August 3rd marks the 100th anniversary of the execution of Roger Casement in Pentonville Prison, England. As a student many years ago in the Kings Inns I passed every day on my way into lectures John Lavery’s monumental painting of Casement’s appeal hearing in the Court of Criminal Appeal. Lavery attended the hearing on the 17th and 18th of July 1916 on the invitation of the Presiding Judge, Mr. Justice Darling and being one of the foremost portrait painters of his time produced a stunning painting of the court scene. Lavery, who died in 1941, gifted the painting to the National Portrait Gallery in London but when that august body declined to accept the gift it passed after a number of years to the Kings Inns in Dublin.
The painting shows Casement’s defence counsel, A.M. Sullivan, himself an Irishman, addressing the five red robed Judges who presided at the appeal hearing. Sullivan, who made a fine closing speech on behalf of Casement, was censored by the Kings Inns benchers when he revealed in 1956 a professional confidence told to him by his client Casement during the trial. This was an admission by Casement that he was a homosexual. That same issue had caused much controversy following the publication of Brian Inglis’s biography of Casement in 1973 in which Inglis pronounced himself satisfied that the Casement diaries which referenced his homosexual activities were not forgeries put together by the British authorities to resist public pressure to save Casement from the gallows. Undoubtedly the indefensible use of Casement’s diaries to prejudice his appeal was inexcusable and reflects badly on the British establishment of the time. Now on the centenary of his death it is expected that all of the files held by the British Authorities relating to Casement will be made available for examination by historians.
The Casement ‘Black Diaries’, as they have come to be described, were for many years the subject of controversy with the late Dr. Herbert Mackey publishing several books alleging they were forgeries. Interestingly his brother Frank in a letter to the Irish Independent in June 1973 wrote ‘about a week after Casement’s remains were interned in Glasnevin President De Valera invited my late brother Herbert and his wife to lunch at Aras An Uachtarian. In the course of lunch he informed my brother that he need not expect any help whatsoever from the Irish Government in his efforts to recover the Casement Diaries from the British Government.’ The message was clear.
In September 2001 Roisin McAuley in a letter to the Irish Times wrote ‘Eight years ago for the BBC series “Document” I investigated the charge of forgery against the British government in relation to the “Black Diaries” of Roger Casement ….. having started with an open mind I found compelling circumstantial evidence of forgery and began to believe the forgery theory ….. however, after an examination by a forensic expert there was no doubt in our minds that the diaries were genuine.’
In conclusion she claimed ‘surely the point to be made about Roger Casement is that he belongs to all of us. The debate about the diaries kept him too long anchored to the Republican cause. He is still a Republican hero. But he couldn’t have been Sir Roger Casement, humanitarian hero, if he hadn’t believed in an enlightened role for the British empire. He wouldn’t have been Roger Casement, Republican hero, if he hadn’t seen the oppression by that Empire abroad. And if he hadn’t been homosexual, knowing what it was like to feel oppressed and marginalised, he might not have been a hero to anyone.’
Roger Casement played an important if somewhat peripheral role in the Easter Rising of 1916. For that his place in Irish history is secure as indeed is he in his role as a humanitarian for his work as a British civil servant in the Putumayo Peru in 1910/1911. His personal life is of little relevance, even though his biographers over the years have sometimes thought otherwise.
Some weeks ago I wrote of the attempt by Irish Volunteers from County Laois to disable the rail link between Carlow and Athy on the eve of the Easter Rising in Dublin. The men involved, Eamon Fleming, Michael Grey and Michael Walsh travelled to Athy and cut down a telegraph pole which they laid across the railway track to prevent troops travelling to Dublin. A subsequent statement from Eamon Fleming located the action at Maganey, while a contemporary press report referred to a local man named Nolan from Ardreigh who came across the incident and reported it to a nearby signal box attendant. I am trying to pinpoint whether the Irish Volunteers activity took place as claimed at Maganey or nearby Ardreigh.
Was there a signal box in Maganey station in 1916? If not given Nolan’s address as Ardreigh it is likely that the Volunteers attempted to block the track at Ardreigh. Anyone with any thoughts on the matter might contact me or indeed anyone in Ardreigh or Maganey who might have heard where the Volunteers operated that Sunday morning.