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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 August 2006, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Casement: Traitor or patriot?
By Mark Devenport
Political editor, BBC Northern Ireland

An Irish patriot or a British traitor?

A colonial diplomat who campaigned against slave labour in Africa and South America.

Sir Roger Casement
Sir Roger Casement spent his childhood in Ballycastle

The inspiration for Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and a man admired by writers such as George Bernard Shaw and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

A Knight of the Realm and a man whose morality came under attack through the publication of his so-called Black Diaries.

There are few historical figures who continue to attract such abiding interest as Sir Roger Casement, executed for treason in Pentonville Prison 90 years ago.

He was born in Dublin to a Protestant father and a Catholic mother, but both his parents died when he was child.

He then moved to Ballycastle in County Antrim where he was brought up by his uncle's family.

The young Roger went to school in Ballymena.

Although he spent most of his working life abroad, he often returned to North Antrim, developing a particular fondness for Murlough Bay.

As a Foreign Office diplomat, Roger Casement highlighted the cruel treatment of indigenous people in forced labour camps in the Congo and Amazon basins.


But he also became increasingly convinced of the need to end what he viewed as Britain's oppression of his native Ireland.

During World War I, he tried to strike a deal with Germany to arm the Irish rebels and to recruit fighters from amongst Irish prisoners of war.

The guns were intercepted and the recruiting drive came to nothing.

But Sir Roger was captured after returning to Ireland on board a German U-Boat.

He was found guilty of treachery and was hanged on 3 August 1916.

Now to mark the 90th anniversary of his death, Sinn Fein politicians in North Antrim are arguing that Sir Roger's legacy should be given greater recognition in tourist information for the area.

They would also like to see a permanent exhibition about his life in the Ballycastle museum.

Sinn Fein councillor Cara McShane told the BBC that Sir Roger Casement's story was remarkable.

"Some may call him a traitor, but at the end of the day he was very passionate about Irish republicanism, about Irish people, their national identity, their culture and their language," she said.

"It's from that that we want to celebrate his entire life."

But Sinn Fein motions brought before both Moyle and Ballymena councils failed to win acceptance, with unionists labelling the proposal divisive.

Sir Roger's old Church of Ireland school has now become Ballymena Academy.

Another Academy old boy, DUP Councillor Robin Stirling, exemplifies the prevailing unionist attitude.


He said: "The school I attended in 1948 would not have recognised Roger Casement other than as a traitor.

"We have to recollect his conduct, when Britain was on its knees, it was a backdoor attack from someone who had taken oaths of allegiance to the British government."

In a reference to the Black Diaries which revealed Sir Roger's apparent homosexuality, Councillor Stirling said he did not approve either of Sir Roger's morality or his politics.

At Magherintemple, the Casement family home where Sir Roger spent many happy years, his relative Patrick Casement is more forgiving.

World War I
Members of the Casement family served in the British Army during World War I

"My grandfather and all his brothers were fighting in the forces for Britain in the First World War at the time.

"For them it was an appalling disgrace on the family, very, very difficult for them to live with, and I think that carried on for another generation.

"But my own generation, I think, are coming more to terms with it looking at it in a much more objective way and seeing Sir Roger as the remarkable and interesting character that he was."

Patrick believes history should judge Sir Roger as a great humanitarian and someone who gave his life for what he believed.

For 50 years after his death Sir Roger's remains lay in a lime pit at Pentonville prison.

In the 1960s he was repatriated to Dublin, where he was buried with full military honours in Glasnevin Cemetery with the ailing Eamon De Valera in attendance.

It was Sir Roger Casement's dying wish that he be laid to rest in Murlough Bay.

Given the pomp and circumstance of his state funeral it is hard to see the Irish authorities agreeing to another re-interment, but Sinn Fein's Cara McShane argues this would be the best way to mark the centenary of his execution in ten years time.

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