100 years on, we can still honour Casement's wish
Published 09/07/2015 | 02:30
July 1916. The days were ticking closer to Roger Casement's execution on a charge of high treason. By now, he was publicly vilified in Britain not just as a revolutionary but as a homosexual, stripped of the knighthood he had earned as a human rights campaigner.
In his cell, his thoughts turned to the haunting majesty of the Glens of Antrim, scene of his boyhood, and he expressed a longing to be buried there.
That desire remains unfulfilled. As commemorations to mark the Easter Rising's centenary begin on August 1 with a year-long series of events, it's appropriate to re-open the matter of Casement's dying wish. Now is the time to make a respectful request on his behalf to the Belfast and London governments.
Let me take you back to those final days in London's Pentonville Prison. His appeal against conviction was rejected on July 18, and he began writing farewell letters. One of the most poignant went to his cousin, Elizabeth Bannister. "Don't let my body lie here - get me back to the green hill by Murlough - by the McGarry's (sic) house looking down on the Moyle - that's where I'd like to be now and that's where I'd like to lie."
Paper was scarce for condemned prisoners, and his writing became progressively smaller as he tried to cram in everything he wanted to say. "God bless you and keep you my dearest, dearest one. You and G. (Gertude, another cousin) have been the best things in my life these awful days… And so au revoir." He signed it Roddie.
The letter is dated July 25, 1916. Nine days later he was hanged.
His request was ignored. Instead, his body was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison yard. It was treated with contempt, thrown naked into an open grave without a coffin, and covered with quicklime. The quicklime was standard but the rest was not common practice, and showed how he was viewed by the British authorities in whose eyes the former diplomat had betrayed class and country.
Yesterday, I walked by the house where Casement was born in the Dublin suburb of Sandycove, a few minutes from where I live. I pass there regularly, always turning my thoughts towards this cultivated individual whose privileges did not blind him to the human rights abuses heaped on the voiceless and powerless.
He was a combination of North and South, raised by relatives in the Ballymena area after his parents' death. How fitting it would be now for North and South to join together in a spirit of friendship, showing respect for a public-spirited countryman who campaigned with compassion and conviction against slavery in the Congo and Peru.
Ultimately, Britain treated his remains with respect. But still his bones lie other than where he asked. In 1965, following decades of petitioning, Casement's grave was opened and he was removed from under the skeletons of two hanged murderers.
Ireland received his body but with conditions attached: he could not be buried north of the border in case either loyalist or nationalist sentiments were stirred. And so today he rests in the Republican plot in Dublin's Glasnevin.
Surely, after so long, people can be encouraged to see Casement in his totality. A British consul by profession, he became an anti-imperialist, but above all else he was a humanitarian.
He considered Antrim to be his home, and memories of Murlough Bay - an area of outstanding beauty with views across to the Mull of Kintyre - appear to have afforded him some respite as his death approached.
It is a matter for regret that almost a century after he was executed, there is no prospect of his wishes being honoured. Perhaps some might contend that his bones have been disturbed enough. In which case, I suggest a memorial in Murlough Bay.
It could symbolise the reconciliation between North and South after too many decades of mutual misunderstanding.
The McCarry family mentioned in that letter, with a minor misspelling of their name, erected a stone Celtic cross to pay tribute to him in 1928. Sadly, it was vandalised repeatedly by sectarian groups and was finally blown up. But must extremist views hold sway?
Casement represents a number of the multiple strands entwined through this island's shared history: son of a Northern military father and Southern mother; born Anglican and a convert to Catholicism immediately before facing the hangman; a British Consul knighted for his services to the Crown who became a 1916 revolutionary.
In those July days 99 years ago, supporters lobbied for his sentence to be commuted, even as Casement's private diaries describing homosexual encounters were circulated - a cynical move to undermine calls for clemency. Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw and the US Senate made representations on his behalf. It did not change the outcome.
And what difference, you may wonder, would heeding his dying wish make after so much time has elapsed? Quite simply, it's the right thing to do. It attaches value to his humanitarian record, which stands apart from his republican aims.
Despite the pomp and ceremony of his state funeral, with throngs filing past his coffin and an oration from President Eamon de Valera, what Casement longed for was simpler.
As he finalised his affairs, the remote beauty of the Antrim coast he knew as a boy called to him. He called to it in return - must that cry continue to go unheeded?