Saturday 21 September 2019

Seeking aid from the Kaiser

Emma Lyons on Roger Casement and Joseph Plunkett's undercover operations in Germany

Roger Casement (1864 - 1916) is escorted to the gallows of Pentonville Prison, London. He was charged and found guilty of treason after trying to obtain German aid for Irish Independence
Roger Casement (1864 - 1916) is escorted to the gallows of Pentonville Prison, London. He was charged and found guilty of treason after trying to obtain German aid for Irish Independence
Roger Casement (white suit on right) walking freely among the prisoners of war trying to recruit them to come home.
Emma Lyons pictured in UCD.

On 9 September 1914, the seven men who would ultimately be remembered as the seven signatories of the Proclamation attended a secret meeting at the Gaelic League headquarters at 25 Parnell Square. The seven were among those who determined that an armed rising against Britain would be staged before the end of World War I. Planning began in earnest, with responsibilities for planning being divided amongst the 'leaders'. Joseph Plunkett, the youngest of the signatories at 28, was chief military strategist.

According to his sister Geraldine, who acted as a messenger during the Rising, Plunkett 'probably got more fun out of the action than the others did', perhaps as a result of the chronic ill-health he experienced for much of his life. Somewhat ironically, it was his poor health which assisted Plunkett in playing such a high-profile role in the Rising.

In addition to his role as military strategist, Plunkett also travelled to Germany to join Roger Casement and assist him in his efforts to raise an Irish Brigade and garner German support for the insurrection. Plunkett was chosen as he possessed the necessary credentials for such a trip during wartime. Needing warmer climates for his health, Plunkett travelled widely with his mother in 1911-12, spending time in Italy, Sicily, Malta and Algiers.

With this cover, Plunkett set off in March 1915 on what was a circuitous route to Berlin, travelling through Spain, Italy and Switzerland.

Once in Germany he met with Casement, a former member of the British Foreign Office, who had travelled from America, funded by Clan na Gael under the leadership of John Devoy. Arriving in Berlin on 31 October 1914, Casement's mission to Germany had three basic aims:

1. To secure German help for Ireland;

2. To educate the German people about Ireland's situation so as to gain support for the cause;

3. To raise an Irish Brigade from Irish Prisoners of War who had been captured during the war.

In his bid to achieve these aims, Casement travelled secretly - in the guise of an American, 'Mr Hammond' - to the German headquarters on the Western Front between 17 and 19 November. There, he met with senior representatives, including Count von Lüttichau of the General Staff and Wilhelm von Stumm, head of the Political Department at the German Foreign Office.

While Casement had some success, convincing the German government to declare that, should their forces land in Ireland, they would do so as liberators, much of his time in late 1914 was spent distracted by the British authorities' efforts to discredit and capture him. This led John Devoy to comment on the success of the above aims as follows: 'Casement did his best in all these things, but did the first ineffectively, succeeded admirably in the second, and failed badly in the third'. Casement recruited only 56 of a possible 2,300 Irish prisoners of war for his Irish Brigade.

These views were not unique to Devoy, and it was for that reason that Plunkett travelled to Germany. It was hoped that he could negotiate with the German Foreign Office and convince them to support the planned Rising. Although he disagreed with Casement's belief that an armed German force was necessary for its success, Plunkett nonetheless worked with Casement on 'The Ireland Report', an overly-ambitious plan for the Rising. While the plan was rejected by the Germans, Plunkett did succeed in obtaining agreement to send a small shipment of arms and ammunition in the spring of 1916.

Plunkett travelled to New York to update Devoy on the outcome of the negotiations and preparations for the Rising. When he returned home, Plunkett was based at the recently-purchased family home in Larkfield, Kimmage, which was also a Volunteer training camp and arms store, before falling ill again in April. Indeed, it was his poor health that led to the postponement of his marriage to Grace Gifford, scheduled for Easter Sunday 1916. His ill-health did not prevent him from participating in the Rising, however. Following his capture, Plunkett was executed by firing squad on 4 May, having married his fiancée just hours before his death.

Casement, in contrast, suffered from poor health while still in Germany, disillusioned at what he considered an unsatisfactory commitment to the Irish cause. Realising that the Germans would not provide additional assistance, he decided to travel to Ireland in a bid to stop the Rising. Landing on Banna Strand, Casement was arrested. Unable to contact the leaders, the rebellion went ahead. Casement was found guilty of treason in the Old Bailey and was hanged on 3 August 1916.

Dr Emma Lyons (UCD School of History) was a researcher for the 'World War I Ireland: Exploring the Irish Experience' exhibition currently running at the National Library of Ireland, where she also held the Research Studentship in Irish History. Dr Lyons' research focuses on the experience of Irishwomen during World War One and Catholic landownership and education in 17th and 18th-century Ireland

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