Going Home – The hanging, exhumation and return to Ireland of the remains of Roger Casement


Pentonville gallows. Many a villain had dropped to their death from its strong oak beam, honed and fashioned by the prison carpenters, sturdy to take the weight, to absorb the drop. The gallows came to Pentonville, second-hand, from Newgate prison, when that prison’s time came to its end.

A view of the Execution shed as it appeared in Newgate prison

It was dismantled at Newgate, by the carpenters, not just the beams, but the very room: the shed, the execution shed, in which so many had already met their endi. It was rebuilt, again by the carpenters, in Pentonville, to continue is service to the crown, dropping murderers, breaking the necks of villains, arsonists, wifekillers, until August of 1916 when it would receive its most distinguished neck, as directed by the crown: its most famous victim, Sir Roger Casement. He would not spend long in the condemned cells of Pentonville. Sentence of Death had been pronounced for the crown by the black capped Lord Chief Justice on the 29nd June 1916. His appeal, both against conviction for High Treason and sentence of death, was dismissed by the Court of Criminal Appeal on the 17th July 1916 and his execution date confirmed and fixed for the 3rd August. Just 18 brief days on Pentonville’s death row. Those days would have been spent quietly, kept apart from the general prison population, under constant watch.

He does not sit with silent men

Who watch him night and day;

Who watch him when he tries to weep,

And when he tries to pray;

Who watch him lest himself should rob

The prison of its prey”ii

He received visitors within his cell: his lawyer, for he must put his worldly affairs in order; his priest, for there was a lot of prayer; and he penned some letters to those he loved. And Ellis the hangman came to him. Summoned from his barber’s shop by telegram to perform for the crown his contract of death

. He travelled by train from Rochdale, with his bag of straps and rope, his tape-measure and his cloth masks. He would watch the prisoner as he walked in the exercise yard, and again, through the peephole of his prison door, measuring his height, estimating his weight, watching the subject of his contract, for he must measure him well. He carries a table of the heights and weights of men. He must get the drop right. Too short a drop and he will strangle his prisoner, too long and there might be a decapitation. So, he watches his man, confirms the height of him and the weight of him and measures out his rope.iii

And Casement prayed, and wept. Drew strength from his cause and awaited the hour. It would be early on the day, that he is aroused. To pray, to be received into the catholic faith, articulo mortis,iv to take confession and communion. His first and last of each. He will thank his priests, in the Gaelic “Beannacht Dé oraibh go léir. Míle buíochas as an méid a dhein sibh ar mo shon.” v

And he will walk between the prison warders, proudly, bravely, an Irish felon, with his priestly friend, 25 long yards, from the cell to the scaffold, the final 25 yards on his journey from Banna Strand to what he always feared would be his destiny and fate, to the room, the shed, from Newgate, set now in the Pentonville yard, with its large window so that those charged with witnessing his death would see him swing, see him drop into the pit below, witness the rope, taught and straining. Ellis would strap his legs for should they stretch apart they might catch the trapdoors of the drop, and he will strap his arms for they too must not frail or inhibit the performance of the contract. And there will be a cloth mask, a hood to pull down across his face. It is then that Casement will utter his final words upon this earth,

“I die for Ireland.”

A moment of silence will fall, quiet will descend, and witnesses will hold their breath as Ellis steps to the lever, pulls— and what sound will then occur. How can you describe the noise of a man, hooded, bound with leather straps dropping, dropping?

Ellis must now go to him, recover his straps, for there will be others to bind. Retrieve his rope for there will be more to drop. And a doctor will search for a pulse, in vain, and confirm the completion of the hangman’s work. And then, his lifeless body taken now with its broken neck to the autopsy room where the corpse will be inspected to confirm, to their eternal shame, with science, the malice of their words, circulated to all the world, by the crown.

He will be carried now, wrapped in a shroud, to a fresh dug grave by the prison wall. Quicklime spread and the hole, the pit, the grave will be quickly filled. His name, no, not his name, only his initials, will be etched in the bricks above the grave, with the date of his death. His tombstone is the prison wall. It is over now and forgotten and now he will lie there and rot, with quicklime, rot into the English soil.

And the prisoners will know the hour. And will know that outside the prison walls are gathered those who are free, but who will choose to gather, so to say to their children that they were there when a man was killed, Some will weep and some will pray, many will clap and many will cheer. Inside, the prisoners will know the hour and hear the cheers and feel the shame and thank God it was not one of them.

Pentonville, Pentonville, he rots away in Pentonville. In June of 1917, De Valera is a prisoner there, of the English. He will find the grave and he will pray for him, honour him, grieve for him, remember him, for all the Irish, and he prays that one day he may be taken home.

For nearly 50 years he rots away and those that hanged him, hold him and will not let him go. Most who knew him have now passed away but still he is recalled, as only those who are loved are recalled and the Irish, sovereign now, seek each year, to bring him home.

In February of 1965, It is done by telegrams and letters, by ambassadors by secret correspondence, by persistence, by, perhaps, acknowledgement, at last, of a wrong. He is to be allowed to go.

On February the 23rd 1965, in the night, it is done. Prison officers dig deep by the prison wall, into the soggy soil, lit by electric lights and watched by the ambassador’s men, by prison governors and English civil servants, stamping against the cold night air, a burning brazier to comfort them from the bitter cold.

A sketch by Mike O’Donnell of what the exhumation may have looked like

In turns, the officers dig through the night. They are respectful of their task, they know a wrong was done. Down through the sludge and quick limed soil, searching for those bits that might be left of him, to be taken home.

A coffin has been arranged, a casket of mahogany, purchased that very day, by the ambassador’s men, in London, from Dugdale Brothers Funeral Home. It must have a lead lining to receive and seal his bones. And handles of strong bronze that he may be carried home with care. And it is secret. Dugdale must bring the casket to Pentonville in a plain unmarked anonymous van.

With pickaxes the prison officers loosen the compacted surface soil and with spade they go deep.

Seven feet down, they begin to find him. First pieces of his thumb, some ribs, some vertebra, a hand, an arm, a fragment of jawbone with teeth, shoulder bones, pelvic bones, femurs, all encrusted with soil and lime, and still they dig. 10 feet down the grave is deep and wet with lime and sludge and water from the river Pen, but still they search for what remains of him. Officer McKay, knee deep in water sludge and lime, feels with reverence and care beneath the water, blindly sifting sludge, braille like, feeling for what might still be found of him. He lifts from the sludge and lime a skull,
lifts it high; there are remnants of the shroud still clinging to the bone, and there, there, traces of scalp and black black hair.

The bones are washed with care. A doctor helps identify each fragment and they are placed in the casket, lined with lead and the lead dressed in white satin, carefully placed, as if they had the whole of him. The skull, with its black black hair, is set upon a satin pillow. And they fill the casket with charcoal to keep still the fragments in their allotted place, and fold over the satin, and seal the lead with fire.

The officers, the prison officers carry him, shoulder high, to the prison chapel where he is laid before the altar rails to serve his final hours, his final night, in the English Gaol. And in the morning, the same officers wish to bear him from the chapel, they carry him with grace, from before the altar rails through the stony prison corridors to Duddale’s waiting plain blue van.

The van and the cars leave Pentonville, heading South, down the Caledonian Road, and west to RAF Northolt. It is still secret, and the High Streets of Kings Cross and Grays Inns, of Euston Road, of Marylebone, Hammersmith and Ruislip, will not know that in the passing plain blue van is Roger Casement going home.

And Harold Wilson tells the Housevi and Sean Lemass informs the Dail.vii

At Northolt, there awaits an Aer Lingus aircraft, dressed in green, a shamrock on its tail and “St. Patrick” painted on its nose. He is lifted from the plain blue van into the cargo hold. And then, and only then, for it had been thus agreed, can he be draped in a flag of Orange, White and Green. And he is carried home on Irish wings, across the Irish sea.

At Baldonnell, strong soldiers grip the bronze handles and lift him to the sovereign soil, of Ireland, and a hundred Irish soldiers, Όglaigh na hΈirean, salute and present their arms. He is borne by the soldiers on a gun carriage, first to Arbour Hill where his executed comrades lie. From Arbour Hill to the Pro Cathedral, no secrets now, he is for all the world to see.

The Irish for whose future he had dreamed and died, gather in their hundreds of thousands to watch him pass, to witness him returning home Céad míle fáilte romhat ar ais go h-Éirinn..viii

There is a poignant powerful pause at the GPO, and all of Ireland in that moment knows how right it was to bring him home. On a cold morning, March the 1st,

At the graveside, at Glassnevin, bare-headed in the bitter cold, stands the ancient Dev Valera, rebel, warrior, felon, statesman, chief, to honour his return and see him home. Soldiers gently lower him into the Dublin earth. There is no quicklime here, only Irish blessings and Irish tears. His grave is dressed with sods of earth from his beloved Murlough Bay, and he may rest now, in peace, almost contented, honoured to lie amongst his own. Back home.

 

 

i Newgate Prison was demolished in 1904 an the site used to construct the Old Bailey Courts. ii The Ballard of Reading Gaol – Oscar Wilde

iii Brendan Behan in “The Quare Fellow” had the hangman at Mountjoy prison recite part of the table “Every half-done lighter would require a two inch longer drop, so for weight thirteen and a half stone-drop eight feet two inches, and for weight thirteen stone – drop eight feet four inches, now he’s only twelve stone so he should have eight foot eight, but hes got a thick neck on him so I’d better gim another couple of inches. Yes, eight foot ten” Act 3.

iv At the moment of Death. Casement had asked to be given instruction to convert to the faith but the curia of the Diocese of Westminster would only allow him to receive instruction if he signed a document apologising for any scandal he had caused. Casement initially signed but then tore up the document. As a result he did not receive formal or approved instruction into the faith and the prison chaplains invoked the doctrine of Articilo Mortis to convert him to the faith on the eve of his execution.- WS 588, Burea of Military History – statement of fr. Cronin..

v Blessings be upon you for all the help and support you have given me”

vi 23rd February 1965: For the Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson) With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now answer Question No. Q16.
Her Majesty’s Government have now completed their examination of this matter and in response to a request from the Government of the Irish Republic have informed them that they are agreeable to authorising the removal to the Republic of the remains of Roger Casement. The Government of the Republic have informed Her Majesty’s Government of their decision to reinter the remains in Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, and of their intention that they should rest there. Arrangements have been made with the Government of the Republic for the remains to be transferred to Dublin today. Hansard

vii 23rd February 1965: The Taoiseach: A Cheann Comhairle, I beg leave to make the following statement, for the information of the House. I am very glad to announce to the Dáil that I have been informed by the British Prime Minister that his Government have recently decided to meet out request for the repatriation of the remains of Roger Casement. As Deputies are aware, it was Casement’s express wish that he should have his final resting place in Ireland, and it has long been the desire of the people of Ireland, shared by successive Irish Governments, that this wish be fulfilled. Mr. Wilson has generously responded to my representations in this matter, and I wish to record, therefore, the Government’s deep satisfaction at his decision, which will render possible the fulfilment of Roger Casement’s wish. This decision, coming as it does so soon after the centenary of Roger Casement’s birth, will, I am sure, be universally welcomed as yet another step towards the establishment of the closest and most friendly relations between the two countries. Arrangements have been made with the British Government for the transfer of the remains to Dublin to-day. The Government have decided that the remains should be re-interred in the burial plot in Glasnevin Cemetery selected by Roger Casement’s sister, Mrs. Newman – Dáil Éireann Debate – Vol. 214 No 6.

viii A hundred thousand welcomes back to Ireland.

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