In giving these few poems of Roger Casement to the Irish people I do not claim for them any special value as Irish literature. Roger Casement was not a poet, he would have been the last to lay claim to any such title, but, like the greater part of his fellow-countrymen, he felt from time to time the impulse to express some particular thought in verse, and he used to jot down, sometimes in a letter to a friend, sometimes on an odd half sheet of paper, the thought clothed in a poetic form just as it came into his mind.
His was a nature of peculiar delicacy and refinement and of singular simplicity; he had but one passion, Ireland, but one deep sympathy—compassion for the helpless and oppressed.
Even as a little boy he turned with horror and revulsion from cruelty of every description: he would tenderly nurse a wounded bird to life, and stop to pity an overloaded horse. This gentleness and tender-heartedness was one of his most marked characteristics; it led him to champion the cause of the Congo native and the Putumayo Indian, and to spend his slender means in later life in trying to relieve the wretched fever-stricken inhabitants in Connemara when typhus was raging among them, or to provide a mid-day meal for children in the Gaeltacht, who after walking perhaps for miles to school, through storm and rain, would have gone hungry all day if his kindly heart had not pitied them. When he was stricken with misfortune, it was these same children whose touching letters to him and whose words of consolation, with their prayers, brought tears to his eyes.
The act which brought him to his death was the result of long years of brooding over Ireland and her destiny; it was not a sudden and new impulse as some have endeavoured to prove. To say that his interest in Ireland began with his retirement from the service of the British Foreign Office is to misrepresent the facts entirely. Roger Casement from his earliest days was before everything else a lover of Ireland. In his schooldays he begged from the aunt, with whom he spent his holidays, for possession of an attic room which he turned into a little study, and the writer remembers the walls papered with cartoons cut out of the Weekly Freeman, showing the various Irish Nationalists who had suffered imprisonment at English hands for the sake of their belief in Ireland a Nation. Many years later, when he himself was a prisoner in an English gaol he wrote: “I have felt this destiny on me since I was a little boy; it was inevitable; everything in my life has led up to it.” He seemed in a curious way to have a foreboding of his fate. Once, years before his retirement, he was joking with a friend about some wonderful plan that was conceived in a mood of playfulness, and the carrying out of which would have involved considerable danger. The friend pointed out that the disadvantage of it all lay in the fact that they might accidentally kill someone, and “then,” she added, “we’d be hanged.” Roger Casement was silent for a moment, his deep-set eyes fixed on an invisible goal, and then he said very quietly, “I think I shall be hanged for Ireland.” A friend tells me that later he made a similar observation to a man who spoke of old rebellions and the fate of their leaders, “I shall be hanged, too, for leading an attack on Dublin Castle.”
An incident is told of his life in South Africa, about the time of the Boer War. He was one day, with two companions on the verandah of a hotel, when a lady who had been observing them from a distance for some time approached them. She excused herself for addressing strangers and explained that she had felt compelled to do so as they had interested her profoundly. Explaining that she had the gift of second-sight, she asked permission to tell their fortunes, to which they consented, looking upon the matter as a joke. Having told the fortunes of the lady and of the second companion, she turned at last to Roger Casement, and stated that his was the most interesting fate. She described his adventurous life in broad outline, and then said, “You must take care: at the age of 52 you will come to a violent end.” Roger Casement was within a month of his fifty-second birthday when he died.
There was a curious remoteness about him at times. He used to sit for long periods silent in a reverie, and would awaken from it with a sudden start. In his habits he was always simple and frugal; he rose very early in the morning and was always at work before breakfast; he cared nothing for society in the worldly sense, but he loved his friends and was always and invariably happy in the company of children of all ages and classes. Once the writer was walking with him through the streets of an old country town when a tired woman after a shopping expedition was vainly urging an equally tired, and, I am bound to say, naughty little boy to “come on.” When at last in exasperation she called out, “Very well, I’ll go home without you,” the culprit set up an ear-piercing yell and flung himself down on the ground. Roger turned round at once, to hasten back. “Ah! poor soul,” he said, “his heart is broken, God help him; I’ll pick him up.”
Small children always adored him. The tiny three-year-old child of a charwoman working in the house where he was staying used to creep in from the kitchen, and try to catch his eye as he sat writing. He always had a smile and caress for her, and one day her mother found her trying with both hands to turn the handle of the study door and scolded her. She hung her head and said, “I wanted to see the gentleman with the kind eyes.”
Many a little beggar child in Dublin knew the smile in those kind eyes, and they used to greet him with smiles in return and always get their copper or two. We used to tease him, and say he walked through the streets of Dublin “buying smiles at a penny each.” I do not think any Irish man, woman, or child ever appealed to him for sympathy and help that he did not give.
On a motor tour through Donegal with some friends he met an old woman whose son and his wife had died and left to her care a family of small children. They looked poor and hungry, and the old woman found it hard to make her little farm support them all. “Wouldn’t they be better for some milk?” asked Roger, seeing them make a scanty meal, with water to drink. “Indeed they would if I could be getting it for them,” said the grandmother. Roger made no answer, but at the next market town he bought a cow and had it sent out to the old lady.
It was in Ireland he always felt at home; he hated big cities, noise, music-halls, and restaurants. He wrote from London on one visit, “I feel more and more of a foreigner here”; but in the Irish country, with the simple country folk, he was always content. One of the happiest experiences of his life in later years was a short visit he paid to Tory Island in 1912, when he organised a Ceilidh, to which everyone on the island was invited. He sat in the crowded schoolroom, watching the boys and girls dancing their reels and jigs, and listening to the Gaelic songs till far on into the night, when the Ceilidh broke up. He loved the Tory people and used to plan many times to go back and visit them. Tory has a sort of fascination about it, it looks so remote and unreal, “like an opal jewel in a pale blue sea,” he described it once in a letter.
During all the time of his varied experiences abroad in Africa and South America, his mind turned always with longing and affection to Ireland. He looked upon himself as an Irishman before all things. He eagerly watched for the rare arrival of mails bringing word of Ireland and her doings. “Send me news of Ireland,” he wrote from South America, “and also what the papers say about the Congo, but chiefly Ireland; Ireland first, last, and for ever.”
Although not a rich man (he had no private means) he contributed generously to all Irish schemes for furthering the National life. He helped several of the Gaelic Colleges, gave prizes in schools for the study of Irish, and did his best to help along many of those newspapers and periodicals which were founded by young and hopeful Irishmen to expound their views and which alas! so often came to an untimely end.
With his singularly generous nature money mattered nothing at all to him save for the use he could make of it to help the work he had at heart. He spent little upon himself, in fact he denied himself all luxuries, and even comforts, that he might have to give to Irish causes or to the Irish poor. Those who said of him that he sold himself for money knew nothing of the man they were slandering. He was wholly indifferent to money for its own sake. His scrupulous integrity as to public funds was illustrated by the following: — When he was called to give evidence before a certain commission, as he was waiting his turn with others who had to travel to London for the same purpose, one of the secretaries remarked to a witness, “Do you see that man?” (pointing to Roger Casement), “Well, all the rest have charged first-class railway fares, but he has put down third.”
He wrote much on the Irish question. Letters from his pen appeared in many Irish newspapers, and not a few English ones, and his essays, which will, it is hoped, be published later, show not only a deep insight but much literary skill. His speech from the dock was described by a leading English literary man as an effort “worthy of the finest examples of antiquity.”
At the age of 52 he came to a violent end…. So have many others who died for Ireland; he stands among his peers, the Irish martyrs. He would not have chosen to die otherwise, the love of his life was Kathleen ni Houlihan; when he thought he heard her voice calling from her four green fields he had no choice but to obey, though he knew it led to death; but death which comes in such a form to the body leaves the spirit but freer to carry on its purpose.
The men of 1916 are not dead in any real sense, for
“They shall be remembered for ever,
They shall be alive for ever,
They shall be speaking for ever,
The people shall hear them for ever.”