Roger Casement and America

Author: Robert Schmuhl (University of Notre Dame)

For the average American trying to keep up with world affairs in 1916, Roger Casement was the most prominent and intriguing figure involved in the Easter Rising. Indeed, reports of his capture—the first accounts appeared Tuesday, April 25th, one day after the Rising began, with The Los Angeles Times getting off on the wrong foot with the headline “Sir Robert Arrested”—initiated coverage in the U.S. of what The Washington Post described as a “serious revolutionary outbreak,” and Casement’s execution (on August 3rd in London) served to signal the end of the extensive, recurring attention to the Rising in America.

In certain respects, Sir Roger’s arrest and his hanging just over three months later frame how people across the Atlantic learned about Easter Week and its aftermath. He kept the story alive—as he and his supporters sought in court proceedings and through the pressure of public opinion to escape the noose. Though his objective in coming to Ireland was in part to prevent the insurrection from beginning, Casement personified the Rising and its portrayal in the States. In 2008, Roy Foster wrote, “Casement has been honoured with far more biographies, articles, plays, poems and Letters to the Editor than all the 1916 leaders put together . . . .”[1] All that attention—celebrityhood, in today’s parlance—began for Americans the day after the occupation of the Dublin GPO. In fact, it took until April 29th—the Saturday P.H. Pearse submitted his “unconditional surrender”—before people other than Casement received recognition by name in U.S. coverage for involvement in the rebel cause.

To a certain extent, Sir Roger was the story as first reports of the Rising made their way across the Atlantic. A headline on the front page of The Washington Post on that Tuesday (April 25th) of Easter Week announced: “Capture Sir Roger in Irish Filibuster.” And a smaller headline underneath it ominously suggested: “Predict Death for Knight.” The same day, The New York Times published a lengthy dispatch with a London dateline and a photograph of Casement on page one. In the fifth paragraph, two phrases stick out: “madcap enterprise” and “mentally unbalanced.”[2]

Four days later, on that fateful Saturday, The New York Times amazingly published eighteen—yes, eighteen—separate articles of varying length and approach about the Rising. An editorial and a piece of commentary focus directly on Casement with unrestrained vehemence. The editorial refers to him as “that treasonable Irishman” and speculates, “Indeed, it is possible that the whole expedition was planned by the Germans as a means to get rid of a tall, deep-bearded conspirator whose efforts to explain Irish politics had begun to menace their reason.”[3] In the commentary, “A Familiar Form of Insanity,” the newspaper dilates on his “mental disturbance” before positing: “The one argument for treating Casement with leniency—with anything less than the full rigor of the law he knew and defied—is that to make of him the martyr he aspires to be would have extremely inconvenient consequences . . . .”[4]

What makes this remark worth noting is that it is the third occasion in four days that this newspaper carried criticism of Casement in its “Topics of the Times” column. The first, which appeared on April 26th and was titled “Fate of Sir Roger Casement,” engages in amateur psychology, an avocation (as we’ll see) that other journalistic outlets pursued when considering the humanitarian and Irish nationalist. The commentary—trained on Casement rather than the Rising—opens in a backhanded, convoluted manner: “Charity, seeking, as charity must, an explanation that will serve as an excuse for a crime as abhorrent to all the world as treason, finds first and only the possibility that Sir Roger Casement was a victim of the neurasthenia that so often diminishes or destroys the moral responsibility of men who stay too long and work too hard in the tropics.”[5] After additional speculation and criticism of the Germans, the final sentence leaves little doubt about the future: “It was a sort of suicide, for the plea of insanity, the only plea his friends can make, is unlikely to save him.”[6]

The next day, April 27th, the newspaper offered additional interpretation with a definite viewpoint. Called “Casement’s Case and Tone’s,” this comparative assessment between Casement and Wolfe Tone, the eighteenth-century Irish revolutionary convicted for treason after his involvement in the 1798 Rebellion, sees the two figures as distinctly different—with Tone having a “good excuse for adopting almost any measures, no matter how desperate, for remedying them” in “Ireland’s grievances against England.”[7] By contrast, Casement, according to this opinion, was “twice a traitor” for opposing Britain at the time of the Great War (with the Irish and British fighting together) and for “joining and aiding the Germans” before returning to Ireland. The last paragraph strikes a note to which the newspaper keeps returning almost obsessively:

All this, of course, has nothing to do with the question whether the British Government will or should put Sir Roger Casement to death. Its right to do so is unquestionable, and its duty to do so could be argued with some force, but that it would be wise is something more than doubtful. Discretion will probably decide against giving even a cause as bad as his its martyr. The effects of that are invariably at least inconvenient.[8]

Several of the earliest news reports about Casement’s capture include the judgment of “old friends” that “he is mentally unbalanced.” As we have already seen with The New York Times, Casement’s psychological state seems fair game in his portrayal, and, as a subject, it recurs with such frequency that someone today is forced to wonder why journalists kept returning to such a personal concern without evidence to support the claim. As with the scandalous diary entries that circulated near the time of Casement’s execution, were questions about his intellectual stability being raised by British authorities and others who were opposed to Casement and what he represented? Why do we find this refrain, and how did it originate? Was the larger intention to sully the cause he championed?

As early as late November of 1914, articles in British and American newspapers published the conjecture of no less a connoisseur of ratiocination than Arthur Conan Doyle that Roger Casement, to use the judgment of one headline, was “insane.” In a letter to The Daily Chronicle about Casement’s mission to Germany, begun a few weeks earlier, Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, noted: “Last May I had letters from him from Ireland which seemed to me so wild that I expressed fears at the time as to the state of his nerves. I have no doubt that he is not in his normal state of mind, and that this unhappy escapade at Berlin is only an evidence of it.”[9]

Doyle is not without sympathy for his subject, whom he knows, and the author traces the problems to Casement’s service in sun-scorching climates, such as South America, saying: “He was a sick man, however, worn by tropical hardships, and he complained often of pains in his head.”[10] Doyle’s assessment of Casement received attention not only because Sir Roger was consorting with the Germans but also for the reason that his humanitarian work in Africa and South America had previously brought him prominence as a figure deserving journalistic coverage in U.S. newspapers.

Casement’s elite status—Yanks have been suckers for royalty and titles a long time—and his confrontational stance against Britain proved irresistible to American editors: a human-interest tale offered the possibility of telling a complicated story involving Ireland, England, the United States—and Germany. At the time, Casement was a magnet for news, and this attraction produced continuing scrutiny and speculation. On April 30th, the day after the surrender, The Boston Globe published a lengthy Sunday profile, “Sir Roger Casement’s Astounding Career,” and on May 14th The Washington Post ran an essay by Casement under the headline “England Seeking U.S. Aid to Dominate All Europe, Says Sir Roger Casement.” On May 21st, The New York Times Sunday Magazine printed nine letters from Casement to Poultney Bigelow, sketching out Casement’s views about the “virus of British Imperialism.” Bigelow, an author who first met Casement in 1896, introduces the letters with a brief memoir: “We became warm friends immediately and I am happy of an opportunity to bear witness to his many noble qualities, even though madness may cause him to die with a stain of treason on his illustrious name.”[11] Later Bigelow elaborates on his psychological diagnosis: “Casement commenced his career of madness through a too strenuous study of Irish mythology masquerading under the name of history.” Some of the letters to Bigelow were reprinted in the Chicago Tribune the following Sunday, May 28th.

On June 4th, The Washington Post ran a mock conversation, offering a debate about Casement’s sanity. Headlined “Madmen Make History: Sir Roger Casement Would Have Been Immortal If He Had Succeeded” and reprinted from the Saturday Evening Post, one of the fictional speakers sees close-to-home parallels in the actions being discussed. “If America had not had at all times a sufficient supply of madmen on hand,” he states, “it would not have become America.”[12] Let me reiterate: the extent to which Casement received press attention is critical—and worth probing at some length—because he served at this key moment as the human lightning rod for attracting American interest in the struggle for Irish independence.

The post-Rising executions of fourteen rebels at Kilmainham Gaol took place between the 3rd and the 12th of May. Casement’s trial in London didn’t begin until June 26th, and, unlike the court-martials in Dublin, the proceedings involving Sir Roger were public—and, as with so much pertaining to him, extensively covered by journalists. When you try to put him in perspective, almost everything about Roger Casement and the Rising proves unique and complicated.

  • He’s arrested prior to the insurrection on a mission to keep it from happening.
  • He’s taken to London for his trial.
  • He’s charged with treason for his actions in Germany rather than engaging in the Rising itself.
  • He’s sentenced to be hanged instead of being shot—and his appeal results in even more attention to the case, both in the press and in government circles (in the U.K. and in the U.S.).

Each particular about him and his role made him distinctive; however, in the eyes of Americans, he was lumped together with other Irish nationalists willing to oppose Britain. That he was arriving in Ireland along with a shipment of German arms underscored the perception that Casement occupied a place as the ringleader at the centre of revolutionary activities—even though the actual situation couldn’t have been more different. In Walden, the nineteenth-century writer and philosopher Henry David Thoreau posits: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.”[13] In 1916 and earlier, Roger Casement heard and followed “a different drummer”—and marched to the music playing in his head. But what’s important to point out is that financial and moral support from the U.S. allowed him to pursue his idiosyncratic, “different drummer” agenda.

There’s a certain irony that American dollars bankrolled Casement’s nationalistic dreams for Ireland. Prior to his arrival in New York on July 20, 1914—he stayed until October 15th of that year—he was on record with opinions about the U.S. that wouldn’t necessarily evoke Yankee endearment. “I don’t like the U.S.A.,” he once said. “The more I see of it the less I like it. The people are ignorant and unthinking and easily led by anything they read in their rotten papers. The press is the worst in the world.”[14] Casement considered the Monroe Doctrine, which was initiated in 1823 and had as its goal the ending of European colonization and interference in North and South America, “a stumbling block in the path of humanity. Instead of being the cornerstone of American Independence, it is the block on which these criminals behead their victims. […] The blight in the forests of Peru and Bolivia would end to-morrow were it not for the Monroe Doctrine.”[15]

Despite these views, shaped by his experiences in South America, he understood the importance of the U.S. as an emerging world power and as a relatively flush free-market society. In early 1912, he met with President William Howard Taft, a Republican, in Washington, an indication of Casement’s prominence, as well as recognition by the British of America’s place in the global community. Later, Casement began to see the Irish-American community as what we might consider in contemporary lingo “a target of opportunity”—an ethnic group with ancestral affections and the wherewithal to contribute money to support the effort to achieve independence for Ireland.

From Casement’s arrival in New York until his death a little over two years after that, he was subsidized by American dollars. For three months—as the Great War began—he toured the U.S., raising funds to buy arms for the Irish Volunteers, which he helped form. Casement worked with members of Clan na Gael, the secretive American organization with direct ties to the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), and particularly with Kildare-born Clan leader, John Devoy, called by P.H. Pearse “the greatest of the Fenians.” Both Casement and Devoy shared such boiling-point hatred of the British for their treatment of Ireland that they conspired with the Germans for assistance—a case of the enemy of my enemy becoming my friend.

Clan na Gael coffers, with Devoy as paymaster, supported Casement’s controversial trip to Germany, which began in October of 1914 and continued until his ill-fated return to Ireland just prior to the Rising. Assessing Casement’s mission—of obtaining military help, influencing German opinion on Ireland’s plight, and organizing a brigade of German-held Irish prisoners to fight against the English—Devoy writes in Recollections of an Irish Rebel (1929): “Casement did his best in all these things, but did the first ineffectively, succeeded admirably in the second, and failed badly in the third.”[16]

In Devoy’s memoir, he devotes five of the thirteen chapters about the Rising to Casement, beginning the first with this sentence: “Roger Casement is one of the most tragic figures in Irish history.”[17] From that initial mention and judgment, Devoy renders Casement with a combination of care and candor, a strategy conforming to the subject and his complexity. Respect mingles with frustration as the old Fenian recalls the past for the readership of his remembrances.

A journalist by trade—he founded and served as editor of the republican-advocating weekly The Gaelic American—Devoy wrote less guardedly about Casement in a letter that’s dated July 20, 1916: “We knew he would meddle in his honest but visionary way to such an extent as to spoil things, but we did not dream that he would ruin everything as he has done. He took no notice whatever of decisions or instructions, but without quarrelling pursued his own dreams.”[18] Shortly afterwards, the tone is harsher: “It is not true that the Germans treated us badly; they did everything we asked, but they were weary of his [Casement’s] impracticable dreams, and told us to deal directly with them here. He had no more to do with getting that shipload than the man in the moon. The request was made from Dublin, and we transmitted it from here.”

In Devoy’s article, “Some Facts about Easter Week, 1916,” published in The Gaelic American in 1922, he reports that Clan na Gael paid $16,000 for Casement’s expenses in Germany—and an additional $5,000 to pay for his legal defense at his London trial. While in Germany, Casement befriended T. St. John Gaffney, the U.S. consul general in Munich, who had been born in Limerick and later became a naturalized American citizen. Gaffney shared Casement’s nationalistic fervor for Ireland and a pro-German orientation to the degree that the administration of Woodrow Wilson dismissed him from his post in 1915. Gaffney, however, remained close to Casement and in 1916 was appointed European representative of the American organization, the Friends of Irish Freedom, the public arm of Clan na Gael.

Gaffney’s memoir, Breaking the Silence: England, Ireland, Wilson and the War (1930), is unsparing in its criticism of Wilson and revealing in its treatment of Casement. Gaffney publishes letters from Casement just prior to his departure from Germany. One, dated March 26th, paints a bleak picture of what he sees ahead:

It is the most hopeless position a man was ever in—I cannot conceive a more dreadful situation. To go—I go to far worse than death—death with the Cause of Ireland to sustain me would be a joyful ending—but I go to a sham trial—to be wounded in my honor—to be defamed and degraded with no chance of defense, probably, and then to a term of convict imprisonment that will end my days in jail a convict. For I should not long support the indignities and miseries I should be exposed to.[19]                         

At the conclusion, he strikes a different note: “The only possible end with any hope at all—is death. To be killed at once—to perish in the attempt.”

At dinner on April 10, 1916, the night before he left Germany, Casement told Gaffney (“in a voice of pathos”): “I feel that I am going to my end, but at least it is for Ireland!” Casement formally “commissioned” Gaffney to take charge of the “Irish Brigade” in Germany and any funds from the U.S. on behalf of the Irish cause. Before Casement sailed into the treacherous waters he knew awaited him, he entrusted an American to continue his last major undertaking, which had not panned out as he had hoped or planned.

An American lawyer, Michael Francis Doyle, went to London to help defend Casement, arguing that a capital sentence would adversely affect U.S. opinion of Great Britain at a critical time. Before sentencing took place, Casement addressed the court, saying at one point:

[…]the generous expressions of sympathy extended me from many quarters, particularly from America, have touched me very much. In that country, as in my own I am sure my motives are understood and not misjudged for the achievement of their liberties has been an abiding inspiration to Irishmen and to all men elsewhere rightly struggling to be free in like cause.[20]

Later in his statement, he explains why he had traveled to “the States” to raise “Irish gold” to “secure arms for the volunteers in Ireland.”

During the summer of 1916, Casement’s fate was a prime topic not only for the American press, as we’ve pointed out, but also among government officials in Washington, including British representatives there. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe devoted front-page coverage on June 30th to Casement’s sentencing, and both the Globe and Chicago Tribune published “Extra,” read-all-about-it editions on August 3rd, announcing his execution.

Reportage in The New York Times is presented in straight-news, essentially factual fashion. Here’s the fourth paragraph of the page one dispatch of June 30th:

Sir Roger ever since his arrest had maintained that if convicted of high treason for attempting to rid Ireland of the British Government he would go down in history as a martyr to the Irish cause. He carried out that idea faithfully in the way he comported himself under the ordeal of the death sentence. He appeared to be the only one in the courtroom not suffering from the awful tension that prevailed from the time the jury entered the room until the three Justices donned the black cap and Lord Reading pronounced the fateful sentence.[21]

Though this dispatch and others tell what happened with you-are-there descriptions—in the previous paragraph there’s the word-picture of “Casement a sombre figure in black standing in the dark shadow of the dock, with a filtering ray of sunlight shining upon the three Justices before whom he stood”—inside the newspaper, editorials persisted with unwavering criticism of participants in the Rising and their cause. Even after all of the Dublin executions and the debate they provoked, The New York Times (in its institutional voice) showed no sympathy to Casement. The editorial on June 30th, “Vanities of Martyrdom,” is an ad hominem onslaught: “How flat and unexciting the universe would be to Sir Roger Casement unless it contained, first, the fact of Sir Roger’s existence, and, second, the fame of his martyrdom!”[22] Mockery overshadows analysis throughout the editorial: “…all the people living in the world could not provide among them such a quantity of deep, exquisite, and poignant sympathy as Sir Roger will ecstatically provide for himself. […] They will make a ballad of him in Ireland.”[23]

Beginning in 1897, The New York Times daily trumpeted its slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” on its front page, and the newspaper (which had a circulation of over 340,000 in 1916) was growing in significance and influence at this time. A professional inclusiveness, in terms of multiple viewpoints, applied for opinions and analysis, as the case of Sir Roger illustrates. While editorials ridiculed martyrdom and its vanities, The New York Times Sunday Magazine devoted four full pages to the article, titled “Roger Casement, Martyr,” by prominent New York lawyer John Quinn, who made comparisons to Wolfe Tone and John Brown, the abolitionist who tried to arm slaves in 1859 and was hanged later that year. Very active in Irish-American causes, Quinn criticizes Casement’s “faith in Germany,” but later ruminates on the effect of his friend’s execution: “Roger Casement has paid England’s price. Now it is England’s turn to pay. And England pays, and will continue to pay, in the pain of her admirers, in the silence of her defenders, in the loss of American sympathy.”[24]

Quinn argues his case that Casement was, indeed, a martyr, and his more encompassing judgment about England expresses a sentiment shared by many Americans as news of the post-Rising executions circulated. In addition, given the repetitious press conjecture about Casement’s sanity, hanging him made Britain’s reprisal seem like bloodthirsty revenge and even more questionable, if not reprehensible, to Americans. “Roger Casement, Martyr” explains its subject without sarcasm or amateur psychoanalysis and with a depth of sympathy that gives human dimension to an exceedingly complicated figure.

The almost daily journalistic coverage of Casement—his capture, his trial, his appeal, and his execution—kept him and his cause in front of the American public, and that attention, in turn, exerted pressure on the U.S. government to act on his behalf. Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate sought help for Casement by contacting President Woodrow Wilson and asking him to intervene. How the White House and Wilson handled the case reveals a deliberate, if not strategic, duplicity that’s representative of the 28th president’s approach to Ireland and to Irish America. Lip service and feigned sincerity are part of the public posture for political reasons, but they mask the policy reality of Wilson’s reluctance to get involved in what he considered a domestic concern for the British. Please remember: a presidential election was scheduled for November 7, 1916, and that year’s Democratic Party candidate, Woodrow Wilson, didn’t want to alienate one of his party’s most faithful constituencies: the American Irish.

The crucial person in trying to project Wilson’s image of concern vis-à-vis Ireland was his private secretary, Joseph Tumulty, a proud Irish American. His fingerprints can be detected on many documents that went out from the White House in Wilson’s name. An examination of the Woodrow Wilson Papers in the Library of Congress reveals that the Easter Rising and Roger Casement’s case generated numerous telegrams and letters seeking presidential involvement and help. The day before Pearse’s surrender, Michael Francis Doyle wired Wilson, requesting a meeting to talk about Casement and “if possible to enlist your interest on his behalf on the grounds of humanity.”[25] On May 2nd, Wilson wrote Tumulty rather than Doyle: “We have no choice in a matter of this sort. It is absolutely necessary to say that I could take no action of any kind regarding it.”[26] That direct statement would seem to close every door; however, Tumulty hands off the matter to the State Department and, subsequently, drafts a form response that makes Wilson appear quite different from what he wrote to his secretary. On July 3rd, with concern for Casement’s fate growing in Congress and the press as well as among the public, Tumulty instructed the White House secretarial staff to send the following reply under his signature: “The President wishes to acknowledge receipt of your telegram in the case of Sir Roger Casement and requests me to say that he will seek the earliest opportunity to discuss this matter with the Secretary of State. Of course he will give the suggestion you make the consideration which its great importance merits.”[27] Though noncommittal, the cordial message reflects an open-minded willingness to deal with the case at the highest levels of the administration. It really, though, was all a façade. When Tumulty gave Wilson a letter Doyle sent from London about Casement’s trial, which said “a personal request from the President will save his life,”[28] the president in his reaction of July 20th was even more emphatic than he was on May 2nd. The handwritten response reads: “It would be inexcusable for me to touch this. It w’d [would] involve serious international embarrassment.”[29]

Though Wilson wanted no personal involvement, the Senate passed a resolution 49 to 19 (with 30 abstaining) expressing “the hope that the British Government may exercise clemency in the treatment of Irish political prisoners, and that the President be requested to transmit this resolution to that Government.”[30] As Francis M. Carroll writes in American Opinion and the Irish Question 1910-23 (1978), “the cable [with the resolution] was not ready for delivery until the morning of 3 August, the day Casement was to be executed.”[31] Not even a faint resemblance to a profile in courage, Wilson did nothing to help, despite all the pressure on him from Congress, the press, and the public.

A revealing and valuable gauge of American public opinion—and what Wilson confronted—comes in the letters and reports of Cecil Spring Rice, Britain’s ambassador in Washington at the time, who had ancestral ties to County Kerry. In his dispatches, Spring Rice keeps returning to the U.S. reaction to the events in Ireland, particularly their impact on Irish Americans. His observations, gleaned from press accounts, personal conversations, and staff reports, provide contemporaneous evidence of the profound change in American opinion as it evolved over several weeks. For instance, on April 28th, shortly after the news broke, Spring Rice is both measured and matter-of-fact:

The attitude of public opinion as to the Irish rebellion is on the whole satisfactory. The press seems to be agreed that the movement is suicidal and in the interests of Germany alone. The attitude of the majority of the Irish is uncertain, but if the movement spreads the effect here will be very serious indeed. All are agreed that it will be dangerous to make Casement a martyr.[32]

Just a month later, on May 30th, Spring Rice adopts a decidedly different tone and approach, raising larger warning flags and acknowledging the no-win situation for the English in dealing with Casement:

As regards Ireland. It is most unfortunate that it has been found necessary to execute the rebels . . . . If this had been done in the first few days, it might have been condoned. The continued executions have greatly excited the Irish here and given our enemies a welcome handle against us. As to Casement … [T]he great bulk of American public opinion, while it might excuse executions in hot blood, would very greatly regret an execution some time after the event. This is a view of impartial friends of ours here who have nothing to do with the Irish movement. It is far better to make Casement ridiculous than a martyr. The universal impression here seems to be that, when here, he acted almost like a madman. There is no doubt whatever that the Germans here look forward with great interest to his execution, of which they will take full advantage.[33]

Two weeks later and just as Wilson was being nominated for a second term in St. Louis, the ambassador writes in his dispatch of June 16th that enmity directed at Britain continues to grow among the American Irish: “The attitude towards England is changed for the worse by recent events in Ireland. […] They have blood in their eyes when they look our way.”[34]

The passages quoted above appear in the second volume of The Letters and Friendships of Sir Cecil Spring Rice (1929). Many of his unpublished dispatches are in the holdings of the British National Archives at Kew, and the ones during this period reinforce or amplify his judgments about the shifting U.S. opinion caused by the Rising and, more significantly, the executions, including Casement’s. One particular message stands out from all the others at this time. In a coded telegram that is dated August 1st, Spring Rice reports he made an “informal verbal agreement” with Michael Francis Doyle, Casement’s American lawyer, that neither would say anything about Casement’s scheduled hanging two days later. His last sentence refers to Doyle and provokes profound puzzlement for someone today: “He tells me privately that Clan Nagael [sic] want Casement executed.”[35] When so many American politicians, journalists, and groups were working to save Casement from the gallows, why Clan na Gael, the most extreme organization devoted to independence for Ireland, didn’t mind the death sentence being imposed begs—but doesn’t receive—clarification. By this time it’s possible that Devoy and others around him had decided Casement was too mercurial and unreliable. But we don’t know.

Despite his views that Casement should not become a martyr, Spring Rice circulated extracts from Casement’s diaries to sully his name. In his poem, “Roger Casement” (1937), W.B. Yeats includes this stanza:

For Spring Rice had to whisper it

Being their Ambassador,

And then the speakers got it

And writers by the score.[36]

Besides the lengthy New York Times Sunday Magazine article by John Quinn, The Atlantic Monthly, an influential American periodical then and now, in its August issue featured “Sir Roger Casement and Sinn Fein” by the British journalist Henry W. Nevinson. A well-known foreign correspondent, Nevinson draws on previous reportorial assignments, where he spent time with Casement and Frank Sheehy Skeffington (“the most violent pacifist I have known” and Conor Cruise O’Brien’s uncle), among others. Nevinson focuses directly on the executions, and given the lead time for a monthly magazine to prepare an issue, he must have been composing his assessment almost concurrently with the shootings in Dublin. Their meaning, though, is beyond dispute to this British journalist, who’s explaining the Irish situation to an American audience:

But for the executions, the Irish people as a whole would have taken the rising as a gallant but crazy affair, a possible danger to Home Rule, but nothing more. The executions made all the difference. It is strange: some policemen and many soldiers were killed in the rising; many peaceful citizens were killed by both sides (usually, no doubt, by accident), and a large part of Dublin (though, unfortunately, not the worst part) was destroyed by fire and shell. Yet consideration for all this death and misery was obliterated by the executions. As suppressions of rebellion go, they were not many,—only fifteen,— but [...] they were carried out by driblets; they continued long after the violent danger was over, and for every man shot the ancient rage was rekindled in thousands of hearts. All their errors, all their offenses were forgotten, but the memory of those who ‘died for Ireland’ will be cherished at every fireside. In every cottage, the pictures of ‘The Fifteen’ will be framed upon the walls; and if our Law Courts add Roger Casement as a sixteenth, he will stand in the centre. Instead of being regarded as a well-intentioned but crack-brained set of people, they will be enshrined under that Necromancy or Magic of the Dead which is both the treasure and the plague of their country.[37]

The Law Courts, of course, did “add Roger Casement”—and he still stands, in his unique and somewhat contradictory way—at the center of the Easter Rising and its aftermath. Especially in America, his name became synonymous with the struggle for Irish independence. His arrest, trial, and execution provided a continuing narrative not only about him but also about the larger cause he championed. People in the States helped Roger Casement, and he, in turn, helped many more Americans to understand why he was willing to sacrifice everything to achieve the objective that, ultimately, cost him his extraordinary life.


Portions of this essay appear in Robert Schmuhl’s Ireland’s Exiled Children: America and the Easter Rising (Oxford University Press, 2016). You can read more about the book, and purchase a copy, at the Oxford University Press website, as well as on Amazon.


[1] Roy Foster, “Casement Cults,” review of Roger Casement: Imperialist, Rebel, Revolutionary, by Séamas Ó Síocháin, Times Literary Supplement (September 26, 2008): 3.

[2] “Sink German Ship Off Irish Coast, Catch Casement,” The New York Times, April 25, 1916, 1.

[3] “Ireland,” The New York Times, April 29, 1916, 10.

[4] “A Familiar Form of Insanity,” The New York Times, April 29, 1916, 10.

[5] “Fate of Sir Roger Casement,” New York Times, April 26, 1916, 12.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Casement’s Case and Tone’s,” New York Times, April 27, 1916, 12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Casement Insane, Says Conan Doyle,” New York Times, Nov. 30, 1914, 3.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Poultney Bigelow, “Letters from to Poultney Bigelow Telling of his Plans Against England,” The New York Times Sunday Magazine, May 21, 1916, 1.

[12] The Washington Post, June 4, 1916.

[13] Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854; Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), 305.

[14] See Casement to his cousin Gertrude Bannister, 1 September 1914, Casement Papers, MS: 13, 074 (9/ii), National Library of Ireland.

[15] Roger Casement, The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement, ed. Angus Mitchell (Dublin: Anaconda Editions, 2009), 313-14.

[16] John Devoy, Recollections of an Irish Rebel (1929), 432. For a full, digitized version of this text, see

[17] Ibid., 406.

[18] Devoy to Lawrence de Lacey, 20 July 1916, Public Records Office, Home office, 144/1636/311643/53.

[19] T. St. John Gaffney, Breaking the Silence: England, Ireland, Wilson and the War (New York: Horace Liveright: 1930). For a full, digitized version of this texts, see

[20] Roger Casement, The Trail of Sir Roger Casement, ed. George H. Knott (Philadelphia: Cromarty Law Book Company), 200.

[21] “Casement to Die for High Treason; Bailey Set Free,” New York Times, June 30, 1916, 1.

[22] “Vanities of Martyrdom,” New York Times, June 30, 1916, 10.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Quinn, “Roger Casement, Martyr: Some Notes for a Chapter of History by a Friend whose Guest he was When the War Broke Out,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, August 13, 1916, 1.

[25] Woodrow Wilson to Joseph Tumulty, May 2, 1916, file 3085, Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Arthur S. Link, ed., The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 37 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), 353.

[28] Ibid., vol. 37, 446. [Original emphasis]

[29] Ibid.

[30] Francis M. Carroll, American Opinion and the Irish Question 1910-23 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1978), 72.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Stephen Gwynn, ed., The Letters and Friendships of Sir Cecil Spring Rice, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1929),

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] W.B. Yeats, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, 2nd ed., ed. Richard J. Finneran (New York: Scribner, 1996), 306.

[37] Henry W. Nevinson, “Sir Roger Casement and Sinn Fein,” Atlantic Monthly 118 (Aug. 1916): 243.