How Can the People of 2016 Best Commemorate Roger Casement’s Ideals and Work?

Author: Éamon Ó Cuív, T.D.

This is the text of a lecture delivered by Éamon Ó Cuív, T.D. at Tionóil Mhic Easmainn, Tralee, Co. Kerry on September 4, 2015 regarding Casement’s importance and relevancy for Ireland in 2016. Born 1950, Ó Cuív has represented Fianna Fáil in the Galway West constituency since 1992. He has served as Government Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands; Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Minister for Social Protection; Minister for Defence and Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Ministry for Social Protection.


Tá fíor áthas orm bheith anseo. Tá mé buíoch den chuireadh ó Thionól Ruairí Mhic Easmainn agus den Chathaoirleach Seán Seosamh Ó Conchubhair. Táim i láthair stairithe cumasacha anseo anocht.  Ní staraí mé ach polaiteoir gníomhach agus is mar sin a labhróidh mé anseo anocht. Fear cumasach, gníomhach, éirimiúil, cróga ab ea Mac Easmainn agus bhí a cháil i bhfad agus i ngearr sular thosaigh sé ag plé le cúrsaí náisiúnachais in Éirinn. In less than a year from now we will commemorate the execution of Roger Casement, the last of the 1916 leaders to be executed. I will not give a history of Casement’s life tonight: there are others here present much more accomplished to do that. What I will do is outline how I think we could fittingly, and in a permanent way, commemorate this great Gael of Antrim stock who personified in his life so many wonderful traits.

I was brought up to have a great respect for Casement and he certainly was one of the Irish historical figures whom were talked about not only by my de Valera grandparents but also particularly by my mother. A number of stories about Casement and his connection with my family will illustrate this point.

My grandfather used to tell a story about the time prior to the rising in the 1913-1915 period when he was headmaster of the Irish College in Tawin Island near Oranmore in County Galway.  Apparently Casement who was very interested in the Irish language visited the college and gave my grandfather £5 for a sports day–a very generous sum in those days. One of the races my grandfather organized was a race for men over eighty years of age who were present. Tim Holland, a resident of the island, whose mother lived to over a 100 years of age and whom I got to know at the time of my election to the Oireachtas, recently confirmed this to me. She died in the early ‘90s which would have meant she was an adult in the period in question.

Another interesting thing to confirm my grandparents’ respect for Casement is that by uncle Ruaidhrí de Valera who was born in the Autumn of 1916 was called after him rather than any other of the leaders of the Rising— obviously the black diaries had no impact on my very determined grandmother. It is also worth noting that during the period that Éamon de Valera was President of Ireland the painting “The Trial of Roger Casement” hung in Áras an Uachtaráin main hall.

As you know the State Funeral of Casement took place in early 1965 on a cold, wet, sleety miserable day. We were brought to his lying in state and were also brought outside of Glasnevin for the funeral. We did not get into the graveyard, but I have a vivid memory of that cold day. President Éamon de Valera delivered the oration and in the beginning he mentions an event that happened at the graveside in Pentonville Prison in 1917 before their release when Eoin Mac Néill, a fellow Antrim man, removed a sod from the grave to have as a keepsake of Roger Casement.

With this abiding and deep respect for Casement I will try to outline how I think we can best commemorate his ideals and work. I am going to break this down into different themes: Foreign Policy, Freedom, Human Rights, An Ghaeilge, Irish Unity, and Physical Commemoration.

Foreign Policy:

I have always believed that one of the obligations of an independent Irish state, with a brutal past, is to stand up for the rights of other small nations worldwide and to vindicate these rights. We need a diplomacy that not only looks to our only legitimate interests but also fearlessly pursues an international order based on international objective justice between nations and one that clearly ensures that the interests of powerful international power-blocks have no right to trample on the legitimate rights of small nations. In the 1930s at the League of Nations, Ireland was to the forefront of defending this approach as personified in the approach taken to the invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) by Italy. During the 1960s, by our work at the United Nations led by Frank Aiken, Ireland was once again to the forefront in taking independent, and at times, controversial stands in international affairs. This won our country great respect from emerging nations. Our role in peace keeping is very much in the mould of Roger Casement’s world view and is of great credit to our country. There has been in recent years a slow, but inexorable, change in our approach to world affairs. Our focus is getting narrower and more confined to a narrow European view with our foreign policy priorities being largely determined and dominated by narrow regional strategic interests which in terms are dominated by ex-colonial powers in the EU. Rather than our horizons being widened and our influence being increased by our status as a nation in the EU, the opposite would seem to be happening. Even our involvement in UN peace keeping seems more to be on a “regional basis” being formed now around the battle-groups of the EU. In memory of Casement, we should resolve to use all world and European forums to articulate a values-based approach to world affairs and make our presence felt in the cause of justice, particularly for the weak and vulnerable of the world even, if at times, it means crossing our EU neighbors’ selfish interests. It would be a total betrayal of Casement’s ideals if we were to become members of the “club of world colonizers” against the poor of the world.



In his speech from the dock, Casement said “self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth, a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people, than the right to life itself–than the right to feel the sun or smell the flowers or to love our kind.” We live in a very different world from Roger Casement with the global village very much a reality. In this complex world, co-operation between states, international laws and participation in international forums is not only good sense but necessary. We must be active and involved on the world and European stage. However, this is only a justified if we have a fair input into decisions and if we have the right to reject major decisions clearly not in our national interests or corresponding to our core values. That Irish people have become concerned by the ever greater ceding of power to the European Union is evident in the results of referendums and also the results of the last European Parliament elections.  There is a need to have an open and honest debate in this country on whether we see ourselves, in the future, as part of a federal European Union Super Power or whether that Union should develop as a union of nation states with the right of states to participate on a case by case basis in EU major policy areas. With the impending British negotiations there is an opportunity for us to also consider our position and the best policy for Ireland.  (By the way I do not believe the British will leave the EU and even if they did, they will not give up on free trade within the Union nor is free movement within this island in question). Already the European Union works on this basis in relation to the Schengen Agreement (free movement) of which we are not part. The Euro, of which we are part, aspects of Common Defence of which we are not part, as well as having free movement and free trade with countries in the EEA such as Switzerland and Norway. On our immediate shopping list in discussions with the European Union could be our bank debt and fiscal policy, the maintenance of our military neutrality, our fishing grounds and our right to set and decide our own tax policy. The refusal to have an open debate on these issues should be of major concern to us and shows a society where public discourse, despite all the media, can be very narrow and non-enquiring. The response of the establishment at this time seems to be solely focussed on keeping “Britain in the EU” instead of examining the exciting possibilities this debate opens up for us. As we ought to have found out by now, cosy consensuses can be a dangerous thing!


Human Rights:

Casement’s work against human rights abuses was central to his life and his move away from imperialism. Coming to the Congo from a background that believed that the white man’s civilisation was supreme, he changed his view. His work in exposing the terrible human rights abuses endured there by native workers earned him rightful recognition, as did his work in the Amazon jungle. His clear, first-person testimonies of what was going on helped highlight abuses against some of the most vulnerable people in the world. These types of abuses are still all too common today; torture, exploitation and denial of freedom are widespread throughout the world.  Ireland, because of our history, must never be afraid to highlight these injustices, particularly when they happen to groups of people or ethnic groups that nobody wants to defend or very few are interested in.  The need for Ireland to give a positive lead in the recent humanitarian crisis in the Middle East is also a case in point and we should give the lead in demanding a humanitarian solution to this crisis. Within our own country we must also examine our tolerance and attitudes to certain groups who are clearly outsiders within their own society. We often salve our consciences that these groups deserve the way they are treated but this does not justify our attitudes. I am going to mention one group in particular—the Travellers, Ireland’s ethnic minority, who based on scientific sociological analysis are the least respected group in our society.  Based on research across a broad range of groups in our society, Father Micheál Mac Gréil clearly established in his 2011 book Pluralism and Diversity in Ireland: Prejudice and Related Issues in Early 21st Century Ireland that this group is the group subject to the most prejudice in our society. He also points to the vicious circle of attitude affecting behaviour, conditions and round and round it goes, reinforcing predjudice. As he termed it in the book’s dedication, it is “Ireland’s apartheid.” It must be a matter of concern to us that 18% of our population believe Travellers should be denied citizenship. I have at first hand experienced incredible prejudice against Travellers and I am also glad to say that I have very good friends in the Travelling community who totally give lie to the deep seated prejudices against them. I also must mention here tonight the continuing human rights abuses against Republican prisoners in Northern Ireland that I and a cross party group of Oireachtas members have been working on over the last four years. Unfortunately the media have shown no interest in this issue. I do welcome the recent appointment by the Minister for Justice in Northern Ireland, David Ford, of the International Red Cross to chair a recently established prison forum to examine issues of concern in the treatment of Republicans in the prison.


An Ghaeilge:

Casement developed a deep seated interest in the Irish language, realising the importance of the Irish language to national identity. In particular he realised the importance of the Gaeltacht which he visited on a number of occasions. In today’s multi-cultural global village, identity is more important than ever. As a person who had travelled widely around the world, he clearly had formed the view that the suppression of native cultures and their languages was not in mankind’s interest and that cultural and language diversity is a good thing. The development of the Irish language and culture is not about closing out the world but is much more about adding to the world’s store of language and culture; about building an Irish identity that is not based on being against any other group but rather based on our own rich cultural contribution to the world. What better commemoration we could have of Casement in 2016 than a clear statement by all parties in the Dáil that they will fully implement the 20 year strategy on the Irish language approved in 2010 and supported by all parties at the time, and that they will make the necessary resources available to do this.


Irish Unity and Physical Commemoration:

Casement’s life journey and background are very interesting. Raised for a large part in England and in Galgorm Castle in County Antrim, he experienced an unusually wide perspective on the world. That North Antrim at the time was producing interesting people would be an understatement with a very diverse cultural tapestry from strong Unionism to the old Gaelic tradition. Returning to his roots, he was involved in setting up Feis na nGleann in the Glens of Antrim in 1904 that uniquely harnessed the talents of the people of the Glens of Antrim and a group of “Big House” figures in the locality including Rose Young (Róise Ní Ógain) of Galgorm Castle, aunt of Lord Brookborough and a life-long unionist (also a relation of Casement’s), Miss Ada McNeill of Cushendun and Miss Margaret Dobbs, Eoin McNeill and Joseph Biggar. He obviously had a very wide view of Irish identity and was well aware of the complex and diverse makeup of the Irish nation. It is clear that he believed strongly that if the Irish nation—nationalist, republican and unionist—were left to sort out matters for themselves that they would succeed in doing so and bring about a new future for this island. We, in our time, with the Good Friday Agreement, for all its faults, now have that opportunity. The question is do we have the will and the breath of vision to achieve the bringing together of our nation for the better of all. Are we willing to work with the unionist community and show generosity to them so that they will find that sharing with the nationalist majority does not in any mean a dilution of their culture and beliefs? Those strong in their own culture are, in my view, in the best position to embrace and share other people’s cultures and fear the least. Interestingly, in his speech from the dock he addressed the “Ulster Issue” when he said “neither I nor any of the leaders of the Irish Volunteers who were founded in November, 1913 had quarrel with the Ulster Volunteers as such, who were born a year earlier.” He went on to say “We aimed at uniting all Irishmen in a natural and national bond of cohesion based on mutual self-respect. Our hope was a natural one, and if lest to ourselves, not hard to accomplish. If external influence of disintegration would leave us alone, we were sure that Nature must bring us together.” What a better task on the 100th anniversary of his execution to recommit ourselves to this task.

Finally, in a very fine article written by Martina Devlin, published in the Irish Independent on the July 9, 2015, she made the case for fulfilling Casement’s dying wish to be buried in Murlough, looking down on the Moyle in County Antrim. I would hope by this time next year progress will be made with fulfilling his wish, even by the erection of a memorial to him there and that both Unionists and Nationalists in North Antrim will come to recognize the contribution, for the betterment of mankind, of this great man whose heart and thoughts turned to his roots and their area as his death approached. I will certainly, for one, work to bring this about.