Tuesday 24 October 2017

Treasures: The Rising's unsung hero

Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column

Roger Casement (back right) on board the Libau/Aud in 1916.
Roger Casement (back right) on board the Libau/Aud in 1916.
Libau/Aud crew member medal.
The Libau/Aud bronze anchor windlass steam valve
1916 Weir & Son silver dish ring

Eleanor Flegg

'Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth, a thing no more to be doled out to us, or withheld from us, by another people than the right to life itself - than the right to feel the sun, or smell the flowers, or to love our kind."

This speech was made by Roger Casement, human rights activist and Irish revolutionary, following his conviction for high treason. Casement was hanged at Pentonville prison on August 3, 1916. The executioner Albert Ellis described him as "the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute".

Among those executed for their involvement in the 1916 Rising, Casement has a haunting presence. His reputation was damaged by a vicious campaign to discredit him on the basis of his diaries.

Casement was gay, promiscuous, and keen on documentation. Many of his Irish supporters found it easier to believe the diaries were forgeries than their hero was gay. Not so Casement's literary champion WB Yeats, who wrote in a letter to a friend: "If Casement were a homo-sexual what matter!" In 2002, a forensic examination of the Black Diaries concluded that they were genuine. Some still have their doubts; others claim Casement as 1916's gay hero.

From any perspective, objects or manuscripts with a demonstrable link to Casement will be valuable. In 2010, Aubrey de Vere's Inisfall, A Lyrical Chronicle of Ireland, inscribed by Casement in Irish and English to Fr Eamon Murnane, the priest who gave him the last rites in his prison cell the night before his execution, sold at Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers for €7,500.

Sir Roger Casement was a remarkable person. Employed as a British Consul, he was knighted for his ground-breaking work against human rights abuses in the Congo and Peru. He retired in 1913, at the age of 49, and returned to his native Ireland to join the Irish Volunteers.

Casement brought his humanitarian approach home with him. "The 'white Indians' of Ireland," he wrote, "are heavier on my heart than all the Indians of the rest of the earth." In July of the same year, he wrote to Anita Letts of Cumann na mBan of plans to assist impoverished children in west of Ireland schools. Ultimately, he succeeded in setting up a fund to provide hot dinners for school children in Carraroe. The letters survive and are up for auction at Adam's History Sale on April 19 (€1,500 to €2,500).

Following his first revolutionary venture, the Howth gun running of 1914, Casement became convinced that a fully independent Ireland could only be achieved with German help. He travelled to Germany to recruit supporters among Irish prisoners of war.

In 1968, Kathleen Clarke, Tom Clarke's widow, reported rather bitterly that Casement had received no such mandate from the Irish leadership. "He went off to Germany and started things that the revolutionary group here didn't want," she said. Either way, Casement's venture was not an unqualified success. Only a few of the prisoners were willing to change sides.

The Germans did send arms, but not in sufficient quantity to satisfy Casement, who headed back to Ireland on a German submarine to call off The Rising. Several significant items related to this chapter of Casement's life are for sale at Whyte's auction of History & Literature on Sunday. They include three rare photographs of Casement, en route to Ireland on a German submarine. One, taken on the U-19 before landing on Banna Strand, shows Casement uncharacteristically clean shaven. He had shaved his heavy beard to avoid recognition.

"He was a fascinating character, totally underrated," says Stuart Purcell of Whytes. "Casement left remarkably little behind him in terms of a photographic record and to see him with the Germans is about as relevant to 1916 as you're going to get."

The photograph comes from the album of the widow of Kapitan Raimund Weisbach, commander of U-19, and is estimated between €1,500 and €2,000.

Meanwhile, the SS Libau, a German steamship masquerading as the Norwegian vessel, the SS Aud, had left Lübeck with a crew of 22 volunteers under the command of Karl Spindler.

Bound for Ireland, she carried 20,000 rifles, one million rounds of ammunition, 10 machine guns, and explosives hidden under a cargo of timber. The two vessels intended to rendezvous in Tralee Bay and when this failed, Casement, Robert Monteith and Daniel Bailey set out for shore in a dingy, which capsized.

They landed, soaked, on Banna Strand and Casement was captured.

Trapped up a blockade of British ships, the Libau/Aud was unable to escape. The ship was escorted to Cork Harbour, where she was scuttled by her German crew. Her bronze anchor windlass steam valve, salvaged from the wreck in 2008 by the current owner, is included in the sale (€2,000 to €3,000).

Spindler and the crew of the Libau/Aud were interned for the duration of the war and the auction includes an unusual medal awarded to an Aud crew-member "from the Executive Committee for Freedom in America 1931, for his services to Ireland at Easter 1916". It is estimated between €800 and €1,200.

The sale also includes photographs of some of the German volunteers (€200 to €250) and a wood fretwork carving (€100 to €150) by signalman Friedrich Schmitz of the Aud, made while he was a prisoner in Stafford. It's a poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by the German volunteers who assisted Casement, more than half of whom died during their interment.

Whyte's auction of History & Literature takes place this Sunday (whytes.ie); Adam's History Sale is on April 19 (adams.ie); Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers' Centenary Sale is on April 23 and still consigning (fonsiemealy.ie).

In the salerooms


The next auction at John Weldon Auctioneers takes place on Tuesday at 2pm. Highlights of the auction include a rare Irish silver dish ring with a blue glass liner (below), made by Weir & Son of Dublin in 1916 (guide price €5,000 to €10,000).

The piece is intriguingly engraved: "Presented to John Kennedy ESQ. by Lord Justice Molony in remembrance of the perils of Easter Monday 1916."

Molony was a judge of the High Court for Ireland and appointed to several governmental inquiries, notably one on the shooting of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington in the wake of the 1916 Easter Rising. The John Kennedy in question may have been the brother of Hugh Kennedy, the first Attorney General of the Irish Free State, who would have been around 30 years old in 1916, but the nature of his "perils" has yet to be discovered.

Other Irish silver items of interest include a silver oval butter dish, surmounted by a figure of a cow, made by Joseph Jackson of Dublin around 1780 (€800 to €1,500). For full details, see jwa.ie.


1916 Weir & Son silver dish ring

Whyte's History & Literature Sale takes place this Sunday with much in the way of high profile 1916 memorabilia, including one of an estimated 17 surviving examples of the original Proclamation of the Irish Republic (€150,000 to €250,000) as well as the 1916 Rising medals posthumously awarded to its first and last signatories: Thomas Clarke (€80,000 to €120,000) and Joseph Plunkett (€70,000 to €100,000).

Other memorabilia associated with Thomas Clarke includes his shaving mug (€1,000 to €1,500), a piece in white porcelain decorated with gold shamrocks unremarkable apart from its illustrious association, but strangely sad.

The auction also includes two 1916 medals awarded to James Joyce (not the writer) and his wife Margaret Joyce, who fought together in the Stephen's Green Garrison, along with other memorabilia of the couple.

The medals, as far as the auctioneers know, are the only two 1916 medals awarded to husband and wife participants in The Rising. The lot is estimated between €5,000 and €7,000. For full details see whites.ie.


An Antiques and Vintage Fair will take place in Contarf Castle on Sunday from 11am to 6pm. Expect 40 exhibitors whose wares will range from jewellery, fine art and collectible coins, to rare books and postcards. Admission costs €3.50 and further information is available on 087 2670607.

Also on March 13, the Waterford Antiques Art & Vintage Fair takes place in Lawlor's Hotel, Dungarvan, Co Waterford, from 11am to 6pm with 25 stands.

It will be followed, on Saturday and Sunday, March 19&20, by the National Antiques, Art & Vintage Fair, which will be held in the South Court Hotel, Limerick City from 11am to 6pm on both days. Admission costs €5 for adults (children free and most welcome) with further details from 087 6933602 or robinodon@gmail.com.

Indo Property

Editors Choice

Also in Life