to use the diaries against Casement, but they had nothing to do with treason.
The prosecution sent a complete copy of the diaries to Casement’s counsel, Sergeant A.M. Sullivan, who thought this was an attempt to persuade him to use the material to argue that Casement was insane.
“It was clear to me that they were anxious to persuade me, by the diary, to make that defence,” Sullivan later wrote. “I did not even discuss it with Casement beyond assuring him that the diary would not be alluded to during his trial. He was very nervous about it.”
Casement’s trial began in London on June 26, 1916. Nine Irishmen — exchanged by the Germans on health grounds after being held as prisoners of war — testified about Casement’s efforts to recruit an Irish Brigade from among more than 2,200 Irish prisoners gathered at Limburg, Germany.
They testified that Casement said this brigade would land in Ireland in an attempt to expel the British if Germany gained control of the seas. If Britain won the war, on the other hand, members of the brigade would be given money and free passage to the US.
Casement’s team tried to defend him on legalistic grounds, contending that the 1351 Statue — under which he was charged — did not apply to acts committed outside the United Kingdom. Casement had only tried to recruit people in Germany.
But the jurors did not buy the argument and took just 55 minutes to convict him after a four-day trial. He was duly sentenced to death.
His appeal was dismissed after just two days the next month. Before he was hanged at Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916, there were strong calls for clemency from various quarters. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw called for Casement to be treated as a prisoner of war, and more than 30 other distinguished writers — including Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, G.K. Chesterton, and John Galsworthy — called for the reprieve of his sentence.
William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper chain endorsed a US Senate resolution calling for Casement’s reprieve. The Senate adopted the resolution on July 29 by 49 votes to 19.
British officials sought to undermine the clemency campaign by leaking sordid extracts from Casement’s diaries. These extracts were photographed and circulated to influential political and religious figures, as well as selected journalists, in order to undermine sympathy for Casement by depicting him as a moral degenerate.
Cecil Spring Rice, British ambassador to the US, warned Monsignor Giovanni Bonzano, the Papal representative in Washington, that “His Majesty’s Government were in possession of evidence which would make it extremely undesirable that priests of the Catholic Church should publicly ascribe to Casement the character of a Christian martyr, whose life should be held up as a model to the faith”.
Rice admitted giving “a similar hint to Cardinal Farley of New York”. He contended this was to save “high officials of the Church” from embarrassment.
On the eve of the execution, Walter H. Page, the US ambassador, told British prime minister Herbert Asquith he had seen extracts from Casement’s diary.
“Excellent,” Asquith said, “and you need not be particular about keeping it to yourself.”
The British government cited the loss of life “among soldiers and civilian” in the Easter Rebellion as justification for the execution.
“The suggestion that Casement left Germany for the purpose of trying to stop the Irish rising was not raised at the trial, and is conclusively disproved,” the government added.
This was a gross distortion. Some British authorities had frustrated Casement’s effort to call off the Rising, because they wished it to take place. There were, therefore, even more responsible than Casement for what happened.
His diaries became an irrelevant distraction from the issues around his execution, because the controversy thereafter revolved around Casement’s sexuality and the authenticity of his diaries. It seemed Irish people could not accept a patriot could have traits that might be perceived as defects.