Roger Casement: will a compelling figure of the Rising be adequately remembered?
Published 07/01/2016 | 02:30
Many fascinating figures are associated with 1916, but the one I find most compelling is Roger Casement, because of his complexity. A conscientious servant of the empire, he was among the first Europeans to question colonialism, and was knighted for his reports on human rights abuses in the Congo and the Amazon.
Instead of resting on his laurels, he became a political activist in the nationalist cause after reconnecting with his Irish identity. Of such contradictions is our history forged.
His campaign to persuade prisoners-of-war in Germany to form an Irish Brigade and fight for freedom at home failed, as did an attempt to land arms in Kerry shortly before the Easter Rising.
Captured and taken to London for a show trial, with details of his homosexuality leaked to blacken his name, he faced the hangman with courage and dignity on August 3, 1916.
A few minutes walk from where I live, a plaque marks the spot in the Dublin suburb of Sandycove where he was born to an Antrim Protestant father and a Cork Catholic mother. And recently I was pleased to learn that another plaque was put up last year at Murlough Bay on the Antrim coastline where he asked to be buried - a dying wish ignored. There had been a stone cross with his name and others on it for decades, but it was damaged maliciously and later taken down.
Why do these plaques - along with various events to mark the centenary - matter? A generation has come to maturity that knows nothing of Casement, perhaps because he does not fit readily into any template.
This week I spoke to one of his family members; and was troubled to learn that the Casement name, once sparking the inevitable question "any relation?", no longer resonates. Young adults rarely recognise it. "It seems there must be a big hole in their education. That's extraordinary because the people he collaborated with changed the course of Irish history," said Patrick Casement, whose grandfather was Roger's second cousin.
The Antrim Casements themselves have been ambivalent about Roger for two generations. Some 50 years ago, they declined an invitation from the Irish Government to attend his State funeral in Dublin - after Britain finally returned his remains, which had been buried in quicklime in the prison yard at Pentonville.
When Casement was stripped of his knighthood and hanged on charges of high treason, espionage and sabotage, his family was horrified and mortified. Its members were Northern Unionists loyal to the Crown, with Casements serving on the front line in World War One.
Privately, they contributed to his defence fund. But there was silence surrounding his name in the family seat, Magherintemple House at Ballycastle. That silence was to last until the current generation, the third since his death.
Now, Patrick Casement - a zoologist who lives in Magherintemple, a place often visited by Casement when his uncle John was pater familias, and where he finished off his Congo report - says the family has revised its view.
"I'm proud of him, I think he was a remarkable man - I'd be interested in him whether he was a relation or not," he told the Irish Independent. "My grandparents didn't go to the State funeral, but I would if it were happening today.
"My brothers and sisters have much the same attitude. They feel he is someone to be celebrated within the family rather than reviled or ignored. We can all recognise that he was working and fighting for a cause he believed to be just. He made some serious errors of judgment - going to Germany was naïve in the extreme - but he was doing what he believed passionately in."
This year, for the first time, a Casement will participate in a series of events to honour Roger Casement. They are taking place on his home turf, where he first connected with his Irish identity visiting family there in the early 1900s. For decades, a local commemoration was held at Murlough Bay on the first Sunday in August. But when the Troubles started it became highly politicised and locals began staying away.
Now, they want to reclaim both their commemoration and the man they regard as one of their own. They have formed the Carey Historical Society and intend hosting a cultural weekend at the end of June, with a focus on Casement. Patrick Casement will present a lecture, and there will be other speakers and events. He has also loaned family souvenirs brought back from Africa by Casement to the Kerry County Museum for an exhibition.
Fionntán McCarry, whose family is mentioned in one of Roger Casement's last letters, is the secretary of the Carey Historical Society organising the June weekend - he also put up the new plaque to Casement. He said: "The fact there are events for Roger Casement elsewhere, nationally and internationally, inspired us to do something locally. This was his home. There is a local and family dimension to this commemoration. But it is also about the community reconnecting with its history."
While it matters that an official event is taking place on April 21 at Banna Strand in Kerry, the Antrim element counts greatly. It presents an opportunity for the Irish Government, on behalf of the nation, to do something for Casement. The Government is not in a position to honour his dying wish, but it could contribute towards events being planned with affection by a local community in a stretch of coastline beloved by him.
It seems right to help keep alive Roger Casement's memory in Antrim - it is, after all, the place where his thoughts turned as he prepared to die for a country he believed could become an independent nation.