The trial of Roger Casement


April 1991
Issue 28

Roger Casement was executed in a London gaol on August 3, 1916. He is probably one of the most controversial figures in Irish history: an Irish patriot denied the status normally accorded to Irish political figures; a man whose sexual orientation proved inconceivable to his comrades; a rebel whose achievements as a civil libertarian earned him a British Knighthood; an Irish revolutionary whose memory has been over-shadowed by the fact that he was homosexual.

At the age of twenty-three in 1887, Roger Casement began the work which was to bring him to public prominence when he joined an American explorer on an expedition through the uncharted region of the Congo in Africa (discovered by Stanley in 1840). He travelled extensively, exploring the natural resources and meeting the native populations. These experiences led him to lecture in America on the 'New Continent' and eventually got him a post with the British foreign services.

In 1903, he was sent back to the Congo to investigate the International African Association (founded and administered by King Leopold of Belgium in the new-found 'Independent Colony'), following rumours of inequalities and abuse of power by the administrative bodies. Casement travelled for four months, interviewing the local people, finding out if there was any truth in the allegations. To his horror he found that the stories of racism, slavery, punishments and executions were all true.

The native populations had drastically declined in the years since Casement's first visit: native tribes had dispersed, often from the dread of working for the foreign companies which were busy desecrating the environment in their search for quick profits. The grievances the natives had endured are horrendous to read and too long to list here, but for Casement they represented first hand experiences of life in the colonies, impressions that had a profound effect on him.

Casement's completed report was handed to the British Government in December 1903: it caused a storm of protest on its publication as a White Paper in 1904. As a result, Casement leapt from obscurity to international fame. In June, he received a CMG (Commander of the Order of SS Michael and George), an honour Casement disliked intensely, but one he accepted nonetheless.

After this early success as an international humanitarian, Casement returned to Ireland, to his family home in Ulster. While in Ireland, he started to take an interest in national affairs: he learned the Irish language, supported Irish-speaking schools and took an interest in Irish culture and traditions. No doubt this new-found interest was fueled by his experiences of the traditions and cultures of the indigenous populations in the African colonies and his understanding of how small under-developed nations could be oppressed and their cultures and traditions desecrated at the hands of imperialist colonisers.

In July 1910 Casement again returned to the foreign services, this time with the Peruvian Amazon Company, to investigate on behalf of the British Government how this company conducted its business (rubber plantations) in Putomayo (sic), Peru.


Casement's task was to travel as before around the region, talking to the native Indians, asking questions and finding out if there was any truth to the allegations being made against the 'over-seers' of the company there. The resulting report was just as horrifying as his report on the Congo. In January 1911, the completed report was handed to the British Government, which made representations to the United States to act on its findings.

Later that year it was announced that Casement should receive a knighthood for his work in Putomayo (sic)– much to Casement's dismay. He felt it would be disloyal to accept the honour as he held such nationalist views, being as he was a 'sworn enemy to England' However he accepted the knighthood, feeling that a refusal would have meant the abandonment of his work, yet to be completed in Putomayo (sic).

When no action was taken against the Peruvian Amazon Company, Casement urged the British to publish his report. This they did, in consultation with the United States, in the form of The Blue Book'. With this publication, protests and petitions were organised against the Company, as a result of which the company was asked to wind-up and in March 1913 it ceased business in Peru. Casement's work earned him the reputation of being ‘the bayard of the English Consular Services'. His reputation and fame were high in England and abroad, but the rigours of the tropical climate and the experiences of work had left their mark on him. His health was broken and in August 1913, while still a young man, he retired on a pension and came to live in Ireland. His national aspirations high, he again continued his work to seek a free and independent Ireland.


While in Ireland Casement founded the Irish National Volunteers, a military organisation whose aim was to expel the 'occupying British army' following the lack of any parliamentary moves on the Home Rule Bill. Casement became an ardent supporter of the nationalist cause, speaking at public rallies and trying to deter Irishmen from joining the British army to fight in the imminent First World War.

In July 1914 he travelled to America in the hope of raising funds for the Volunteers. He managed to raise only $7,000 for the fund. From here he travelled to Germany, arriving in Berlin in November 1914, in an attempt to get the German Government to assist in the Insurrection in Ireland. The Germans had hinted that they were willing to support the nationalist cause in Ireland. Then with the publication of an official statement in the press, their support seemed assured to Casement. He had planned, under authority of the Government, to establish an 'Irish Brigade from the Irishmen held prisoner as British soldiers in camps in Germany.

This attempt failed – only fifty-eight men would join the Brigade. The soldiers were suspicious of his motives - in fact they suspected he was a German spy trying to coax them to change sides and fight for Germany. Casement was devastated. The Irish Brigade had failed to materialise and the German Government failed to produce the expected support, after he had spent nearly two years campaigning in the country.

Finally, in April 1916, with reports coming in that the Insurrection was to go ahead at Easter, the German Admiralty arranged to meet Casement. The Germans had originally promised 200,000 riffles, but only 20,000 were forthcoming. Casement, disappointed with the German response, felt that the Rising should be postponed - an insurrection without full German backing would be pointless. Given that the rising was taking place, he accepted the German support offered and decided to go ahead with the plans, but insisted that the Germans provide a U-boat so he could travel on ahead of the arms shipment. The U-boat reached Ireland as planned and Casement and his two comrades landed safely on the Kerry coast, where Casement met his fate and was captured.

He was escorted by armed police to Dublin and from there to Bow Street Police Station in London where he was charged and then transferred to the Tower of London to await trial. The rebellion broke out in Dublin a day late. On Easter Monday the Proclamation declaring an Irish Republic, signed by the rebel leaders, was read from the foot of Nelson's Pillar. The rebellion was finally suppressed on May 1.

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"Self-government is our right, a thing born in us, no more to be doled to us or withheld from us by another people than right itself – than the right to feel the warmth of the sun or smell the flowers – or love our kind." Roger Casement, Speech from the Dock, 1916.


On Monday, June 26 the trial of Roger Casement for treason opened in London. In the course of the police investigation, some personal diaries of Casement's were found. The diaries bore no relation to the ensuing charge against Casement, but they were of such a personal nature that they were confiscated. During the course of the trial, the contents of the diaries became known, but not through any public statements. Certain pages of the diaries contained accounts of Casement's homosexual affairs. These pages were photographed and sent to the leading journalists and politicians who held views favourable to Sir Roger Casement and the Irish cause. These photographed pages even found their way to America to leading statesmen and politicians, to counteract any support that may have been forthcoming for a reprieve. Rumours were circulated that Roger Casement was an 'immoral pervert' and that he was in fact, insane. The Second Earl of Birkenhead, the Attorney General who prosecuted the case for the Crown, was "puzzled that no one had taken Sir Roger for a pervert merely by looking at him."

The contents of the diaries were then diplomatically offered to Casement's defence lawyers, as the British Prime Minster was fearful of the effect an execution would have on American public opinion, already inflamed by the executions of the of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin. He was willing to allow a reprieve for Casement if he would admit to being morally unstable and insane. Casement rejected the offer. As a result, all support for Casement was lost; public opinion was such that no one could be found to act on his behalf. and he was executed on August 3 in Pentonville Prison.


The trial of Roger Casement did not end here – controversy continued long after his execution. In Ireland, the allegations that Casement was gay were seen as scandalous (not surprising, given the laws that were in force – laws that still remain unchanged today), so once the contents of the 'black diaries' became known and the fact that they were used to direct public opinion, campaigns were started to 'clear' his name and to sue the British Government for slander and libel of the character of the dead 1916 patriot. Campaigners who couldn't accept that homosexuality and patriotism were compatible claimed that the diaries were forgeries, made by the British to use as propaganda against Casement. This gained credence because the British Government refused to release the documents for inspection. It is more likely that they were being withheld because the Irish government were convinced of their authenticity and didn't want them released.

Over the years following Independence, the Irish Government was being put under pressure to obtain the diaries, but no action was taken. In May 1956, a question was put in the Dail that seemed to suggest that "the British Home Office had enlisted the Irish Government on their side, and had long ago succeeded in persuading the Irish Government that the diaries were genuine". Liam Cosgrave, Minister for External Affairs, in reply, made a statement which read: "There is no evidence that any Irish Government at any time were persuaded that the diaries were genuine". This, despite the fact that Michael Collins, who knew him well, had identified the handwriting in the diaries as Casement's. 

Robert Kee, in an article in The Irish Times in 1956 which clearly displays homophobia, wrote: "If Casement was in fact suffering from some psychopathic disorder of the sort suggested, it in no way alters the fact that he worked nobly for the cause of Irish Independence and gave his life for it", but he correctly observed: "For the Irish Government to prefer possibly to compromise Casement's honour for fear of having to face a truth of this nature would be unworthy of the sacrifice he made for Ireland. Whatever faults Roger Casement may have had, cowardice was not one of them".

Cowardice is something we are all familiar with in this country: in our society there is often a complete failure to face reality, whether it is the necessity for the availability of condoms or the fact that lesbians and gay men exist in society and play their part in all aspects of Irish life, and therefore should have as much right to express our sexuality as anyone else.

Roger Casement's diaries were genuine, he was gay (and proud of it) and he was hanged as much for this as he was for his so-called 'treachery. For the Irish establishment to refuse to accept and to censor these facts implicates them in the conspiracy as much as the British. The idea that an Irish patriot could be homosexual was unthinkable within the nationalist tradition, where the ideal Irishman was a good heroic, Catholic heterosexual. Casement was gay and it was this that made him vulnerable in the society in which he lived.

I only know 'tis death to give

My love; yet loveless can I live?

I only know I cannot die

And leave this love God made, not I.

from 'The Nameless One' by Roger Casement

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