Let us pray: Lord, God, as we reflect on the life and death of Roger Casement, we thank you for his life and witness, his work as a great humanitarian in bringing to light the cruelties of imperialism, his commitment to the cause of Ireland and the search for independence, peace and justice. Until that day when we are all gathered together again, let us pray for him that he may rest in your peace. Ar a Dheis De go raibh a hanamacha. Amen
Roger Casement Commemoration – Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin 3 rd August 2016 – Reflection
We gather here today to remember the life of Sir Roger Casement who gave his life for Ireland and who continues to inspire all who work for peace, justice and reconciliation in our troubled world. True to his convictions to the last, Roger Casement did not flinch before the possibility of death but, strengthened by his faith in the mercy of God and supported by the ministrations of the Church, he faced his last moments with dignity and grace. His execution was timed to take place early on the morning of 3 August 1916, within the grounds of Pentonville prison. Canon Ring had not only heard Casement’s confession, he had become a constant visitor in those last hours of waiting. They had prayed together in the little prison chapel that recalled – in such different conditions – the wooden hut where Casement had so often sat among the Irish prisoners while they prayed in Limburg.
Two Irish priests – Canon Ring and Fr Carey, the prison chaplain – spent most of the day before the execution walking with him in the prison yard. The gloom and the tension which had all but deprived him of his reason in those earlier weeks of his imprisonment had completely vanished. He went back to his cell to sleep peacefully through the night. He formally embraced Catholicism and received his first Holy Communion at the 7 am Mass just before his execution. Refusing the customary last meal, he spent the time after Mass in prayer before he was led to the scaffold. When he was back in his cell the two priests came together to be with him.
For nearly an hour they prayed in silent companionship in his cell, until the door was opened nervously, and the doctor looked in to ask if he could do anything for the man who was to be hanged. Casement answered cheerfully that he needed nothing. Then a warder came quickly in, and after strapping his hands behind his back, led him out towards the scaffold. He spoke only once again, as he smiled for the last time to his two friends. Only a few more seconds remained; the priests were on their knees reciting prayers.
The cord was fastened round his neck, and then the trap-door fell. Straight as a lance, the tall, proud body dropped without a tremor into the pit. The silence of death hung over the prison and in hundreds of cells prisoners waited to hear the solemn tolling of the great bell which would announce to the world that Casement had been executed. A great crowd had gathered outside the prison gates to listen for the signal and within minutes the bell tolled loudly. A shout of triumph rose from the street outside and could be heard all through the prison. Then silence fell again. A direct witness statement regarding Casement’s last hours appeared many years later.
The English pacifist and anti-imperialist, Archibald Fenner Brockway, when serving time in Pentonville for distributing anticonscription leaflets, recalled a final glimpse of the prisoner the night before his execution: “I was in my cell and I heard steps outside. I stood on my stool and looked from the window. There was Sir Roger Casement, in the only place of loveliness in that prison, a little garden of hollyhocks and other flowers, looking at the sunset for the last time. As he did it, one could see that his spirit and his personality became united with the infinite beauty of that scene. In my view, when this country executed Sir Roger Casement the next morning, it was committing a crime against the very deepest things of the spirit, whatever his reputation may have been”.
Homily: Fr. Gerry McFlynn – 1 st August 2016 ROGER CASEMENT COMMEMORATION MASS
Westminster Cathedral, London
Since the beginning of this centenary year, Irish people at home and abroad have been marking the significance of the Easter Rising in the story of Ireland. We’ve done so in various ways – with grand State Ceremonial, by researching and debating the history of that time through cultural expressions in music, drama, etc. On Wednesday there will be a State Commemoration at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, in honour of Roger Casement, the last of the 1916 leaders to be executed and the only one to be executed outside of Ireland.
But this morning is different. We gather here in prayer and quiet reflection to remember him. Roger Casement remains a somewhat enigmatic figure despite the wealth of scholarship on his life. In many ways, he is the most interesting of all the leaders of the 1916 Rising. His inspiring work for human rights in the Belgian Congo in 1903 and his devastating report on the atrocities in the Amazon in 1910 and 1911, represent not only a testament to his humanitarianism but also a protest against unbridled human greed and exploitation. The sufferings he witnessed in Africa and South America touched a deep vein in his personality.
What is less well known – and what concerns us here this morning – is the fact that in the last weeks of his life he underwent an intense spiritual struggle. He formally embraced Catholicism and received his first (and last) Holy Communion at the 7am Mass in Pentonville prison on 3rds August 1916 just hours before his execution. Refusing the customary last meal, he spent the time after Mass in prayer before he was led to the scaffold. One of the chaplains recorded that Casement died with all the faith and piety of an Irish peasant … with contrition and resignation to God’s will. Casement wrote in his last letter: “ I shall die in the catholic Faith, for I accept it fully now. It tells me what my heart sought long in vain … but I saw it in the face of the Irish.” And he added that he would die in “hope that God will be with me to the end and that all my faults and failures will be blotted out”.
Extracts from his so-called Black Diaries circulated in London during his trial in June and July 1916 and the accounts there of ‘sexual depravity’ almost certainly were a factor in the refusal of the British government to commute his death sentence despite immense international pressure. But this is not the place to discuss the Diaries.
Suffice it to say that Casement was ill-served by the British establishment, not least in the manner of his trial. Sadly, his treatment by the leadership of the Catholic Church in this country was hardly any better.
Among those who knew of the Diaries was Francis Bourne, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster who wrote in a private memo that there was information on the highest authority that his moral life was “deplorable”. As a result, Bourne insisted that before being received into the Catholic Church, Casement should sign a declaration expressing public sorrow for any scandal he may have caused by his acts public or private. Casement refused because it was clear that Bourne intended to make the declaration public and he, Casement, would not be in a position to defend himself. Bourne who acted as a chief recruiter of Catholic chaplains to the armed forces during World War I, allowed his strong military ties to overshadow anything remotely resembling pastoral concern.
Like many a good Christian, Casement’s spiritual journey was wrecked with doubts and Bourne’s attitude did not make things any easier for him. In his weeks in Brixton and Pentonville prisons, Casement read such books as The Imitation of Christ and biographies of St Francis of Assisi and St Columbanus. Before he died, he distributed his few possessions, which included a crucifix, some rosary beads and a scapular. That he died a true and sincere Catholic there can be no doubt. Yet it is clear that some forces in the church here would have been just as happy if he had never become a Catholic. Which tells you a lot about the state of the church in this country at the time.
Roger Casement, like everyone else, was not perfect. His life was full of contradictions and people don’t as a rule like contradictory heroes. In many ways he was a tragic figure. But for all his faults he deserves to be remembered as a pioneer in the fight against colonialism, racism and prejudice. And this is already proving to be his lasting legacy.
Any anniversary is about remembering. And the 1916 Commemorations have drawn us to reflect on what it is to remember. We’ve discovered that remembering is not just about looking back to a time long ago and piecing together the story of what happened from old documents, photographs and testimonies. Remembering speaks also to our present; indeed, the way we remember says a lot about who we are today and our sense of identity. What is important to us now also shapes our future, because it helps us discern the kind of people, society and nation that we want to hand on to our children and grandchildren.
Respectful remembering holds the past, present and future delicately together in trust, faith and hope. We hope and pray that this year’s commemorations of the past, alongside our hopes and longings for the future, will strengthen our resolve to live together in harmony, trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ who in the words of the Book of Hebrews is “the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).