The Traitor’s Fate: The Execution of Roger Casement at Pentoville Prison (August 1916)

“Roger David Casement was executed at Pentoville Prison yesterday morning. A small crowd gathered at seven o’clock, and remained until the hour appointed for execution,” reported the Central News whose correspondent attended the prison on the day of the execution in 1916, 105 years ago this week.

File photo dated 01/04/1916 of crowds outside Bow Street court, for the Roger Casement trial. Picture: PA/PA Wire
File photo dated 01/04/1916 of crowds outside Bow Street court, for the Roger Casement trial. Picture: PA/PA Wire

The report added: “At twenty minutes to nine a telegraph messenger arrived, and there was keen speculation as to whether this meant a reprieve at the eleventh hour.

“The death bell tolled, however, at eight minutes past nine, and there was a burst of cheering, which was renewed at intervals.”

The Central News reported that there had been a dramatic scene in the condemned cell shortly before the execution when Casement expressed the wish to be received into the Roman Catholic Church, and a messenger was immediately despatched to the Catholic chaplain, the Reverend Dean Ring of Commercial Road, who, with the Reverend Mr McCarroll arrived quickly to visit the condemned man, and for a quarter of an hour the priests remained with him preparing him for death. His confession was heard and he was given Holy Communion.

Sir Roger Casement. Picture: PA Photos

A few minutes before nine o’clock John Ellis, the executioner, entered the condemned cell. Thereupon Casement stood and made a slight gesture toward him.

On the stroke of nine the little procession, headed by the two priests, with Casement following, between two warders who had looked after him during his incarceration, left the cell and walked towards the execution shed, which was only five yards away.

The litany of the dying was recited by the priests, Casement responding in low tones. “Lord have mercy upon my soul”.

As they reached the execution shed Ellis approached Casement and he was quickly pinioned. The chaplains, the governor of the prison, the Under-Sheriff of London, and the Under-Sheriff of Middlesex then took up their positions in front of the scaffold, and Casement took his place on the dropboard. The Central News concluded: “The next moment the lever was pulled, and Casement had paid the penalty of his crimes.”

The hilt of a sword belonging to Sir Roger Casement donated to the National Museum of Ireland by the London Metropolitan Police in 2011. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

A touching scene was witnessed at the back of the prison, where a group of some Irishmen, among them an MP, and women had assembled. Just as the tolling of the bell intimated that the execution had taken place they fell on their knees, and with bowed heads remained a few moments praying for the repose of the Casement’s soul.

The Exchange Telegraph company claimed that Casement’s last words were: “I die for my country.”

KNIGHTED A MERE FIVE YEARS PREVIOUSLY

“Executions for treason are very rare in the United Kingdom, and the last case in which there was a conviction – that of Mr Arthur Lynch MP – the sentence was commuted and a pardon subsequently grant. He was tried in 1903, and before that there had not been a trial for sixty-two years,” declared the News Letter in an editorial which was published Friday, August 1906, the day after Roger Casement was put to death.

The editorial continued: “The Government of the day took a merciful view of his crime, but no one can blame the present Government for allowing the law to take its course in the case of Roger Casement, who was hanged yesterday in Pentoville Prison.

“There can be no doubt of his guilt. It was patent and acknowledged. Neither at his trial nor during the hearing of his appeal against his conviction was the evidence of his treason seriously contested. It was proved that he went to Germany, appealed to Irish prisoners of war to join an Irish Brigade which was to fight on behalf of our chief enemy, and he came to Ireland in a German vessel which carried arms and ammunition for use in the Sinn Fein rebellion.

“It was suggested that his object was to persuade the organisers of that mad enterprise to give it up, but there was no evidence of this, nor that least reason to suppose it was true.

“His counsel based his defence on a point of law. He argued that as his offence was committed outside the realm he could not be convicted under the Statute of Edward III. This point was decided against. Mr Lynch, and all the legal authorities were agreed that British subjects could be tried for treason committed outside the realm.”

The News Letter continued: “Judges who heard the case in the first instance, and the five who heard the appeal, held this view, and the latter, at the end of Sergeant Sullivan’s long argument, did not call upon the Attorney-General to reply.

“Some of his political sympathisers with Casement thought that Sir F E Smith should have allowed his appeal to go to the House of Lords, but none of them professed to believe that the result would have been different.”

The News Letter argued that Casement’s “legal guilt” was “as plain as his moral guilt”. He was “ no youthful enthusiast” but a former British civil servant, who had been knighted a mere five years previously, who had committed the greatest betrayal.

It added: “And there was nothing to excuse or palliate it. He was no youthful enthusiast, impelled to rush courses by zeal for his native or indignation against its rulers. He was a retired civil servant who enjoyed, until his treason became known, a pension from the country against which he rebelled.

“We do not know his motives, but it is not uncharitable to assume that love for Ireland was not the most powerful of them. If it had been he would have found means of showing it before he reached his fiftieth years. And if the hatred of England, which he recently professed arose from his view of her treatment of Ireland, he would not have accepted with profuse gratitude the knighthood which was conferred upon him only five years ago.”

Whatever his motives, said the News Letter, he had “rebelled against his Sovereign during this gigantic war, and did all that he was able to help Germany to win”.

There had been argument in “leading Radical newspapers” that Casement’s life should have been spared. This was something the News Letter could not stomach

The editorial continued: “And they [the Radical newspapers] were consistent, for they condemned the execution of the leaders of the Sinn Fein rebellion. According to them, men who organise rebellion against Empire while it is fighting for its existence, and who do so without the smallest excuse, should not be punished.

“The first reason they gave was that Nationalists in Ireland would look upon Casement as a martyr. But that only show the intensity of Nationalists disloyalty. There are Nationalists who maintain the Phoenix Park murderers who were hanged were martyrs.

“The second reason which they gave was that the execution of Casement would stimulate the anti-English feeling in the United States. But the British people are tired of hearing that they must conciliate the Irish-Americans, the men who organised Fenian raids into Canada and dynamite outrages in England, and who are still sending money to Ireland to help the rebels. They have been told that if they do not give Home Rule, or if they refuse any of the Nationalist demands, they cannot have good relations with the United States. But neither Irish-Americans nor German-Americans are masters in Washington, and, even if they were, they should not be allowed to interfere with the internal affairs of the United Kingdom.”

The News Letter’s editorial concluded on the matter: “The Radical newspapers, for Party purposes, have for many years exaggerated the influence of the Irish-Americans, and the Government would have shown weakness, and encouraged further demands, if it had failed to carry out the sentence on Casement.”