The execution of Roger Casement
The execution of Roger Casement



Wednesday 3rd August 2016 marked one hundred years since the execution of the Irish Patriot and international humanitarian, Roger Casement. Commemorations were held across Ireland as well as in London, where a morning vigil took place outside Pentonville Prison where he died. Joe Dwyer for London-Irish Unity looks at how he lived the final days of his life.


Casement’s last written words offer an insight into the person behind the mythologised figure. On the eve of his execution, Casement wrote: ‘I hope I shall not weep, but if I do it shall be nature’s tribute wrung from me - one who never hurt a human being - and whose heart was always compassionate and pitiful for the grief of others’. He continued: ‘as I stand face to face with death, I feel just as if they were going to kill a boy. For I feel like a boy - and my hands so free from blood and my heart always so compassionate and pitiful that I cannot comprehend how anyone wants to hang me...’

On July 27th, he was permitted one final visit from his cousin Gertrude Bannister. Casement implored his cousin to ensure that he would not be buried inside Prison Walls, he pleaded: ‘take my body back with you and let it lie in the old churchyard in Murlough Bay.’ Later that evening Gertrude wrote: ‘I staggered down the road crying out loud, and people gazed at me. I got home somehow. Now, writing it down, I cry and cry and want to scream out, but what’s the good ... He was there waiting for death, such a death. I was outside, and I wanted to die.’

A fellow Pentonville inmate, the pacifist Archibald Fenner Brockway arrested for distributing anti-conscription leaflets, later claimed that he had seen Casement on the final night before his execution: ‘I was in my cell and I heard steps outside. I stood on my stool and looked from the window. There was Sir Roger Casement, in the only place of loveliness in that prison, a little garden of hollyhocks and other flowers, looking at the sunset for the last time. As he did it, one could see that his spirit and his personality became united with the infinite beauty of that scene.’

Faithful to the last, Casement was firm in the belief that the cause of Ireland was a just cause. This resolve is evident throughout his final letters and writings. The former-Diplomat wrote of his accusers: ‘It is they - not I - who are the traitors, filled with a lust of blood - of hatred of their fellows.’ Turning to the conflict then engulfing the European continent, Casement lamented: ‘These artificial and unnatural wars, prompted by greed and power’. In a final letter to his cousins he denounced the War and praised the Dublin Rising: ‘What was attempted so valiantly this year by a handful of young men is the only episode from this war that should survive in history. The rest is either mistaken slaughter of brave men or plotting to destroy an enemy by hate for motives of greed and dominion. I cast no stone at the millions of brave dead men throughout Europe - God rest their souls in peace - but the cause it is alone that justifies the end, and the cause of all the great combatants is essentially selfish and greedy.’

Although Casement had not fully abandoned the possibility of a last-minute reprieve, he no longer desired it. The growing certainty that he was to die seemed to calm him. He consoled himself that his death was that of a Patriot: ‘It is better that I die thus - on the scaffold. It was a glorious death for Ireland’s sake with Allen, Larkin, O’Brien and Robert Emmet - and the men of ‘98 and William Orr - all for the same cause - all in the same way. Surely it is the most glorious cause in history. “Ever defeated - yet undefeated.”’

When the time came, he did not weep as he had feared. The Pentonville Prison Chaplain, a Limerick man, Father Carey, recalled: ‘He feared not death, he marched to the scaffold with the dignity of a prince.’ Even the Hangman, a man by the name of Ellis, found himself greatly affected by the condemned man’s demeanour. With Ellis later recording: ‘The impression will ever remain on my mind of the composure of his noble countenance, the smile of contentment and happiness, as he willingly helped my assistant ... the steady martial tread of his six feet four inches and soldiery appearance adding to the solemn echo of his prompt and coherent answers to the Roman Catholic chaplain while marching to his untimely doom. Roger Casement appeared to me the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute’.

At six minutes past nine, the tolling of the prison-bell announced that Roger Casement was dead. A small notice, signed by the Sheriff and Prison Governor, was placed on the prison gate and reported: ‘ We, the undersigned, hereby declared that judgement of death was this day executed on Roger David Casement in His Majesty’s prison of Pentonville in our presence.’ In the street outside the Prison, a small crowd cheered and applauded as the bell tolled. It would have grieved Casement to know that ordinary men and women - most of them workers in the nearby munitions factory - should have reacted in such a way to his death. In his last letter to his sister, Nina, he had stated: ‘It is a cruel thing to die with all men misunderstanding - misapprehending - and to be silent forever.’ However, he was not entirely misunderstood - as down a side street adjoining the Prison a small group of Casement’s companions and supporters knelt in silent prayer.

A few hours later, Roger Casement was buried within the prison grounds in a quicklime grave - a violation of established law that the body of a ‘traitor’ be handed back to the family for a Christian burial.

In the event, Father McCarroll officiated the burial. Thirty years later, McCarroll recounted: ‘I was the sole mourner at his grave, yet we were not all alone, for around were the prayers of his friends - and the souls of noble men who though the same thoughts and dreamed the same dreams as Roger Casement.’

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© 2016 Irish Republican News