Friday 24 May 2019

Casement helped the helpless, no matter what the cost to himself

Roger Casement
Roger Casement
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Roger Casement died 100 years ago today, "so tear up your mourning and hang up your brightest colours in his honour" - George Bernard Shaw's advice on the passing of towering figures.

Casement's name resonates not just because of his unusual journey from British Consul to 1916 revolutionary, but for his pioneering work as a humanitarian crusader. His impact stretches beyond these shores to the Congo (then the Congo Free State) and South America, where he campaigned on behalf of enslaved native peoples and gave a voice to those who had none.

This year of centenaries continues to offer us an opportunity to reflect on the lives and motivations of many whose actions helped to change the course of Irish history. Casement is a compelling figure among them: misguided and naïve in some eyes, idealistic and self-sacrificing in others. Of his courage, both moral and physical, there can be no doubt.

His family, from a unionist tradition, were horrified that he lobbied for German help for a rebellion while Britain was at war with Germany. But this year, for the first time, those who share his name and bloodline have travelled from Antrim to the Republic to join celebrations in his honour.

Following a show trial, Casement was hanged for treason in Pentonville Prison in London, his body thrown into a communal grave in the prison yard. By then, the 51-year-old diplomat had been stripped of his knighthood for services to an empire in which he no longer believed.

Ireland had to wait for almost half a century to bury Casement. In 1965, Britain finally released his remains, and he was welcomed home by the Irish people to be laid to rest with full State honours in the republican plot in Dublin's Glasnevin.

There were no Casements present, although an invitation had been sent to Casement's relatives in Ballycastle, Co Antrim - which he considered home and where he asked to be buried. They could not bring themselves to attend because the memory of what they regarded as his betrayal remained too raw. While he was in Germany, raising arms and attempting to recruit an Irish brigade, they had sons fighting in the British armed services.

But time passes, perceptions shift. Patrick Casement and his wife Anne were quick to agree to attend a number of events in Dublin to mark his centenary. The couple live in the Casement family seat, Magherintemple, often visited by Roger and where he finished his Congo report.

Patrick told me: "While the focus of this year's commemoration is inevitably on the events of 1916, leading to the execution of Sir Roger, I personally feel very strongly that we must keep alive the memory of his ground-breaking humanitarian work, which still has such relevance for us 100 years later."

That observation is appropriate because capitalism - the pursuit of money above every other consideration - continues to trump human rights in parts of the world. Roger was unflinching in exposing not just the abuses but the deliberate blindness which allowed others to look away.

Patrick Casement acknowledges that while his grandparents' and parents' generation struggled with what Roger had done, he and his siblings believed he was someone to celebrate within the family.

"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," he said.

The Casement family always refer to him as Sir Roger to differentiate him from other Casements, with Roger a common name among them. However, after 1916 they stopped using it.

Patrick has long been interested in Roger, a cousin at several removes from him because of the passage of generations. He was present at a wreath-laying ceremony in Sandycove, Co Dublin, last night outside the place where Roger was born, and again this morning for another wreath placed on his grave in Glasnevin. He was there to represent Sir Roger as part of his bloodline and to bear witness to his humanitarian achievements.

He visited Dún Laoghaire yesterday to see for the first time the spot where his relative was born, and to be present when Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council announced its intention to commission a life-sized sculpture of him to mark his association with the area.

Many of the events coinciding with the centenary highlight both the national and the local, and are a testament to the affection and admiration in which Roger Casement is held still.

The Sandycove ceremony was organised by volunteers from the DLR 1916 Committee. That community-based dimension chimes with an imaginative Casement symposium in Ballycastle in June, organised by a community which has never forgotten its local hero. There, a guide from Glasnevin stood up from among the audience to tell how Casement's grave is among the most visited. He remains a figure of deep interest. The symposium was part-funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs' Reconciliation Fund, in an inclusive use of public money.

When Casement was returned to Ireland, a condition was attached: his dying wish could never be fulfilled. He must never be taken North, to be buried overlooking the secluded serenity of Murlough Bay. Even in death, he was controversial. However, locals led by Fionntán McCarry, secretary of the Carey Historical Society, have put up a simple wooden cross in the spot near where he asked to lie.

Academic books have been written about Casement, his legacy has been debated, and there is a renewed emphasis on his work exposing abuses in the Congo and the Putumayo (now in Peru). But what's most illuminating is that children are being taught about him, too.

A new children's book, 'Roger Casement Human Rights Hero', has just been brought out by Poolbeg Press, written by the publishing house's editor Gaye Shortland. It is intended to generate classroom discussion, as part of a series on 1916 figures.

Casement operated on a world stage but never lost sight of the individual - he was someone who believed passionately in helping the helpless, no matter the cost to himself.

Irish Independent

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