Prelude to the Easter Rising of 1916

Prelude to the Easter Rising of 1916
The Signatories of the Proclamation

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Monday, August 9, 2010

August 3, 1916 - Roger Casement's Execution

Roger Casement

We spoke of Roger Casement during the Rising and we covered the executions of the others. I was waiting for August to come along to spek of Roger's execution, but missed the date by 6 days. So, here it is.

Casement confided his personal papers to Dr. Charles Curry, with whom he had stayed at Riederau on the Ammersee, before he left Germany. He departed with Robert Monteith in a submarine, initially the U-20, which developed engine trouble, and then the U-19, shortly after the Aud sailed. According to Monteith, Casement believed that the Germans were toying with him from the start and providing inadequate aid that would doom a rising to failure, and that he had to reach Ireland before the shipment of arms and convince Eoin MacNeill (who he believed was still in control) to cancel the rising.

Indeed, Casement sent a recently arrived Irish-American, John McGoey, through Denmark to Dublin, ostensibly to advise of what military aid was coming from Germany and when, but with Casement's orders "to get the Heads in Ireland to call off the rising and merely try to land the arms and distribute them". McGoey however did not make it to Dublin, nor did his message. His fate is unknown. Despite any view ascribed to Monteith,Casement expected to be involved in the rising if it went ahead.

In the early hours of 21 April 1916, three days before the rising began, Casement was put ashore at Banna Strand in Tralee Bay, County Kerry. Too weak to travel, he was discovered at McKenna's Fort (an ancient ring fort now called Casement's Fort) in Rathoneen, Ardfert, and subsequently arrested on charges of treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. He was taken straight to the Tower of London where he was imprisoned, but not before he was able to send 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 was ordered by its leadership in Dublin to "do nothing".

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 seemed to apply only to activities carried out on British (or English) soil. Closer reading of the ancient document allowed for a broader interpretation, leading to the accusation that Casement was "hanged on a comma". The court decided that a comma should be read in the text, crucially widening the sense so that "in the realm or elsewhere" meant where acts were done and not just where the "King's enemies" may be. After an unsuccessful appeal against the conviction and death sentence, he was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London on 3 August 1916, at the age of 51. He was received into the Catholic Church while awaiting execution and went to his death, he said, with the body of his God as his last meal.

Among the many people who pleaded for clemency were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who became acquainted with Casement through the work of the Congo Reform Association, W. B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. Edmund Dene Morel could not visit him in jail, being under attack for his pacifist position. On the other hand, Joseph Conrad, who had a son at the front, could not forgive Casement for his treachery toward Britain, nor did his friend the sculptor Herbert Ward. Members of the Casement family in Antrim contributed discreetly to the defence fund, although they had sons in the army and navy.

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