Wednesday 23 March 2016

Spy Wednesday

What have the following people got in common? Casanova, Oscar Wilde, Dr Crippen, the Kray twins and Emmeline Pankhurst. Answer – they all stood behind the dock at Bow Street magistrate’s court accused for their crimes (not at the same time, of course). But what is their link to Nottingham? Answer – that dock from Bow Street is part of an exhibition at the Galleries of Justice in Nottingham which begins at the weekend.

But what about Spy Wednesday? What has that got to do with any of this? Well, today is Spy Wednesday, the day in the liturgical calendar of the Christian Church which marks the day Judas decided to betray Christ. And the link to everything else I’ve mentioned is that the Nottingham exhibition centres around a lesser-known individual who stood behind the Bow Street dock a century ago charged with espionage and treason. His name is Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916).

Roger Casement was born in Dublin into an Anglo-Irish family. In 1884 he worked with Henry Morton Stanley (later the "discoverer" of Dr. Livingstone) on a Belgian operation to take over power in the Congo Free State. At this time Roger believed that European colonialism was beneficial. His opinion changed when he retired from the British Colonial Office in 1912 (with a knighthood in reward for uncovering colonial slavery in the Amazon).

In 1913 he helped to form the Irish Volunteers, a leading pro-home rule organisation involved in the 1916 Easter Rising. This year is the centenary of the Easter Rising in which Irish patriots like Sir Roger Casement rebelled against British rule. It was a pivotal event in the fight for Irish independence and, depending on which side you were on at the time, they were either patriots or traitors.

At the time of the Easter Rising World War I had been raging for a couple of years. The “Irish Question”, as Irish home rule was described, had been pushed into the background in British politics, but not for the Irish Volunteers and other home rule and independence groups.

Sir Roger casement went to New York at the outbreak of World War I to meet a leading German diplomat to discuss a plan for Germany to supply arms secretly to the Irish Volunteers. The armed Easter Rising would, Sir Roger suggested, divert some British attention away from the continental war and help German strategy on the Western Front. The plan was approved in part and a secret shipment of arms left Germany for Dublin disguised as a Norwegian supply vessel.

British intelligence had intercepted various messages which hinted at the arms shipment and Sir Roger’s involvement. Royal Navy patrols intercepted the secret shipment on Good Friday, 21st April 1916. Under escort the ship was taken to Cork but it was deliberately scuttled and sank off the coast. The crew became prisoners of war.

Sir Roger Casement was travelling in secret by submarine from Germany to Tralee Bay. On landing a recurrence of the malaria he contracted in the Congo prevented him from meeting the shipment. He had been on the British spy-watch radar since his first involvement with the Irish Volunteers but had escaped capture. Shortly after his meeting with the German diplomat in New York he had travelled in disguise to Germany. On a stop-over in Norway one of his travelling companion was offered a reward/bribe to disclose Sir Roger’s whereabouts.

Sir Roger was arrested shortly after arriving back in Ireland. He was charged with treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. He faced his charge at the dock at Bow Street magistrate’s court, soon to be on display in Nottingham, and sent to the Tower of London to await trial.

The Easter Rising took place on Easter Monday, 24th April 1916. Around 1,200 Irish Volunteers and other rebel groups stormed various strategic buildings in Dublin. The British government immediately put the whole of Ireland under martial law. Troops were sent to crush the rebellion. One local connection I hadn’t realised until quite recently was that the troops sent to Dublin were from the Sherwood Foresters, a regiment based right here in Nottingham. For seven years I worked at Nottingham Castle where the regimental museum is housed and I don’t recall seeing any reference to the Easter Rising on display.

Much blood was spilt in the six days of the Easter Rising. Like Sir Roger Casement the leaders were charged with treason and over the next weeks most of them were executed by firing squad. Sir Roger was hanged on 3rd August 1916.

To further blacken his reputation the British government circulated copies of pages from his “black diaries” which revealed details of his closeted gay life. Some doubt has been placed on the authenticity of the diaries themselves, but forensic examination hasn’t proved anything one way or the other.

The remains of Sir Roger casement were repatriated to Dublin in 1965 and he was given a state funeral. The British government at the time recognised his status of a knight even though his knighthood was cancelled in 1916.

Sir Roger remains a major hero of Irish nationalism to this day, as is evident from his being at the centre of an exhibition beginning at the weekend here in Nottingham.

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