Roger Casement

Roger Casement

Roger Casement, the youngest son of Roger Casement (1819–1877) and Anne Jephson (1834–1873), was born on 1st September 1864 at Doyle's Cottage, Sandymount. His father, an Ulster protestant, was a captain in the Dragon Guards.

The children were brought up as Protestants, but his mother had Roger secretly baptized a Roman Catholic in Rhyl, in August 1868. Casement's mother died in childbirth in 1873, and his father in 1877. Roger went to live with his uncle, John Casement, of Magherintemple, near Ballycastle and was educated at a diocesan school in Ballymena.

After he left school in 1880 he went to Liverpool to live with Grace Bannister, his mother's sister, and her family. Casement worked as a clerk in the Elder Dempster Shipping Line Company. However, he disliked office work and when he was nineteen he became purser on the Bonny, a ship bound for the Congo. The following year he returned to Africa where he worked as a surveyor for the Belgians' Congo International Association. Between December 1889 and March 1890 he was companion to Herbert Ward on a lecturing tour in the United States of America.

Casement returned to Ireland and in 1892 he accepted his first British official post as Acting Director-General of Customs. His first consular appointment came in 1895 at Delagoa Bay in Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). According to his biographer, David George Boyce: "At this point in his career he was stridently pro-British, fulminating against the Boers and Kruger, and was awarded the queen's South Africa medal."

In June 1902 the Foreign Office authorized him to go into the interior and send reports on the misgovernment of the Congo. His report, written in November 1903, contained evidence of cruelty and even mutilation of the Congolese. Casement was deeply upset by the British government's government failure to act on the report's recommendations. However, he was rewarded for his work with a Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (CMG) in 1905.

In July 1906 he accepted the consular post at Santos, Brazil. In 1908 Casement went to Rio de Janeiro as consul-general, and in the following year he was asked by the Foreign Office to investigate atrocities in the Putumayo Basin in Peru. He wrote up his report in 1911 and was rewarded with a knighthood. Casement, who considered himself an Irish Nationalist, recorded in his diary, "I am a queer sort of British consul... one who ought really to be in jail instead of under the Lion & Unicorn."

Casement's interest in politics intensified in 1912 when the Ulster Unionists pledged themselves to resist the imposition of Irish Home Rule, by force if necessary. In 1913 he became a member of the provisional committee set up to act as the governing body of the Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) in opposition to the Ulster Volunteer Force. He helped organize local IVF units, and in May 1914 he declared that "It is quite clear to every Irishman that the only rule John Bull respects is the rifle."

Casement's activities were brought to the attention of Basil Thomson, head of the Special Branch. Thompson later admitted that it was one of his agents, Arthur Maundy Gregory, who told him about Casement's homosexuality. According to Brian Marriner: "Gregory, a man of diverse talents, had various other sidelines. One of them was compiling dossiers on the sexual habits of people in high positions, even Cabinet members, especially those who were homosexual. Gregory himself was probably a latent homosexual, and hung around homosexual haunts in the West End, picking up information.... There is a strong suggestion that he may well have used this sort of material for purposes of blackmail." Thomson later admitted that "Gregory was the first person... to warn that Casement was particularly vulnerable to blackmail and that if we could obtain possession of his diaries they could prove an invaluable weapon with which to fight his influence as a leader of the Irish rebels and an ally of the Germans."

In July 1914 Casement traveled to United States in order to raise support for the IVF. Basil Thomson received information on Casement from Reginald Hall, the director of Naval Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy (NID). Hall was in charge of the code-breaking department Room 40 had discovered the plans hatched in the United States between German diplomats and Irish Republicans.

On the outbreak of the First World War Casement traveled to Berlin. According to the author of Casement: The Flawed Hero (1984): "When the First World War broke out in August he resolved to travel to Germany via Norway in order to urge on the Germans the 'grand idea’ of forming an ‘Irish brigade’ consisting of Irish prisoners of war to fight for Ireland and for Germany". His attempts to persuade Irish prisoners to enlist in his brigade met with a poor response. Private Joseph Mahony, who was in Limburg Prisoner of War Camp, later recalled: "In February 1915 Sir Roger Casement made us a speech asking us to join an Irish Brigade, that this was 'our chance of striking a blow for our country'. He was booed out of the camp... After that further efforts were made to induce us to join by cutting off our rations, the bread ration was cut in half for about two months."

On 4th April 1916, Casement was told that a German submarine would be provided to take him to the west coast of Ireland, where he would rendezvous with a ship carrying arms. The Aud, carrying the weapons, set out from Lübeck on 9th April with instructions to land the arms at Tralee Bay. Unfortunately for Casement, Reginald Hall, the director of Naval Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy (NID), had discovered details of this plan. On 12th April Casement set out in a German U-boat, but because of an error in navigation, Casement failed to arrive at the proposed rendezvous with the ship carrying the weapons. Casement and his two companions, Robert Monteith and David Julian Bailey, embarked in a dinghy and landed on Banna Strand in the small hours of 21st April. Basil Thomson, using information supplied by NID, arranged for the arrest of the three men in Rathoneen.

As Noel Rutherford points out: "Casement's diaries were retrieved from his luggage, and they revealed in graphic detail his secret homosexual life. Thomson had the most incriminating pages photographed and gave them to the American ambassador, who circulated them widely." Later, Victor Grayson claimed that Arthur Maundy Gregory had planting the diaries in Casement's lodgings.

Reginald Hall and Basil Thomson took control of the interrogation of Casement. Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has argued: "Casement claimed that during the interrogation at Scotland Yard he asked to be allowed to appeal publicly for the Easter Rising in Ireland to be called off in order to 'stop useless bloodshed'. His interrogators refused, possibly in the hope that the Rising would go ahead and force the government to crush what they saw as a German conspiracy with Irish nationalists." According to Casement, he was told by Hall, "It is better that a cankering sore like this should be cut out.'' This story is supported by Inspector Edward Parker, who was present during the interrogation: "Casement begged to he allowed to communicate with the leaders to try and stop the rising but he was nor allowed. On Easter Sunday at Scotland Yard he implored again to be allowed to communicate or send a message. But they refused, saying, it's a festering sore, it's much better it should come to a head."

The trial of Roger Casement began on 26 June with Frederick Smith leading for the crown. But as David George Boyce points out: "The most controversial aspect of the trial took place outside the courts. Casement's diaries, detailing his homosexual activities, were now in the hands of the British police and intelligence officers shortly after Casement's interrogation at Scotland Yard on 23 April. There are several versions about precisely when and how the diaries were discovered, but they seem to have come to light when Casement's London lodgings were searched following his arrest. By the first weeks of May they were beginning to be used surreptitiously against him. They were shown to British and American press representatives on about 3 May and excerpts were soon widely circulated in London clubs and the House of Commons. This could not have been done without at least an expectation that those higher up would approve, though Smith opposed any use of the diaries to discredit Casement's reputation, as did Sir Edward Grey. The cabinet however made no attempt to stop these activities, the purpose of which was not to ensure that Casement would be hanged - that was inevitable - but that he should be hanged in disgrace, both political and moral."

On 29th June 1916 Casement was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. On 30th June he was stripped of his knighthood and on 24th July an appeal was rejected. A campaign for a reprieve was supported by leading political and literary figures, including W. B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, John Galsworthy, and Arthur Conan Doyle, but the British public, primarily concerned by the large loss of life on the Western Front, were unmoved by this campaign.

Roger Casement was executed at Pentonville Prison on 3rd August, 1916. John Ellis, his executioner, called him "the bravest man it ever fell to my unhappy lot to execute".

Primary Sources

(1) Christopher Andrew, Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985)

In the autumn of 1916, Basil Thomson concluded: "There is certainly a danger that from lack of coordination the Irish Government may be the last Department to receive information of grave moment to the peace of Ireland". Though Thomson failed to mention it, the Irish government had already been denied intelligence "of grave moment" on the eve of the Easter Rising a few months before. The chief culprit was "Blinker" Hall. Until the United States entered the war, the decrypted telegrams exchanged between the German foreign ministry and its Washington embassy gave Hall access to some of the most important Irish intelligence, enabling him to follow in particular attempts by the Irish nationalist Sir Roger Casement to obtain German assistance for an Irish rising. Through the intercepts Hall gained advance knowledge that German arms were to be landed in Tralee Bay in the spring of 1916 and that Casement was following by U-boat. The steamer Aud, carrying German munitions, was duly intercepted by HMS Bluebell on 21 April 1916, ordered to proceed to Queenstown and scuttled by its German crew just as it arrived. Next day, Good Friday, Casement was captured within hours of landing in Tralee Bay.

Hall, probably fearful of compromising Room 40, failed to give advance information to the Irish government in Dublin Castle. Its only warning came on 17 April in a letter to the army commander, General Friend, from General Stafford in Cork who had heard the news "casually" from Admiral Bayly at Queenstown. The commission of enquiry into the Easter Rising later described this failure of communication as "very extraordinary" but offered no explanation for it. Even when Casement arrived in London on Easter Sunday to be jointly questioned by Hall and Thomson, Dublin Castle was not properly informed about his interrogation. Casement asked for an appeal by him to call off the planned rising to be made known in Ireland, better still that he be allowed to make it himself in Ireland and "stop useless bloodshed". Hall refused, possibly in the hope that the rising would go ahead and force the government to respond with the repression he thought necessary. Casement alleged that he was told by Hall: "It is better that a cankering sore like this should be cut out". An appeal by Casement would not in any case have deterred the seven-man military council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood from going ahead with their Dublin rising on Easter Monday. Dublin Castle can scarcely be blamed for being caught unawares. Even Eoin MacNeill, chief of staff of the Irish Volunteers (the forerunner of the IRA), who had tried to call the rising off when he heard of Casement's arrest, was taken by surprise when it went ahead."

Hall continued to allow himself an outrageous freedom of action during the preparations for Casement's trial. To undermine sympathy for Casement, particularly in the United States, and prejudice his prospects of a reprieve, he secretly circulated to the American embassy and around London clubs lurid extracts from Casement's diaries containing records of numerous payments for homosexual services, enthusiastic descriptions of "huge", "enormous" genitalia, and details of exhausting sexual marathons with "awful thrusts", "much groaning and struggle and moans". Dr Page, the American ambassador, read half a page and declared himself unable to continue without becoming ill. Hall also offered Ben Allen of the Associated Press extracts from the diaries for exclusive publication, but Allen turned them down. "Bubbles" James, who was shortly to become Hall's deputy, later acknowledged that his action might be thought "not entirely to his credit", but "he would not stand aside when a traitor might escape his just fate through the emotional appeals of people who did not know the gravity of the offences". Though prey to what even a sympathetic biographer has called "almost pitiable" sexual obsessions, Casement was an idealistic convert to Irish nationalism of proven courage who went to the scaffold on 3 August with, in the words of the priest who walked with him, "the dignity of a prince". Ellis, his executioner, called him "the bravest man it ever fell to my unhappy lot to execute".

(2) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009)

Casement claimed that during the interrogation at Scotland Yard he asked to be allowed to appeal publicly for the Easter Rising in Ireland to be called off in order to "stop useless bloodshed". His interrogators refused, possibly in the hope that the Rising would go ahead and force the government to crush what they saw as a German conspiracy with Irish nationalists. According to Casement, he was told by Blinker Hall, "It is better that a cankering sore like this should be cut out.''

(3) Inspector Edward Parker, interview with Sir E. Blackwell, Home Office (18th July 1916)

Casement begged to he allowed to communicate with the leaders to try and stop the rising but he was nor allowed. On Easter Sunday at Scotland Yard he implored again to be allowed to communicate or send a message. But they refused, saying, it's a festering sore, it's much better it should come to a head.