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“Oh what has made that sudden noise?” Anniversary of Roger Casement’s Execution

August 3, 2013


Today is the anniversary of the execution of (Sir) Roger Casement. Casement achieved fame exposing some of the most horrific abuses ever associated with a monarchy – King Leopold of Belgium’s tyrannical regime in the Congo – which converted a huge chunk of southern Africa into a vast blood drenched slave driven rubber factory.  The atrocities of the Congo illustrated, for Casement, what can happen when an entire people are entrusted to the tender mercies of a foreign ruler.

His experiences led to a passionate belief in national sovereignty and to the idea that governments should be derived from and accountable to, their own people. His own Irish republicanism led in turn to his involvement with the 1916 rising. When tried, convicted and sentenced to death by a British court, his remarkable and powerful speech from the dock focused on the injustice of someone being accused of treason to anything other than one’s own country. He could accept a verdict of treason against the Irish people, but not against Britain, which he did not regard as his own country.

He worked with George Bernard Shaw on his speech from the dock, but the relationship was fraught because Shaw wanted to craft a speech that might actually result in an acquittal, whereas Casement was interested in a more purely political statement.  Casement, like so many people of his generation, had been brought up on Speeches from the Dock, the swelling anthology of treason trial orations anthologised by the Sullivan  brothers.   Pádraig Pearse undoubtedly wanted to get into a new edition of this book – which is why he and his Easter Rising colleagues were tried and executed by military rather than civilian authorities.  As it happens, the military executions had a political impact beyond what the most powerful of civilian courtroom dramas could have provided.

Casement’s place in Irish history is assured. His example has wider implications, for Britain as well as Ireland, and his conviction and executions raise questions about what is meant by loyalty and treason in a national context. Britain demands loyalty to an entity called “the crown” – embodied in a dynasty with a fairly patchy record of loyalty to the people of Britain. The only definition of treason that can or should make any sense is, as Casement insisted, a betrayal of the people, from whom all sovereignty and all governance should issue.  Following his conviction, and with the certainty of death looming he offered this very beautiful and inspiring observation.

“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.”

Casement was referring to the British promise to permit Irish self-rule following the end of hostilities with Germany and declared that self determination is not something to be graciously conferred by others but proudly asserted by a sovereign people.  Nobody can be expected to sit patiently and gratefully for such a basic, almost biological, condition of human life itself to be fulfilled.  Casement can be regarded not merely as an Irish martyr or a republican martyr, but an important figure in the history of human agency.

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Roger Casement anniversary

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