Dramatic 1916 prison letters written by Roger Casement revealed

Roger Casement and Mrs French Sheldon.

The National Library of Ireland has released a cache of previously unseen documents penned by Sir Roger Casement while he was awaiting his execution at Pentonville Prison, in London, in 1916.

Despite being a British foreign office councillor, Casement is revered as an Irish nationalist around the time of the Irish Revolution. Casement was born in Dublin in 1864, was baptized a Catholic at the age of three, and was later raised by Protestant relatives, in Ballymena, following the death of his parents. 

His profession as a British consul led him to examine the atrocities taking place in the Congo, ultimately leading him to formulate an anti-imperialistic and pro-Irish republican standpoint.

Upon returning from Germany to Ireland in 1916, shortly before the Easter Rising, he was arrested upon arrival and charged with treason. Casement was subsequently convicted and hanged in Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916. He was 51 years old. 

The documents recently released by the National Library of Ireland now shed light on Casement’s final days awaiting his death in London.

Included in the documents are:

- Letters on prison-regulated paper from Casement to his cousins about his imprisonment and impending death, in which he thanks them for their “brave, faithful, loving hearts to me in these last horrible days.”

- A letter to his cousins outlining his final wishes, including his hopes for Ireland.

- His final letter to his cousins Gertrude and Elizabeth Bannister on the eve of his execution, in which Casement writes: “And if I die, as I think is fated, tomorrow morning, I shall die with my sins forgiven …If it be said I shed tears – remember tears come not from cowardice, but from sorrow.”

- An envelope with the inscription: “This little book was used by Roger Casement at the hour of his death and was brought by me that morning by the priest who attended him on the scaffold.” (Casement was received into the Catholic Church while awaiting execution.)

- The Notice of Result of Final Appeal, dated 20 July 1916, with Roger Casement’s handwritten observations on his trial and the judgment handed down. 

- Typed copies of official papers and the Royal Ordinance stripping Casement of his knighthood and other honours. Casement’s handwritten notes on these papers include the comment: “These Letters Patent are Letters of Nobility in the peerage of Ireland! They are further Letters of Proof of British Falsehood and Hypocrisy.”

The documents had been housed in a box that read ‘Not for Consultation,’ which tends to prohibit items going public until a certain time period has passed, or those involved are deceased.

The newly released materials join an extensive collection that the National Library of Ireland had already acquired through either donation or purchase.

Fiona Ross, Director of the National Library of Ireland said at the time of their release: “Citizens of Ireland as well as citizens of the world can read some of Roger Casement’s final letters online and form their own views on one of the most controversial figures in Irish history as he faced execution.”

“The newly released Casement material will be of great interest to historians and others researching the life of a remarkable Irishman. The material casts new light on the depth of his religious beliefs and his spirituality in the days leading up to his death, and the strength that he and his friends and family drew from each other in their letters and other messages of support.

“The material also casts further light on his political thinking and his views on what he perceived as the hypocrisy of the British establishment.” 

In 1965, Casement’s body was repatriated to Ireland. Then-president Eamon de Valera, who was in his mid-eighties, ignored doctors' advice and attended Casement’s Irish funeral at  as the only remaining survivor of the Easter Uprising. He joined an approximate other 30,000 Irish people at the funeral.

The newly added materials can be browsed here on the National Library of Ireland’s catalog. 

* Originally published in 2012.

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