“It was in an English prison that they led him to his death.
‘I’m dying for my country,’ he said with his last breath.
He’s buried in a prison yard, far from his native land
And the wild waves sing his Requiem on lonely Banna Strand.”
The story of Roger Casement’s landing and capture at Banna Strand in Kerry as he attempted to bring arms ashore for the 1916 Rising, is commemorated in the famed ballad Banna Strand.
Casement had travelled to Berlin to seek German aid for the Rising. Clan na Gael, the republican organisation of Irish-Americans, connected the rebels with those who had means of support in Germany.
Eventually, a German ship, the Aud, set sail for Ireland carrying 20,000 rifles, which Casement considered insufficient for an insurrection. He travelled to rendezvous with the Aud aboard a German submarine and supervise the landing of the arms.
On Good Friday morning, April 21st, the ship arrived at Banna Strand. Local IRA volunteers had been told the consignment would arrive Easter Sunday: it was two days early, and no-one was there to greet the shipment of arms.
Actor and singer Breandán Ó Dúill’s compelling recitation of the tale (accessible on the archives of Comhaltas Ceolteoirí Éíreann) tells how Casement feared those who were meant to meet him were dead. “There was no shout” from the shore as expected, and he decided to head for the strand with Captain Robert Montheith.
“Banna was lonely and Casement coming in,” the recitation says – but the area wasn’t, in fact, deserted.
British intelligence had intercepted messages between the rebels and the German Embassy in New York, and they knew the ship bearing arms was coming. They captured Casement, weak from malaria, at McKenna’s Fort at Ardfert near the strand, and then brought him to London to try him for treason.
The Aud was approached by three English destroyers and ordered to sail in custody to Cork Harbour, where it was scuttled by its Captain. The arms never made it to the Volunteers, with significant consequences for the Rising.
Casement was from a Protestant, Anglo-Irish family and was known internationally for his work as a humanitarian and his investigations into the abuse of native workers in the rubber industries in the Belgian Congo and the Amazon basin. He was knighted by King George V for that work.
He joined the Gaelic League and was a supporter of Arthur Griffith’s Sinn Féin rather than the Home rule movement. In 1913, he helped to form the Irish Volunteers and co-wrote the organisation’s manifesto with Eoin Mcneill.
In 1914, Casement travelled to the United States to raise funds for the Volunteers among the large and sympathetic Irish community there including Clan na Gael. He helped to organise the Howth gun-running in late 1914.
After being captured and brought to London, Casement was kept in Brixton Prison while awaiting trial on charges of high treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown.
Casement, however, strongly rejected the charge of high treason, saying he was an Irishman and the charge did not apply. Unlike the leaders of the Rising who had been court-martialled and denied the opportunity to make a speech from the dock, Casement’s was entitled to make his case in a powerful speech that attracted the attention of the world.
“My ‘treason’ was based on a ruthless sincerity that forced me to attempt in time and season to carry out in action what I said in word,” he said.
“If small nationalities were to be the pawns in this game of embattled giants, I saw no reason why Ireland should shed her blood in any cause but her own, and if that be treason beyond the seas I am not ashamed to avow to it or to answer for it here with my life.”
He also spoke of the loyalty of an Irishman to his country resting on love, not restraint.
“I am being tried, in truth, not by my peers of the live present, but by the fears of the dead past; not by the civilization of the twentieth century, but by the brutality of the fourteenth; not even by a statute framed in the language of the land that tries me, but emitted in the language of an enemy land — so antiquated is the law that must be sought today to slay an Irishman, whose offence is that he puts Ireland firstm,” he said.
“Loyalty is a sentiment, not a law. It rests on love, not on restraint. The government of Ireland by England rests on restraint, and not on law; and since it demands no love, it can evoke no loyalty.”
Sir Roger Casement in front of the audience that gathered in the small court room at Bow Street in London where the trial was held. Photo Credit: Le Mirroir, 4 June 1916
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Casement’s powerful conclusion echoed around the world.
“Ireland, that has wronged no man, has injured no land, that has sought no dominion over others — Ireland is being treated today among the nations of the world as if she were a convicted criminal. If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel, and shall cling to my “rebellion” with the last drop of my blood. If there be no right of rebellion against the state of things that no savage tribe would endure without resistance, then I am sure that it is better for men to fight and die without right than to live in such a state of right as this.
Where all your rights have become only an accumulated wrong, where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to gather the fruits of their own labours, and, even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them — then, surely, it is a braver, a saner and truer thing to be a rebel, in act and in deed, against such circumstances as these, than to tamely accept it, as the natural lot of men.”
He was, nonetheless, found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged. On the day of his execution, Casement was received into the Catholic Church at his request before being hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916.