1916: Thomas Kent

Add comment May 9th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Thomas Kent was shot in Cork, Ireland — the only person executed that May for the Easter Rising outside of Dublin.*

The Kents were were prominent nationalists of several generations’ standing in County Cork and were all set to join the Easter Rising until the last-minute countermanding order went out.

When the Rising happened anyway in Dublin — a day later and numerically much smaller than originally intended — the constabulary was preventively dispatched throughout the island to arrest known fellow-travelers … like the Kents.

The constabulary’s attempted raid on the Kent property May 2 met armed resistance that became an hours-long siege; Constable William Rowe was shot dead, as was Richard Kent.

The surviving Kent brothers, William and David,** along with our man Thomas, were all tried for affair: William was acquitted, David condemned but the sentenced commuted, and only Thomas actually executed.

Cork’s main railway station was in 1966 re-christened Kent Station in his honor.

* In August of that year, Roger Casement hanged in London for treason in connection with the Easter Rising. Casement had not taken any direct part in the fighting, but had worked to arrange the (attempted) support of Britain’s wartime enemy, Germany.

** Both David and William Kent later sat in the Irish parliament.

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1916: Eamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Con Colbert, and Sean Heuston

Add comment May 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916 — following a Sunday respite — executions in the aftermath of the Irish Republican Easter Rising against British power resumed with four more shootings at Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol.

Eamonn Ceannt was an Irish Republican Brotherhood leader and was the fifth of the seven men who signed the Proclamation of the Irish Republic to be executed. (The remaining two, James Connolly and Sean Mac Diarmada, were shot on May 12th.) On the night before his execution, he wrote a ferocious although arguably counterproductive summons to future Irish revolutionaries

never to treat with the enemy, never to surrender at his mercy but to fight to a finish. I see nothing gained but grave disaster caused by the surrender which has marked the end of the Irish Insurrection of 1916 — so far at least as Dublin is concerned. The enemy has not cherished one generous thought for those who, with little hope, with poor equipment, and weak in numbers, withstood his forces for one glorious week. Ireland has shown she is a nation. This generation can claim to have raised sons as brave as any that went before. And in the years to come, Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter in 1916 …

I wish to record the magnificent gallantry and fearless, calm determination of the men who fought with me. All, all, were simply splendid. Even I knew no fear, nor panic ,nor shrank fron no risk [sic], even as I shrink not now from the death which faces me at daybreak. I hope to see God’s face even for a moment in the morning. His will be done.

His firing squad failed to kill him cleanly, necessitating a gory coup de grace.

Michael Mallin was the co-founder with the pacifistic Francis Sheey-Skeffington of the Socialist Party of Ireland, and the second-in-command for the aforementioned James Connolly of the socialist union militia Irish Citizen Army. In the latter capacity Mallin led the detachment which seized St. Stephen’s Green during the Easter Rising.

A devout Catholic as well as a revolutionary militant, Mallin’s last letter to his family urged two of his children to take up holy orders. They indeed did so, and his youngest son, Father Joseph Mallin SJ, died only days ago as of this writing at the age of 104.

Con Colbert was another deeply religious rebel; an Irish Republic Brotherhood officer, he commanded rebels at several locations including the Jameson’s whiskey distillery at Marrowbone Lane.

The youngest of the group — who were, like all the Easter Rising rebels, shot sequentially rather than en masse — was 25-year-old Sean Heuston, also known as Jack or J.J. James Connolly had dispatched him to hold the Mendicity Institution for a few hours to delay the British advance; Heuston’s garrison of 26 ended up defending it for two days against several hundred enemy troops until, food and ammunition exhausted, they surrendered at British discretion.

His confessor cast the young patriot in a positively beatific light at the end:

A soldier directed Seán and myself to a corner of the yard, a short distance from the outer wall of the prison. Here there was a box (seemingly a soap box) and Sean was told to sit down upon it. He was perfectly calm, and said with me for the last time: ‘My Jesus, mercy.’ I scarcely had moved away a few yards when a volley went off, and this noble soldier of Irish Freedom fell dead. I rushed over to anoint him; his whole face seemed transformed and lit up with a grandeur and brightness that I had never before noticed

Never did I realise that men could fight so bravely, and die so beautifully, and so fearlessly as did the Heroes of Easter Week. On the morning of Sean Heuston’s death I would have given the world to have been in his place, he died in such a noble and sacred cause, and went forth to meet his Divine Saviour with such grand Christian sentiments of trust, confidence and love

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1916: Not Constance Markievicz, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me”

Add comment May 6th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916, the British field court meting out death sentences to Irish Easter Rising rebels announced eighteen commutations — most notably including Countess Constance Markievicz.

Markievicz has long been one of the most remarkable and compelling personalities of the Irish independence struggle. As her biographer noted, many other women of that cause are best-known “mainly because of their connection with more famous men.” Markievicz, notably, “stood alone, self-driven and self-confident. She was more than a muse or an enabler or a facilitator, the preferred roles for women to play.”

She was the privileged daughter of a baronet turned polar explorer who came to her distinctive name by marrying a Polish nobleman.** In her girlhood, she’d been presented at court to Queen Victoria.

She trained as a painter and her material circumstances put within her reach that charmed state of comfortable avant-garde consciousness. The Countess gave that up, for Ireland. The abhorrence of the daughter of the Provost of Trinity College Dublin is perhaps her most definitive epitaph: “the one woman amongst them [Irish republicans] of high birth and therefore the most depraved … she took to politics and left our class.”

By the late 1900s and into the 1910s she was a mainstay of hydra-headed radicalism: nationalist, suffragist, socialist. (She was a close friend and comrade of James Connolly.) In those years she could have spent in a pleasant Left Bank garret, she walked picket lines, burned flags, faced arrest, and sold jewelry to fund the soup kitchen she worked in.†

Markievicz co-founded the Fianna Eireann youth organization as a response to Baden-Powell‘s imperial scouting project. It would become an essential feeder for the republican organs (like the Irish Volunteers); Fianna itself was also well-represented among the Easter Rising fighters, and contributed that conflagration’s youngest martyr.

Bust of Constance Markievicz on St. Stephen’s Green, where she served in the Easter Rising.

But for her sex Markievicz would probably have been among the martyrs herself for her role on the St. Stephen’s Green barricade, and perhaps she wished it were so; she greeted the news of her May 6 commutation with the retort, “I do wish your lot had the decency to shoot me.” She’s been slated with having personally shot a constable during the Rising, although her defenders consider this a baseless smear.

While again in prison — she’d been amnestied from the Easter Rising stuff, but was arrested anew for anti-war activism — Markievicz successfully stood for election to Parliament, and in fact has the distinction of being the first woman elected a British M.P. … although she complied with Sinn Fein policy and refused to take the seat. She was also a member of the First Dail (parliament) of the revolutionary Irish Republic and was the first Irish female cabinet minister (Ministry of Labour).

Constance Markievicz died in 1927 at the age of 59, penniless in a public ward having disbursed the entirety of her wealth. A quarter-million of her fellow peoples of the Irish Free State thronged the streets of Dublin for her funeral.

* The other commutations (with their associated non-capital sentences) as published by the London Times of May 8, 1916:

Penal servitude for life. — Henry O’Hanrahan.

Ten years’ penal servitude. — Count George Plunkett, John Plunkett (his son).

Five years’ penal servitude. — Philip B. Cosgrave.

Three years’ penal servitude. — R. Kelly, W. Wilson, J. Clarke, J. Marks, J. Brennan, P. Wilson, W. Mechan, F. Brooks, R. Coleman, T. Peppard, J. Norton, J. Byrne, T. O’Kelly.

** It turned out that although Casimir Markievicz went by “Count Markievicz” there wasn’t actually any such title. But “Count” and “Countess” stuck nevertheless.

† She does perhaps forfeit some wokeness points for complaining of her post-Easter Rising imprisonment at Aylesbury that she was lodged with “the dregs of the population … no one to speak to except prostitutes who have been convicted for murder or violence. The atmosphere is the conversation of the brothel.”

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1916: John MacBride

Add comment May 5th, 2018 Headsman

Major John MacBride was shot on this date in 1916 for his improvised role in the Easter Rising.

A doctor by training and a republican by heart, MacBride earned his officer’s commission when, as an emigre to South Africa, he raised the Irish Transvaal Brigade to fight against the British during the Second Boer War. (The Boer nationalist cause was wildly popular among Irish nationalists: they had the same enemy.)

The British during that conflict were aggressive about treating as “rebels” even guerrillas whose nationality was in question, so the fact that the Irishman MacBride accepted citizenship from the Transvaal Republic and went to war against the Crown made him a right traitor in London’s eyes. After the war, he laid low in Paris and married Maud Gonne to the annoyance of the lovestruck poet W.B. Yeats who had unsuccessfully wooed Gonne.*

Back in Ireland once gone from Gonne, MacBride’s Boer War bona fides made him such an obvious locus of sedition that the Easter Rising conspirators kept him entirely away from their plot for fear of inviting the attention of whomever was watching MacBride. Instead, he walked into events accidentally, finding the rising occurring while he was in town to meet his brother.

A proper Irish patriot with military experience that the revolutionaries sorely needed,** MacBride recognized what was happening and presented himself to Thomas MacDonagh — who gave him a snap appointment to the command team occupying Jacob’s Biscuit Factory.

After events had run their course, MacBride embraced his martyrdom with such equanimity that some wondered whether he hadn’t tired of life. More likely, he was just being realistic: as he halloed to another prisoner who hailed him, “Nothing will save me, Sean. This is the end. Remember this is the second time I have sinned against them.” His dignified and fatalistic final address to the court that condemned him concluded,

I thank the officers of the court for the fair trial I have had, and the Crown counsel for the way he met every application I made. I have looked down the muzzles of too many guns in the South African War to fear death, and now please carry out your sentence.

* The two married in 1903 and divorced in 1905. Yeats alleged in private correspondence that MacBride had molested Gonne’s daughter, Iseult. (Repeatedly rebuffed by Maud Gonne, Yeats later also proposed to Iseult, who was 30 years his junior. There’s a lot going on here.) This allegation has blackened MacBride’s name down the years although its credibility remains in question since the jealous Yeats was an extremely hostile observer.

After the Easter Rising was crushed, Yeats spared some verse in his poem “Easter, 1916” to throw some (qualified) shade at his dead rival, which drew him a rebuke from Maud.

This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

** General Charles Blackader, who suppressed the Easter Rising and presided over the ensuing courts-martial, reportedly admired “the most soldierly” MacBride: “He on entering the court stood to attention, facing us. In his eyes, I could read: ‘You are soldiers, so am I. You have won. I have lost. Do your worst.'” (From Secret Court Martial Records of the Easter Rising)

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1916: Edward Daly, Michael O’Hanrahan, Willie Pearse, and Joseph Plunkett

Add comment May 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1916, four Easter Rising rebels were shot in Kilmainham Gaol’s Stonebreakers Yard — an almost novelistic selection of thematic successors to the three men who had been executed there the day before.

Journalist/novelist Michael O’Hanrahan was the close friend and aide-de-camp of one of those May 3 executees, Tom MacDonagh — the two of them directing the rebel occupation of the Jacob’s Biscuit Factory during the week of April 24.

Edward Daly was the brother-in-law of Fenian ultra Tom Clarke, another man who had been shot on May 3.

Daly, at least, was a battalion commander during the Easter Rising and a part of the rising’s leadership; sculptor Willie Pearse was a mere run-of-the-mill rebel of the type that the British were not executing … save for that surname which he shared with his brother Patrick, the third Republican ringleader shot on May 3. Having seemingly absorbed an extra ration of fury intended for his brother, Willie Pearse’s execution was keenly felt as an injustice from the first.

But perhaps none of the Easter Rising executions tugged the heartstrings quite like that of Joseph Plunkett, a poet and Esperantist who was also one of the signatories of the seditious Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Plunkett had been one of the conspiracy’s secret emissaries to Germany, arranging shipments of arms that the British ultimately intercepted.

At midnight, due to be shot in a few hours with the day’s first light, Plunkett was married by a prison chaplain to his sweetheart, artist and Sinn Fein activist Grace Gifford. This tragic union made Grace Gifford and her sister Muriel double widows, for Muriel’s husband was Tom MacDonagh — the aforementioned already-executed associate of Michael O’Hanrahan.

There are roads, railway stations, football clubs, and the like named for all four of these men at various places in Ireland.

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Themed Set: The Easter Rising

Add comment May 3rd, 2018 Headsman

“Sixteen Dead Men”
by W.B. Yeats*

O but we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot?

You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh’s bony thumb?

How could you dream they’d listen
That have an ear alone
For those new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,
Or meddle with our give and take
That converse bone to bone?

When 1,600 brave or foolhardy Irish nationalists seized the center of Dublin on the morrow of Easter in 1916, it should by every right have been a death knell for their movement.

Their rude barricades would only withstand London’s pressure for a few days; the famous headquarters in Dublin’s General Post Office (GPO) was battered to rubble by British ordnance. By the end of the apparent debacle, the cream of Irish Republicanism — including every single man who set his name to a ferocious Robert Emmet-inspired Proclamation of the Irish Republic — had been laid in the earth.

“We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible,” that document read in part. “The long usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has not extinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destruction of the Irish people.”

In the first days of May, as the leaders of the self-styled “Irish Republic” were fusilladed in Kilmainham Gaol, the words rang downright laughable. An insurrection of poets — comprising, in the words of Joyce Kilmer, “men of literary tastes and training, who went into battle, as one of the dispatches from Dublin phrased it, ‘with a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other.'”**

Yet somehow, impossibly, with weapons that wouldn’t rate a slingshot against the globe’s paramount Goliath — an empire that had lately made short and brutal work of the Boers, and was wasting cannon meat by the divisionfold on the western front — these dreamers’ doomed revolution touched off the chain reaction that would eject Ireland from the empire. One of them was destined to go from a British condemned cell to the the presidency of his country. It’s all just too providential to believe.†

As the eponymous John Dolan notes in Radio War Nerd episode 23,

At the time, when the survivors were being led away to their executions through the smoking ruins of Dublin, people cursed their names … but as they were executed, very roughly and very clumsily because it was a wartime administration and all the good British troops were in Europe … those badly handled executions created a martyrdom, and that martyrdom is something that taps very deeply into Irish culture. It’s a very Shia culture in that way. So the total military failure of the Easter Rising became an effective long-term success.

British troops left the country, or at least most of the country, five years later. And that seems kind of ordinary to us now because British troops began leaving all kinds of countries, without violence sometimes, a half-century later. But you have to remember, in 1916, no one had managed to fight their way out of the British Empire in a century.

There’s a great lecture series on the Irish Revolution (including but not limited to the Easter Rising) here.

Irish nationalists still commemorate the Easter Rising — on the moveable Easter Monday date, rather than the April 24-29 span of street fighting — and still cherish the 16 martyrs made by British guns day after day that May.

Previously covered (and not chronologically contiguous)

* Yeats was an Irish nationalist for whom this political event was intensely personal: Yeats’s marriage proposals to fellow-radical Maud Gonne had been rebuffed repeatedly, until she finally married John MacBride … one of the Easter Rising leaders who would be shot that bloody May.

Yeats has a longer meditation on events in another poem, “Easter, 1916”.

** Foreshadowing 1980s Irish Republicans’ policy: “a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other”.

† The reader may judge of the Great Man theory, but it certainly did not hurt the Irish cause that future guerrilla genius Michael Collins, arrested when the rebels surrendered the GPO, was not at that time a significant enough figure to be worth the British executioners’ while.

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1916: Thomas MacDonagh, Patrick Pearse, and Thomas Clarke

Add comment May 3rd, 2018 Headsman

Thomas MacDonagh, Padraig (Patrick) Pearse, and Thomas Clarke — three of the principal Irish Republican leaders of the Easter Rising against British domination that had been crushed just days before — were shot in Dublin’s Kilmainham Gaol on this date in 1916.


Illustration from the New York Times, May 7, 1916.
“To a Poet Captain”
by Thomas MacDonagh

His songs were a little phrase
Of eternal song,
Drowned in the harping of lays
More loud and long.

His deeds were a single word,
Called out alone
In a night when no echo stirred to laughter,
To laughter or moan.

But his songs new souls shall thrill,
The loud harps dumb,
And his deeds the echoes fill
When the dawn is come.

MacDonagh and Pearse were contemporaries of one another: poets, progressive educators, Gaelic revivalists; men who girded for battle “with a revolver in one hand and a copy of Sophocles in the other.” Each dreamer commanded a unit of Irish Volunteers during the week of April 24-30, MacDonagh occupying Jacobs Factory and Pearse the iconic General Post Office, in which post it was Pearse’s sorrow to issue the surrender order by the end of the quixotic week.

Clarke, cut from another cloth, was a Fenian revolutionist of an older vintage, who had disappeared into British prison after trying to bomb London Bridge in the 1880s, then emigrated for a time to the United States. Drawn to a reviving nationalist movement, Clarke had the honor of affixing his name first upon the Rising’s Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Pearse and MacDonagh signed it too: a fatal endorsement for they three and for each of the other four men to lend it their signatures.

“My comrades and I believe we have struck the first successful blow for freedom,” Clarke said via a statement given out by his impressive wife Kathleen. “And so sure as we are going out this morning so sure will freedom come as a direct result of our action … In this belief, we die happy.”


This traditional Irish song was updated with patriotic verse by Patrick Pearse.

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1916: Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson, by Captain Bowen-Colthurst

Add comment April 26th, 2018 Headsman

On the morning of this date in 1916, British Captain John Bowen-Colthurst ordered the summary execution of three Irish journalists in his custody: part of a still-notorious murderous rampage through Dublin amid the Easter Rising.

Bowen-Colthurst’s subsequent “insanity” skate has been a sore subject in the century since its predictable enactment.

The product of landed Anglo-Irish elites — his childhood manor, Dripsey Castle, still stands — had trotted the globe in service of the empire: the Boer Wars, India, Tibet, and the western front.

It’s the sort of background that should have made Bowen-Colthurst a calm hand in a tight spot.* Instead, the Easter Rising panicked him. Atrocities against Irish nationalists are not exactly surprising in the abstract here, but Bowen-Colthurst’s behavior in these hours was so erratic and violent that his men would remark that he had lost his head … although they strikingly never disobeyed his patently illegal orders.

At Portobello Barracks in Dublin, which in this week swarmed chaotically with off-duty leave soldiers reporting themselves for duty in the face of the armed insurrection, the Third Royal Irish Rifles’ commander was absent on sick leave and evidently took command discipline with him. “Captain Colthurst, although not the equal in rank of Major Rosborough, was the senior office in point of service and, according to all the evidence, considered himself at liberty to ignore his brother-officers,” Francis Sheehy-Skeffington’s widow explained.

Sheehy-Skeffington — a gentle pacifist affectionately known among antiwar socialists and the women’s movement as “Skeffy” — had been arrested on sight on April 25th, while out and about trying to dissuade looters. Bowen-Colthurst marched him out overnight as a human shield for a random patrol, and did not mind murdering before his eyes a passing young man caught out after curfew.

Proceeding along, Bowen-Colthurst grenades a tobacconist’s shop, mistakenly thinking that its owner, named Kelly, was Sinn Fein man Tom Kelly. In fact, the tobacconist Kelly was a loyalist, as were the two publishers that Bowen-Colthurst arrested at his place: Patrick McIntyre and Thomas Dickson.

Ignoring their protests, our unstable captain brought all three men back to the barracks. By morning’s light, he had decided on no authority but his own to have them executed.

“I am taking these prisoners out and I am going to shoot them because I think it is the right thing to do” was all the justification that he submitted. Later, he would say that he feared the prisoners would escape; that, believing that Germans were landing and revolutionaries were gunning down Black and Tans throughout Dublin, “I took the gloomiest view of the situation and felt that only desperate measures would save the situation.” So he shot the one guy who didn’t want to fight and two guys who were on his own team. According to later testimony, he would even order Skeffy to be re-shot upon being informed that the man was still moving several minutes after execution.

Still, the tilting captain had enough self-possession to openly worry to a brother-officer that he might have committed a hanging offense … and to actively conceal the evidence of it. Had events not been exposed by a courageous whistleblower, Sir Francis Vane, everything surely would have been obfuscated into the soupy fog of war. Embarrassingly compelled by Vane’s tattling to court-martial Bowen-Colthurst only to pass him off to an asylum (and later, to Canada), the brass took it out on Vane by terminating his career a few months later: “this officer was relegated to unemployment owing to his action in the Skeffington murder case in the Sinn Fein rebellion.”

Uproar at the Bowen-Colthurst affair had some interesting knock-on effects: for one thing, the naked impunity available to an officer at a time when enlisted men in France were being shot at dawn for minor disciplinary lapses might have contributed to the British command’s decision later in 1916 to permit the execution of a shellshocked lieutenant. And, an associate of the loyalist British commander in Ireland during the Easter Rising claimed that Sheehy-Skeffington blowback subsequently led to the execution reprieve granted to Eamon de Valera: that future president of independent Ireland just so happened to have his name “first on the list” when the matter came to a head.

Today, a visitor center at the former Portobello Barracks (now called Cathal Brugha Barracks) memorializes the three men executed there on April 26, 1916.

* We don’t mean to be cavalier about the psychological strains inflicted by violence. Bowen-Colthurst seemed to exhibit signs of shell shock in the trenches, whether due to the shells themselves or to having lost his younger brother in the war.

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1920: James Daly, Connaught Rangers mutineer

1 comment November 2nd, 2010 Headsman

The British Empire administered its last execution for mutiny on this date in 1920 — that of Irish Private James Daly of the Connaught Rangers.

A Dublin cemetery preserves a monument to Daly and his comrades.

You can take the Irishman out of Ireland, but not Ireland out of the Irishman. Something like that.

Daly was shot in Dagshai prison, India, but the reason for his death was that old familiar of his homeland’s history: nationalism.

Half a world away, London was playing the bad guys in the Irish War of Independence.

It was a conflict uniquely suited for dividing comrades; little wonder that it also divided comrades in arms.

Having lately bled for His Majesty in the War to End All Wars, plenty of Irish enlistees were nonplussed to see troops deployed to their own neighborhoods, Black and Tans shooting up their friends and family.*

From June 1920, a number of Irish Connaught Rangers “grounded arms” for their brethren in Eire, refusing to serve Britain while British troops occupied Ireland. One thing led to another, and a group (led by Daly, and his brother William) ended up trying to rush an armory to recover its weapons, opposed by other Rangers who remained loyal to the crown.

Fourteen death sentences were handed down for this show of indiscipline, but Daly’s was the only one actually carried out. The Rangers were disbanded two years later with the formation of the Irish Free State. And everyone lived happily ever after.

* Connaught Rangers had been used (without incident) to suppress the Easter Rising in 1916.

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1916: Sir Roger Casement

7 comments August 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Roger Casement was hanged for treason by the British crown that had knighted him only a few years before.

Casement died for his part in the Easter Rising, but this Irish nationalist hero’s layered story has long made him a very different sort of cultural marker than, say, James Connolly.

Casement came to public prominence for his damning report on Belgium’s atrocious treatment of natives in its Congo colony, e.g.:

[T]he great decrease in population, the dirty and ill-kept towns, and the complete absence of goats, sheep, or fowls — once very plentiful in this country — were to be attributed above all else to the continued effort made during many years to compel the natives to work india-rubber. Large bodies of native troops had formerly been quartered in the district, and the punitive measures undertaken to his end had endured for a considerable period. During the course of these operations there had been much loss of life, accompanied, I fear, by a somewhat general mutilation of the dead, as proof that the soldiers had done their duty.

. . . Two cases (of mutilation) came to my actual notice while I was in the lake district. One, a young man, both of whose hands had been beaten off with the butt ends of rifles against a tree; the other a young lad of 11 or 12 years of age, whose right hand was cut off at the wrist. . . . I both these cases the Government soldiers had been accompanied by white officers whose names were given to me. Of six natives (one a girl, three little boys, one youth, and one old woman) who had been mutilated in this way during the rubber regime, all except one were dead at the date of my visit.

[A sentry in the employ of one of the concessionary private companies] said he had caught and was detaining as prisoners (eleven women) to compel their husbands to bring in the right amount of rubber required of them on the next market day. . . . When I asked what would become of these women if their husbands failed to bring in the right quantity of rubber . . , he said at once that then they would be kept there until their husbands had redeemed them.

Casement’s is an honorable name in the campaign for the Congo, an early human rights and anti-colonial struggle; in this 92-minute BBC documentary on the notorious depredations in the Congo, the Casement report’s creation and impact are treated from about 1:15:15 through the end:

A similar investigation undertaken in Peru — where the lens focused on British employers, rather than strictly the malfeasance of foreign states — earned him knighthood in 1911, but Casement’s personal evolution from loyal Protestant* imperial operative with a sympathy for the Irish cause to revolutionary nationalist was already underway. “This journey into the depths of the Congo has been useful in helping me discover my own country and understand her situation, her destiny, her reality,” he wrote his sister. “I’ve also found my true self: the incorrigible Irishman.”

He resigned from the consular service and began recruiting for the Irish Volunteers.

As World War I opened, Casement identified British aggression as its cause, an extension of the violent imperial hegemony he chronicled in The Crime Against Europe:

The British Empire was not founded in peace; how, then can it be kept by peace, or ensured by peace-treaties? It was born of pillage and blood-shed, and has been maintained by both; and it cannot now be secured by a common language any more than a common Bible. The lands called the British Empire belong to many races, and it is only by the sword and not by the Book of Peace or any pact of peace that those races can be kept from the ownership of their own countries.

While any Irish Republican would have agreed with that sentiment, the resulting moral and tactical calculus for the Irish cause to ally with the German was not universally embraced — and was certainly anathema to the British.

“In the Streets of Catania”
by Roger Casement

All that was beautiful and just,
All that was pure and sad
Went in one little, moving plot of dust
The world called bad.

Came like a highwayman, and went,
One who was bold and gay,
Left when his lightly loving mood was spent
Thy heart to pay.

By-word of little street and men,
Narrower theirs the shame,
Tread thou the lava loving leaves, and then
Turn whence it came.

Ætna, all wonderful, whose heart
Glows as thine throbbing glows,
Almond and citron bloom quivering at start,
Ends in pure snows.

Casement spent the first two years of the Great War in Germany itself, and arranged a shipment of guns that would have supported the Easter Rising, but thought the aid too little and too late. He had a German U-boat drop him at Ireland, trying to get word to the Republican leadership to postpone the revolt.** Instead, he was picked up three days before the doomed rising and hanged after a sensational trial.†

His “treason” — and of course, the very crime of which he was convicted imports a British legitimacy in Ireland that Casement explicitly rejected — shocked many old associates, but he still had friends in high places. To dampen the international clemency campaign, England circulated the notorious “Black Diaries,” photographs of supposed Casement diary pages detailing the author’s homosexuality.

This dirty (and successful) trick brings a personal-is-political quality to Casement’s legacy as well as an enduring debate over the diaries’ authenticity. Since Irish nationalism gained mainstream acceptance well before homosexuality, right-thinking folk long held the Black Diaries a forgery, and time was you solicited a black eye by saying otherwise in the wrong company.

The gay rights movement has seen a posthumous redefinition of Casement; although homosexuality was not on the indictment against him, one could argue that it was the reason he hanged. Given recent handwriting forensics that support the diaries’ authenticity, the general‡ consensus about the Black Diaries has inverted with the effect of only heightening sympathy for their alleged author, albeit at the expense of some tension over how to situate that characteristic within the whole of Casement’s life and thought.

And that is only one aspect of the shifting place of Casement in the firmament of Republican martyrs since his death. His hagiography waxed in the interwar years, with Yeats among those calling for the return of Casement’s remains in The Ghost of Roger Casement”.

But the humanitarian’s German ties were an inconvenience as World War II raged, and not until afterward was that cause renewed. When his body was finally returned in 1965, an Irish state funeral elided the matter of the diaries.

Even Casement himself, who would be the last to die for the Easter Rising, had a hand in the myth-making. His last mission’s purpose to avert the Easter Rising fit neither the government’s interest in maximizing his perfidy nor Casement’s own in identifying with the Irish cause; he himself therefore owned the Rising fully in his defense which made him fine fodder for Republican hymns like “Lonely Banna Strand”:

RTE radio’s What If? series recently explored Casement’s complex legacy:

[audio:http://www.rte.ie/podcasts/2008/pc/pod-v-240208-27m06-whatif.mp3]

As Casement put it in his voluminous personal writing, “It is a cruel thing to die with all men misunderstanding — misapprehending — and to be silent forever.”

* Casement’s father was Protestant and his mother was Catholic; he lived with a somewhat split identity between the two faiths, but formally converted to Catholicism while awaiting execution (which surely did not hurt his memory to the Irish cause) and his last meal was simply the Host.

** The guns themselves were interdicted by the British navy and ended up scuttled to the ocean floor.

† Since Casement’s incitements to rebellion had occurred on foreign soil, there was some fine legal parsing over whether he could be tried for “treason.” The dispute resolved to the placement of a comma in a medieval law — leading to the epigram/-taph that Casement was “hanged by a comma.” In the midst of war and before an English jury, however, punctuation was an even weaker defense than it sounds.

‡ But still not universal.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,Germany,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Intellectuals,Ireland,Martyrs,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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