Revised and updated
- Broadcast: Friday, 8th July, 1960
Character: Sir Roger Casement
This play is extremely difficult to review, given that it’s not only based on true events, but the dialogue is taken, word-for-word, from actual court records which are well documented elsewhere. Nevertheless….
‘On Trial’ was a series of 60 minute reconstructions of famous British trials produced by Peter Wildeblood for Granada TV in Manchester. The premise of this detailed and brilliantly executed set of plays was to present them in documentary-style form, complete with external narrator – Andrew Faulds and commentator, Brian Ingis. It could be said that the series was a precursor to the kind of programmes that became popular on British TV thereafter, such as ‘Crown Court’ (1972-1984).
The series opener was ‘Sir Roger Casement’ – the play focused on here. The 10-epiode run continued with the trials of other illustrious and/or notorious personages (depending on your point-of-view), that included Oscar Wilde, and Sir Charles Dilke.
Roger David Casement was born in Dublin, Ireland, on 1st September, 1864. After becoming a member of the British Diplomatic Corps. he was hailed a national hero for his activities in both South America and Africa.
At the turn of the 20th century, Casement was assigned to what was then the Belgian Congo, where he was instrumental in exposing the pitiless and exploitative practices used upon the indigenous peoples by Leopold II – King of Belgium, who plundered the colonies rich mineral deposits for his own personal gain.
Casement was instrumental in bringing this this outrage to the ears and eyes of the world, forcing Leopold to surrender the whole of the Dependency to his nation. Alas, this move did little to improve the lot of the population.
On his return from the Congo, Casement was directly assigned to a posting in Peru, where he was to find that similar crimes were being committed to those in Africa. He worked tirelessly to bring the plight of the people to the attention of the world’s governments and, in 1911, was rewarded for his humanitarian work with a knighthood.
THE PLAY AND THE STORY BEHIND IT:
A realistic and skillfully edited reconstruction of the trial of Sir Roger Casement for High Treason, opened a new series entitled ‘On Trial’ for Independent Television on Friday, July 8th, 1960. The case itself was an interesting and notorious one, although much more for its aftermath than for the matter for which Casement actually stood trial.
The story told through this play is of the trial of Sir Roger David Casement in 1916 for High Treason. The events that lead to this point were as follows:
It was on Good Friday of 1916, when the First World War was at its height, that Sir Roger Casement was arrested after landing from a German U-Boat on the Irish coast. His trial for treason, overshadowed by the existence of his notorious private diaries, was one of the most sensational in British history. The last of the great state trials at bar, Casement’s trial is still of enduring interest to lawyers, but since his counsel, Sergeant Alexander Sullivan, declined to put him into the witness box, the four-day trial in the court of the Lord Chief Justice in June of 1916, lacked the cut-and-thrust which marked Sir Edward Carson’s cross examination of Oscar Wilde.
As the first shots of World War I were being fired, Dublin-born Casement made had his way to Wilhekmine in Germany, where he’d proffered both his skills and knowledge to the Kaiser in return for his backing in freeing Ireland from British rule. An agreement was struck, and Casement was returned to the coast of Eire in a U-boat.
The idea was that Casement would play a leading part in the Easter Uprising, where he was to distribute a consignment of arms to the rebels. However, the handover failed and casement was captured and detained by the British.
As a result of what the British government saw as a major betrayal, Casement was stripped of his Knighthood and charged with treason. Numerous well-known personalities came to Casement’s defence – including such luminaries as Gilbert Chesterton, Arthur Conan Doyle Edmund Morel and George Bernard Shaw – who suggested that the Accused must’ve suffered some sort of mental aberration to have carried out such an act of “evil” against the State, although their well-meaning interfering was not welcomed by Casement, who resented the implication that he was mentally ill.
Fortuitously for the Government, Scotland Yard supremo, Sir Basil Thompson, happened upon a much bigger stick with which to beat Casement with in the form of the infamous ‘Black Diaries’; a set of journals in which the Irishman had kept detailed account of his sexual encounters and homoerotic fantasies whilst in service to the Crown. The authorities ensured that copies of the Diaries were distributed widely enough to ensure that the growing appeals for leniency were quickly suppressed. Casement was hung at Pentonville Prison on 3rd August, 1916.
This wasn’t PETER’s first daring role, having played exiled Polish officer, Lieutenant Jan Wicziewsky in Granada’s production of Julien Green’s ‘South’ in November 1959.
The play concentrates on the moments of high drama: the collapse of Sullivan at the end of the third day; Casement’s speech from the dock; the solemnity of the three judges, each wearing a black cap passing the death sentence. Although he had little dialogue during the first 50 minutes of the play, the jewel in the crown of this production is undoubtedly Casement’s ‘Closing Speech’, which was spoken in its entirety by PETER who, at the age of just 27, played the 51-year-old Irishman with exceptional dignity and restraint. His performance in the title role; convincingly suggesting that Casement, sitting scribbling furiously or quizzically listening from the dock, dominated the proceedings, and his final scene was exceptionally moving.
Here is that Speech in full:
“My Lord Chief Justice, as I wish to reach a much wider audience than I see before me here, I intend to read all that I propose to say. What I shall read now is something I wrote more than twenty days ago. I may say, my lord, at once, that I protest against the jurisdiction of this Court in my case on this charge, and the argument that I am now going to read is addressed not to this Court, but to my own countrymen.
With all respect I assert this Court is to me, an Irishman, not a jury of my peers to try me in this vital issue for it is patent to every man of conscience that I have a right, an indefeasible right, if tried at all, under this Statute of high treason, to be tried in Ireland, before an Irish Court and by an Irish jury. This Court, this jury, the public opinion of this country, England, cannot but be prejudiced in varying degree against me, most of all in time of war.
I did not land in England; I landed in Ireland. It was to Ireland I came; to Ireland I wanted to come; and the last place I desired to land in was England. But for the Attorney General of England there is only “England”—is no Ireland, there is only the law of England—no right of Ireland; the liberty of Ireland and of Irish is to be judged by the power of England. Yet for me, the Irish outlaw, there is a land of Ireland, a right of Ireland, and a charter for all Irishmen to appeal to, in the last resort, a charter that even the very statutes of England itself cannot deprive us of—nay, more, a charter that Englishmen themselves assert as the fundamental bond of law that connects the two kingdoms.
This charge of high treason involves a moral responsibility, as the very terms of the indictment against myself recite, inasmuch as I committed the acts I am charged with, to the “evil example of others in the like case.” What was this “evil example” I set to others in “the like case,” and who were these others? The “evil example” charged is that I asserted the rights of my own country, and the “others” I appealed to aid my endeavour were my own countrymen.
The example was given not to Englishmen but to Irishmen, and the “like case” can never arise in England, but only in Ireland. To Englishmen I set no evil example, for I made no appeal to them. I asked no Englishman to help me. I asked Irishmen to fight for their rights. The “evil example” was only to other Irishmen who might come after me, and in “like case” seek to do as I did. How, then, since neither my example nor my appeal was addressed to Englishmen, can I be rightfully tried by them? If I did wrong in making that appeal to Irishmen to join with me in an effort to fight for Ireland, it is by Irishmen, and by them alone, I can be rightfully judged.
From this Court and its jurisdiction I appeal to those I am alleged to have wronged, and to those I am alleged to have injured by my “evil example,” and claim that they alone are competent to decide my guilt or my innocence. If they find me guilty, the statute may affix the penalty, but the statute does not override or annul my right to seek judgment at their hands.
This is so fundamental a right, so natural a right, so obvious a right, that it is clear the Crown were aware of it when they brought me by force and by stealth from Ireland to this country. It was not I who landed in England, but the Crown who dragged me here, away from my own country to which I had turned with a price upon my head, away from my own countrymen whose loyalty is not in doubt, and safe from the judgment of my peers whose judgment I do not shrink from. I admit no other judgment but theirs. I accept no verdict save at their hands. I assert from this dock that I am being tried here, not because it is just, but because it is unjust. Place me before a jury of my own countrymen, be it Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist, Sinn Feineach or Orangemen, and I shall accept the verdict and bow to the statute and all its penal ties. But I shall accept no meaner finding against me than that of those whose loyalty I endanger by my example and to whom alone I made appeal. If they adjudge me guilty, then guilty I am. It is not I who am afraid of their verdict; it is the Crown. If this be not so, why fear the test? I fear it not. I demand it as my right.
That, my lord, is the condemnation of English rule, of English-made law, of English Government in Ireland, that it dare not rest on the will of the Irish people, but it exists in defiance of their will—that it is a rule derived not from right, but from conquest. Conquest, my lord, gives no title, and if it exists over the body, it fails over the mind. It can exert no empire over men’s reason and judgment and affections; and it is from this law of conquest without title to the reason, judgment, and affection of my own countrymen that I appeal. I would add that the generous expressions of sympathy extended me from many quarters, particularly from America, have touched me very much. In that country, as in my own I am sure my motives are understood and not misjudged for the achievement of their liberties has been an abiding inspiration to Irishmen and to all men elsewhere rightly struggling to be free in like cause.
My Lord Chief Justice, if I may continue, I am not called upon, I conceive, to say anything in answer to the inquiry your lordship has addressed to me why Sentence should not be passed upon me. Since I do not admit any verdict in this Court, I cannot, my lord, admit the fitness of the sentence that of necessity must follow it from this Court. I hope I shall be acquitted of presumption if I say that the Court I see before me now is not this High Court of Justice of England, but a far greater, a far higher, a far older assemblage of justices—that of the people of Ireland. Since in the acts which have led to this trial it was the people of Ireland I sought to serve—and them alone—I leave my judgment and my sentence in their hands…
My counsel has referred to the Ulster Volunteer movement, and I will not touch at length upon that ground save only to say this, that neither I nor any of the leaders of the Irish Volunteers who were founded in Dublin in November, 1913, had quarrel with the Ulster Volunteers as such, who were born a year earlier. Our movement was not directed against them, but against the men who misused and misdirected the courage, the sincerity and the local patriotism of the men of the north of Ireland. On the contrary, we welcomed the coming of the Ulster Volunteers, even while we deprecated the aims and intentions of those Englishmen who sought to pervert to an English party use—to the mean purposes of their own bid for place and power in England—the armed activities of simple Irishmen. We aimed at winning the Ulster Volunteers to the cause of a united Ireland. We aimed at uniting all Irishmen in a natural and national bond of cohesion based on mutual self-respect. Our hope was a natural one, and if left to ourselves, not hard to accomplish. If external influences of disintegration would but leave us alone, we were sure that Nature itself must bring us together.
How did the Irish Volunteers meet the incitements of civil war that were uttered by the party of law and order in England when they saw the prospect of deriving political profit to themselves from bloodshed among Irishmen? I can answer for my own acts and speeches. While one English party was responsible for preaching a doctrine of hatred designed to bring about civil war in Ireland, the other, and that the party in power, took no active steps to restrain a propaganda that found its advocates in the Army, Navy, and Privy Council—in the Houses of Parliament and in the State Church—a propaganda the methods of whose expression were so “grossly illegal and utterly unconstitutional” that even the Lord Chancellor of England could find only words and no repressive action to apply to them. Since lawlessness sat in high places in England and laughed at the law as at the custodians of the law, what wonder was it that Irishmen should refuse to accept the verbal protestations of an English Lord Chancellor as a sufficient safe guard for their lives and their liberties? I know not how all my colleagues on the Volunteer Committee in Dublin reviewed the growing menace, but those with whom I was in closest co-operation redoubled, in face of these threats from without, our efforts to unite all Irishmen from within. Our appeals were made to Protestant and Unionist as much almost as to Catholic and Nationalist Irishmen.
We hoped that by the exhibition of affection and good will on our part towards our political opponents in Ireland we should yet succeed in winning them from the side of an English party whose sole interest in our country lay in its oppression in the past, and in the present in its degradation to the mean and narrow needs of their political animosities. It is true that they based their actions, so they averred, on ‘‘fears for the Empire’’ and on a very diffuse loyally that took in all the people of the Empire, save only the Irish. That blessed word “Empire” that bears so paradoxical a resemblance to charity! For if charity begins at home, “Empire” means in other men’s homes and both may cover a multitude of sins. I for one was determined that Ireland was much more to me than “Empire,” and that if charity begins at home so must loyalty.
Since arms were so necessary to make our organisation a reality, and to give to the minds of Irishmen, menaced with the most outrageous threats, a sense of security, it was our bounden duty to get arms before all else.
We have been told, we have been asked to hope, that after this war Ireland will get Home Rule, as a reward for the life-blood shed in a cause which whoever else its success may benefit can surely not benefit Ireland. And what will Home Rule be in return for what its vague promise has taken and still hopes to take away from Ireland? It is not necessary to climb the painful stairs of Irish history—that treadmill of a nation whose labours are in vain for her own uplifting as the convict’s exertions are for his redemption—to review the long list of British promises made only to be broken—of Irish hopes raised only to be dashed to the ground. Home Rule when it comes, if come it does, will find an Ireland drained of all that is vital to its very existence—unless it be that unquenchable hope we build on the graves of the dead.
We are told that if Irishmen go by the thousand to die, not for Ireland, but for Flanders, for Belgium, for a patch of sand on the deserts of Mesopotamia, or a rocky trench on the heights of Gallipoli, they are winning self-government for Ireland. But if they dare to lay down their lives on their native soil, if they dare to dream even that freedom can be won only at home by men resolved to fight for it there, then they are traitors to their country, and their dream and their deaths alike are phases of a dishonourable fantasy.
But history is not so recorded in other lands. In Ireland alone in this twentieth century is loyalty held to be a crime. If loyalty be something less than love and more than law, then we have had enough of such loyalty for Ireland or Irishmen. If we are to be indicted as criminals, to be shot as murderers, to be imprisoned as convicts because our offence is that we love Ireland more than we value our lives, then I know not what virtue resides in any offer of self-government held out to brave men on such terms. Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people than the right to life itself—than the right to feel the sun or smell the flowers or to love our kind. It is only from the convict these things are withheld for crime committed and proven—and Ireland that has wronged no man, that has injured no land, that has sought no dominion, over others—Ireland is treated to-day among the nations of the world as if she were a convicted criminal.
If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel, and shall cling to my “rebellion” with the last drop of my blood. If there be no right of rebellion against a state of things that no savage tribe would endure without resistance, then I am sure that it is better for man to fight and die without right than to live in such a state of right as this. Where all your rights become only an accumulated wrong; where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to garner the fruits of their own labours—and even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them—then surely it is a braver, a saner and a truer thing, to be a rebel in act and deed against such circumstances as these than tamely to accept it as the natural lot of men.
My lord, I have done. Gentlemen of the jury, I wish to thank you for your verdict. I hope you will not take amiss what I said, or think that I made any imputation upon your truthfulness or your integrity when I spoke and said that this was not a trial by my peers. I maintain that I have a natural right to be tried in that natural jurisdiction, Ireland my own country, and I would put it to you, how would you feel in the converse case, or rather how would all men here feel in the converse case, if an Englishman had landed here in England and the Crown or the Government, for its own purposes, had conveyed him secretly from England to Ireland under a false name, committed him to prison under a false name, and brought him before a tribunal in Ireland under a statute which they knew involved a trial before an Irish jury? How would you feel yourselves as Englishmen if that man was to be submitted to trial by jury in a land inflamed against him and believing him to be a criminal, when his only crime was that he had cared for England more than for Ireland?”
POINTS OF INTEREST:
Mention of the infamous ‘Black Diaries’ was made only in passing at the end of the play by the Narrator, in spite of their coming into the public domain around the time that the play was broadcast.
Producer, Peter Wildeblood, played a major part in the decriminalising of Homosexuality in the United Kingdom, having been one of only three gay men to appear before the Wolfenden Committee . He himself had been arrested and sent to Wormwood Scrubs in the 1950’s for his part in the Montagu Case . His 1955 memoir, ‘Against the Law’, was adapted by the BBC into a documentary in 1967.
. Departmental committee set up by the British government under Sir John Wolfenden that recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the UK.
. Lord Edward Douglas-Scott, 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu (1926-2015), who was put on trial in the mid-1950’s for Gross Indecency.
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