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Roger Casement: human rights campaigner and Irish patriot

When James Joyce wrote that 'history is to blame', he was alluding to the burden of Irish history, whose weight he felt in his own life and which was one of the reasons why he spent most of his days in exile from Ireland.

If Irish history was a source of frustration to Joyce, it proved to be inspirational for many of his contemporaries who involved themselves in Ireland's struggle for freedom a century ago. After all, 1916 leader, Patrick Pearse, was just over two years older than Joyce, but their lives took dramatically different paths. Pearse was gripped by Ireland's story and his own part in its destiny. Joyce wanted to observe and dissect Ireland from a safe distance.

Late-19th and early 20th century Irish nationalism had very wide appeal, drawing to its colours people who would not normally have fallen into the nationalist camp. Roger Casement (1864-1916) fell into this category and was among the most intriguing and enigmatic personalities associated with the 1916 Rising.

Although Casement was one of the sixteen men executed in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, his was a very different story from the others.

First, Casement took no part in the Rising, having been arrested in Co. Kerry in the days before the fighting commenced in Dublin. Indeed, he seems to have returned to Ireland in an effort to discourage an insurrection.
Second, he was considerably older than Pearse, McDonagh, Ceannt, MacDiarmada or Plunkett, and had a successful career behind him. Of those who were executed, only Tom Clarke was Casement's senior, and what different back stories those two men had. Whereas Clarke was a lifelong Fenian who spent long years in prison in Britain, Casement was part of the British establishment, a member of the country's consular service, knighted for his services to the Crown and a gradual convert to Irish separatism.

Third, whereas the Rising's leaders apart from Connolly had all spent their lives preoccupied with Irish affairs, Casement was a ground-breaking internationalist. By any standard, Casement had a distinguished innings as a British consular officer. He bravely exposed human rights abuses in the Belgian Congo and in South America. It takes courage to stand up to powerful people like Belgium's King Leopold, and on behalf of powerless Africans and Amazonian Indians, as Casement did, and with only qualified backing from his superiors in London. The Congo Reform Association he helped to found was a prototype of the modern human rights organisation.

For Casement, it was an interest in Irish history, and a deepening critique of European Imperialism, that drew him ever more firmly into the nationalist fold. In this, he was influenced by his friend, the historian Alice Stopford Green, and following his retirement from the British Foreign Service he became deeply involved with the Irish Volunteers, helping to organise the importation of arms into Ireland in 1914. Like many others from that period, Casement's nationalism was buoyed by his commitment to Irish culture and the Irish language.

By the time war broke out in 1914, Casement was in America plotting with prominent Irish-Americans to secure German support for the Irish cause. This led to Casement undertaking a mission to Germany where he tried fruitlessly to recruit Irish prisoners-of-war for an Irish brigade that would take part in Ireland's struggle. He became disillusioned when he realised that German interest in Ireland was self-serving and decidedly limited.

Casement's only role in the Easter Rising was that his capture, having arrived in Ireland on board a German submarine, made the British authorities believe that the danger had passed and this meant that they were caught completely off guard when the Rising took place on Easter Monday. The British Government thus greatly exaggerated Casement's significance in the universe of early 20th century Irish republicanism.

Casement was the only one of the sixteen executed leaders to be tried in open court, even if the case put forward in his defence left something to be desired. The involvement of Attorney General F.E. Smith as chief prosecutor was somewhat ironic in light of his enthusiastic support for the Ulster Volunteers during the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14. Casement's speech from the dock was a classic of nationalist oratory, with its evocation of 'the painful stairs of Irish history.' The underhand use of Casement's Black Diaries in order to undermine support for the commutation of his sentence was discreditable.

Casement has had an extraordinary afterlife, with the long campaign for the return of his remains to Ireland and the controversy about the authenticity or otherwise of his diaries. While it is now generally accepted that the diaries were genuine, there are those who continue to regard them as clever forgeries designed to blacken his name. While those who targeted Casement wanted to prevent him from becoming a nationalist martyr, as it happened his standing in Ireland was actually boosted by the belief that he had been a victim of character assassination orchestrated from London.

There was a time when the veracity of the diaries mattered a great deal to Irish people, but not anymore for most of us. Looking back, I see Casement as an extraordinary Irishman who achieved a great deal internationally as a human rights campaigner. His unlikely but wholehearted immersion in Ireland's cause in the last 3 years of his life illustrates just how appealing the goal of Irish freedom was to that idealistic, Irish revolutionary generation whose centenary we now commemorate.

I like to think that Casement's internationalist legacy is reflected in Ireland's contemporary profile, in our commitment to human rights, to UN peacekeeping and to the provision of high-quality development assistance, mainly in Africa where Casement registered his greatest achievements.

Daniel Mulhall is Ireland's Ambassador in London