Without question one of the most fascinating characters of the cause for Irish Independence, yesterday, 50 years after his remains were interred in Glasnevin Cemetery, he was honoured formally by the State he gave his life to help establish.
Having been hanged 100 years and one day ago in London’s Pentonville Prison for conspiring against the king with the German enemy, yesterday Casement the hero was hailed.
Members of the Casement family joined with members of the Defence Forces and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan to celebrate his life. As inclement weather took hold, they huddled under a crisp and brilliant Tricolour at the Casement grave in the Republican plot in Glasnevin.
Casement had spent 18 months in Germany trying to persuade the government there to support a rebellion in Ireland.
In April 1916, Casement travelled to Ireland in a German submarine to rendezvous with The Aud, a ship carrying arms from Germany for the Rebellion.
Following a major foul-up in the plan, Casement was arrested and taken to London. He was tried for treason at the Old Bailey in June 1916 and found guilty.
Yesterday, the short, solemn ceremony commenced with the August gales blowing as wild as they did on Banna Strand when Casement was arrested for trying to land a consignment of German arms for the Rising.
As a minute’s silence was observed, the heavy rain seemed poignant, with drops lingering on the noses of the soldiers in the guard of honour.
Hanged at the age of 51, Casement’s defiance in the face of being branded a traitor to the British king featured in the speeches at the ceremony.
Army historian Commandant Thomas Martin, who has researched the First World War, read extracts from Casement’s trial.
Mr Flanagan, in his address, spoke of how Casement asserted to the end that it was the right only of the Irish people to judge his actions, and nobody else. “At the heart of his speech was his assertion that it was the right of the people of Ireland to decide upon the future of their country, a right he compared to ‘the right to life itself’… the right to feel the sun or smell the flowers, or to love our kind,” said Mr Flanagan.
Looking back at Casement’s life, what stands out most is the generosity of spirit and selflessness which led him to take a central role in the independence movement, said Mr Flanagan.
He also paid tribute to his humanitarian work in Africa and in South America, where he spent time campaigning against the terrible abuse of the rights of people.
Fr Gerry McFlynn of the Irish Chaplaincy service in the UK, which deals with prisoners of Irish descent in British jails, gave a moving account of Casement’s last hours before he met his death.
“Two Irish priests — Canon Ring and Fr Carey — spent most of the day before the execution walking with him in the prison yard. The gloom and tension which had all but deprived him of his reason in those earlier weeks had completely vanished,” he said.
Casement formally embraced Catholicism and received his first and last Holy Communion at the 7am Mass just before his execution, said Fr McFlynn.
This was despite his homosexuality which had undermined his pleas for clemency from the authorities.
“The cord was fastened round his neck, and then the trapdoor fell. Straight as a lance, the tall, proud body dropped without a tremor into the pit,” said Fr McFlynn.
A lone piper sounded a lament at the conclusion of the ceremony after the army band had played a stirring rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann.
Niall Casement, a distant relation of Roger, laid a wreath on behalf of the family, as did Mr Flanagan, and the party moved a short distance at which a plaque in his honour was unveiled.
Casement’s contribution to international human rights is also being marked at Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel in an event hosted by Irish Aid and the Defence Forces.
Elsewhere, an exhibition on his humanitarian work has been officially opened at the National Museum on Kildare St in Dublin.