Monday 19 August 2019

Casement's final voyage

His dalliance with the Germans and the ill-fated journey of the Aud led to the hangman's rope, writes John de Lacy

A portrait of Roger Casement
A portrait of Roger Casement
A portrait of Roger Casement in the dock in England
John de Lacy in the Military Archives
Banna Strand, where Roger Casement came ashore on Good Friday, 1916.
The boat Roger Casement used to come ashore Banna Strand on Good Friday in April 1916. Credit: Irish Military Archive

ON All Saints Eve 1914, Sir Roger Casement arrived in Berlin. He had travelled from America, via Kristiania (now Oslo) and has been variously described as an ambassador, emissary and representative of the Revolutionary Directory of Clan na Gael in New York.

He came with a letter of introduction from Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador in Washington, to the Imperial German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, and a shopping list.

John Devoy the Clan na Gael leader in the US, claimed the supply of arms and a number of capable officers from Germany would "make a good start", towards an insurrection in Ireland. Official German recognition of the Independence movement in Ireland was also requested, as was the raising of an Irish Brigade from Irish prisoners of war.

Casement was not fully successful in completing these objectives. Germany did finally consent to send an arms shipment to Ireland; it was however, based on the insurrection plans submitted by Joseph Plunkett. Casement's agreement to return to Ireland with the arms is somewhat ambivalent.

On 20 June 1915, Casement wrote to Joseph McGarrity, a senior Irish republican in America, regarding his failure to raise an effective Irish Brigade (of the 2,200 Irishmen in Limburg POW camp, just 56 signed up): "without the Brigade there is nothing between us [Casement and the German government]… I tried all I could… we have failed… let me go back."

However, shortly before he left Germany, Casement wrote to Count Georg von Wedel, claiming he was travelling under duress, the mission was at odds with his, "reason, judgement and intelligence".

To von Wedel, Casement explained: "I had always been greatly opposed to any attempted revolt in Ireland unless backed up with strong foreign military help." Casement did suffer regularly from both physical illness and depression during his stay in Germany, as witnessed by his comrade Robert Monteith in the spring of 1916.

By this time Casement's only attachment to Germany was his concern for the members of the Irish Brigade left behind in Germany; his final letter to the German Chancellor bears witness to his concern. It could be argued that he was privately happy to leave Germany, clandestinely seizing this opportunity to prevent what he considered a futile insurrection. In a letter to his sister after his capture he claimed: "When I landed in Ireland that morning… I was happy for the first time for over a year."

Casement, Monteith and Daniel Julian Bailey, (alias Beverley) departed Wilhelmshaven on 12 April 1916, on the submarine U-20. The SMS Libau, masquerading as the neutral Norwegian ship Aud, sailed on 9 April, from Lubeck, carrying 20,000 rifles, 10 machine guns and over a million rounds of assorted ammunitions.

The objective of the mission was for Casement's party to rendezvous with the Aud one sea mile north-west of the most northerly of the Blasket Islands between 20 and 23 April. The Irish Volunteers were to supply a pilot to take the Aud into Fenit and disperse the cargo.

The journey was ill-fated; after 36 hours sailing, the U-20 had to return to Heligoland for repairs and the three Irishmen were transferred to U-19. The tragedy of this enterprise was that due to a combination of circumstances the Irish pilot never made the rendezvous with the Aud or the U-19.

Early on 21 April, Casement and his comrades rowed two miles in a small boat from the U-19 to Banna Strand. They capsized twice, and would have drowned were it not for the foresight of Monteith's request for lifejackets and the strength of Bailey and Monteith in rescuing Casement. The three half-drowned, exhausted and hungry men made their way inland. Bad luck dogged the party; Monteith recalled that they were observed by a local girl, Mary Gorman. Their boat was discovered by farmer John McCarthy and the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) at Ardfert was informed.

The subsequent RIC search resulted in the arrest of Casement at McKenna's Fort with incriminating evidence about his person. Bailey and Monteith had walked into Tralee, trying to get assistance from local volunteers. Bailey was captured and turned King's evidence, but Monteith managed to evade capture and returned to America. The Aud was captured, her captain, Karl Spindler, scuttled her in the approaches to Cork Harbour on 22 April.

The 1916 Proclamation contains the clause: 'supported… by gallant allies in Europe', this oblique reference to Germany was repugnant to millions of British subjects. The manifestation of that indignation would be suffered by Sir Roger Casement as he was hanged for treason on 3 August 1916, in Pentonville jail, the last of those executed following the Easter Rising.

John de Lacy is a retired Irish Defence Forces company sergeant and a recent history graduate (2015) of UCD

Irish Independent

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