“Our choice lay in submitting to foreign lawlessness or resisting it, and we did not hesitate to choose” – Roger Casement on trial for his life
In his 1914 book The Crime Against Ireland and How the War May Right it, Sir Roger Casement wrote, “Sedition (is) the natural garment for an Irishman to wear”. Casement wore it well.
A participant in the preparations for the 1916 Easter Rising, Casement landed at Banna Strand (northwest of Tralee) in Co. Kerry on board a ship from Germany with a large consignment of weaponry for the rebels. However the rendezvous did not take place and Casement was captured on April 21, 1916. He was subsequently held in Pentonville Prison in London, tried in London over four days in May, and hung for treason on August 3. At his trial, he made a speech from the dock; he had written the body of it while in prison. Below is the text. I have broken up some paragraphs which were huge in the original.
This text is longer than that often found on the internet. I had to type up additional chunks of text from where I found this – I have it taken it from The Great Prisoners: the first anthology of literature written in prison, selected and edited by Isidore Abramavotich, New York: E.P. Dutton & Company, 1946. Abramovitch lists the range of his Casement sources on p869.
I have added subheads to break up the text.
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.
There is an objection, possibly not good in law, but surely good on moral grounds, against the application to me here of this old English statute, 565 years old, that seeks to deprive an Irishman to-day of life and honour, not for “adhering to the King’s enemies”, but for adhering to his own people.
When this statute was passed, in 1351, what was the state of men’s minds on the question of a far higher allegiance – that of a man to God and His kingdom? The law of that day did not permit a man to forsake his church or deny his God save with his life. The ‘heretic’ then had the same doom as the ‘traitor’.
Today a man may forswear God had His heavenly kingdom without fear of penalty, all earlier statutes having gone the way of Nero’s edicts against the Christians, but that Constitutional phantom, ‘The King’, can still dig up from the dungeons and torture chambers of the Dark Ages a law that takes a life and limb for an exercise of conscience.
If true religion rests on love, it is equally true that loyalty rests on love. The law I am charged under has no parentage in love and claims the allegiance of to-day on the ignorance and blindness of the past.
I am being tried, in truth, not by my peers of the live present, but by the peers of the dead past; not by the civilisation of the twentieth century, but by the brutality of the fourteenth; not even by a statute framed in the language of an enemy land – so antiquated is the law that must be sought to-day to slay an Irishman, whose offence is that he puts Ireland first.
The Government of Ireland by England. . . can evoke no loyalty
Loyalty is a sentiment, not a law. It rests on love, not on restraint. The Government of Ireland by England rests on restraint and not on law; and since it demands no love it can evoke no loyalty.
But this statute is more absurd even than it is antiquated; and if it is potent to hang one Irishman, it is still more potent to gibbet all Englishmen.
Edward III was King not only of the realm of England, but also of the realm of France, and he was not King of Ireland. Yet his dead hand to-day may pull the noose around the Irishman’s neck whose Sovereign he was not, but it can strain no strand around the Frenchman’s throat whose Sovereign he was.
For centuries the successors of Edward III claimed to be Kings of France, and quartered the arms of France on their royal shield down to the Union with Ireland on 1st January, 1801. Throughout these hundreds of years these “Kings of France” were constantly at war with their realm of France and their French subjects, who should have gone from birth to death with an obvious fear of treason before their eyes. But did they? Did the “Kings of France” resident here at Windsor or in the Tower of London, hang, draw and quarter as a traitor every Frenchman for 400 years who fell into their hands with arms in his hand? On the contrary, they received embassies of these traitors, presents from these traitors, even knighthood itself at the hands of these traitors, feasted with them, tilted with them, fought with them – but did not assassinate them by law. Judicial assassination today is reserved only for one race of the King’s subjects, for Irishmen; for those who cannot forget their allegiance to the realm of Ireland.
The Kings of England as such had no rights in Ireland up to the time of Henry VIII, save such as reasted on compact and mutual obligation entered between them and certain princes, chiefs and lords of Ireland. This form of legal right, such as it was, gave no King of England lawful power to impeach an Irishman for high treason under this statute of King Edward III of England until an Irish Act, known as Poyning’s Law, the 10th of Henry VII, was passed in 1494 at Drogheda, by the Parliament of the Pale in Ireland, and enacted as law in that part of Ireland. But if by Poyning’s Law an Irishman of the Pale could be indicted for high treason under this Act, he could be indicted only in one way and before one tribunal – by the laws of the realm in Ireland and in Ireland.
The very law of Poyning’s, which, I believe, applies this statute of Edward III to Ireland, enacted also for the Irishman’s defence, “All those laws by which England claims her liberty”. And what is the fundamental charter of an Englishman’s liberty? That he shall be tried by his peers.
“Not a jury of my peers”
With all respect I assert this Court is to me, an Irishman, not a jury of my peers to try me in thisvital 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” – there is no Ireland, there is only the law of England – no right of Ireland; the liberty of Ireland and of Irishmen 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.
“Evil example” of of asserting Ireland’s rights
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 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.
English rule exists in defiance of will of Irish people
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 country men that I appeal.
My lord, I beg to say a few more words. As I say, that was my opinion arrived at many days ago while I was a prisoner. I have no hesitation in reaffirming it here, and I hope that the gentlemen of the press who did not hear me yesterday may have heard me distinctly today. I wish my words to go much beyond this Court.
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.
Ireland has outlived the failure of all her hopes
Let me pass from myself and my own fate to a far more pressing, as it is a far more urgent theme – not the fate of the individual Irishman who may have tried and failed, but the claims and fate of the country that has not failed. Ireland has outlived the failure of all her hopes – and yet she still hopes. Ireland has seen her sons – aye, and her daughters too – suffer from generation always for the same cause, meeting always the same fate, and always at the hands of the same power; and always a fresh generation has passed on to withstand the same oppression. For if English authority be omnipotent – a power, as Mr Gladstone phrased it , that reaches to the very ends of the earth – Irish hope exceeds the dimensions of that power, excels its authority, and renews with each generation the claims of the last. The cause that begets this indomitable persistency, the faculty of preserving through centuries of misery the remembrance of lost liberty, this surely is the noblest cause men ever strove for, ever lived for, ever died for. If this be the case I stand here today indicted for, and convicted of sustaining, then I stand in goodly company and a right noble succession.
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.
It was not we, the Irish Volunteers, who broke the law but a British party. The Government had permitted the Ulster Volunteers to be armed by Englishmen, yo threaten not merely an English party in its hold on office, but to threaten that party through the lives and blood of Irishmen. The battle was to be fought in Ireland in order that the political “outs” of today should be the “ins” of tomorrow in Great Britain. A law designed for the benefit of Ireland was to be met, not on the floor of Parliament, where the fight had indeed been won, but on the field of battle much nearer home, where the armies would be composed of Irishmen slaying each other for some English party again; and the British Navy would be the chartered “transports” that were to bring to our shores a numerous assemblage of military and ex-military experts in the congenial and profitable business of holding down subject populations abroad.
Resisting foreign lawlessness
Our choice lay in submitting to foreign lawlessness or resisting it, and we did not hesitate to choose.
But while the lawbreakers had armed their would-be agents openly, and had been permitted to arm them openly, we were met within a few days of the founding of our movement, that aimed at uniting Ireland from within, by Government action from without directed against our obtaining any arms at all.
The manifesto of the Irish Volunteers, promulgated at a public meeting in Dublin on 25th November, 1913, stated with sincerity the aims of the organisation as I have outlined them. If the aims contained in that manifesto were a threat to the unity of the British Empire, then so much the worse for the Empire. An Empire that can only be held together by one section of its governing population perpetually holding down and sowing dissension among a smaller but none the less governing section, must have some canker at its heart, some ruin at its root. The Government that permitted the arming of those whose leaders declared that Irish national unity was a thing that should be opposed by force of arms, within nine days of the issue of our manifesto of goodwill to Irishmen of every creed and class, took steps to nullify our efforts by prohibiting the import of all arms into Ireland as if it had been a hostile and blockaded coast. And this proclamation of the 4th December, 1913, known as the Arms Proclamation, was itself based on an illegal interpretation of the law, as the Chief Secretary has now publicly confessed. The proclamation was met by the loyalists of Great Britain with an act of still more lawless defiance – an act of widespread gun-running into Ulster that was denounced by the Lord of England as “grossly illegal and utterly unconstitutional”.
English law and order party incitements to violence
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 safeguard 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 goodwill 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. I decided with this end in view to go to America, with surely a better right to appeal to Irishmen there for help in an hour of great national trial than those envoys of “Empire” could assert for their week-end descents upon Ireland, or their appeals to Germany.
If, as the right honourable gentleman, the present Attorney-General, asserted in a speech at Manchester, Nationalists would neither fight for Home Rule nor pay for it, it was our duty to show him that we new how to do both. Within a few weeks of my arrival in the States the fund that had been opened to secure arms for the Volunteers of Ireland amounted to many thousands of pounds. In every case the money subscribed,whether it came from the purse of the wealthy man or the still readier pocket of the poor man, was Irish gold.
Constitutional movement in Ireland never very far from breach of constitution
Then came the war. As Mr Birrell said in his evidence recently laid before the the Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the late rebellion in Ireland, “the war upset all our calculations”. It upset mine no less than Mr Birrell’s, and put an end to my peaceful effort in America. War between Great Britain and Germany meant, as I believed ruin for all the hopes we had founded on the enrolment of the Irish Volunteers. A constitutional movement in Ireland is never very far from a breach of the constitution, as the Loyalists of Ulster had been so eager to show us. The cause is not far to seek. A constitution to be maintained intact must be the achievement and the pride of the people themselves; must rest on their own free will and on their own determination to sustain it, instead of being something resident in another land whose chief representative is an armed force – armed not to protect the population but to hold it down.
We had seen the working of the Irish constitution in the refusal of the army of occupation at the Curragh to obey orders of the Crown. And now that we were told the first duty of an Irishman was to enter that army, in return for a promissory note, payable after death – a scrap of paper that might or not not be redeemed, I felt over there in America that my first duty was to keep Irishmen at home in the only army that could safeguard our national existence. If small nationalities were to be the pawns in this game of embattled giants, I saw no reason why Ireland should shed her blood in any cause but her own, and if that be treason beyond the seas I am not ashamed to avow it or to answer for it here with my life. And when we had the doctrine of Unionist loyalty at last – “Mausers and Kaisers and any King you like”, and I have heard that at Hamburg, not far from Limburg on the Lahn – I felt I needed no other warrant than that these words conveyed – to go forth and do likewise. The difference between us was that the Unionist champions chose a path they felt would lead to the woolsack; while I went a road I knew must lead to the dock. And the event proves we were both right. The difference between us was that my ‘treason’ was based on a ruthless sincerity that forced me to attempt in time and season to carry out in action what I said in word – whereas their treason lay in verbal incitements that they knew need never be made good n their bodies. And so, I am prouder to stand here today in the traitor’s dock to answer this impeachment than to fill the place of my right honourable accusers.
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 phantasy.
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?
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