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Sir John Lavery's painting of Roger Casement's Trial 1916

High Treason, Court of Criminal Appeal: The Trial of Sir Roger Casement 1916

This remarkable painting, by Irish artist Sir John Lavery, is a portrait of Roger Casement on the last day of his appeal against his conviction for high treason and sentence of death, July 1916. Lavery painted this monumental picture (10ft by 7ft ) from the Juror’s box, looking straight across the court a Casement framed in the grid around the dock.

Most observers are drawn towards The Honourable Mr Justice Darling, looking every inch the presiding judge, stern, lean, and straight-backed, who clearly commands his court, at room number 1, London’s Royal Courts of Justice. In the body of the court there is a busy scene of wigs and books, as the appeals’ team, led by AM Sullivan KC and George Gavin Duffy, are about to make a point.

Casement’s appeal did not deny his visit to Germany, nor his efforts to solicit men and arms to fight in Ireland, but challenged the 14th century law of treason, under which he was tried. That stated that the crime against the king, must be committed in the king’s realm. The fact that Casement acted against Britain on German soil might mitigate his treason.

Furthermore was his objection to his trial taking place in Britain. Referring to his arrest on Kerry’s Banna Strand on Good Friday, and taken immediately to London by force, Casement told the court: ‘ 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….’ Regardless of what was said by Casement, or on his behalf, there had to be an element of distaste for his fraternisation with England’s powerful enemy, against the background of intense battles along the Western Front. Poison gas had been added to the horrific range of weapons. That spring and summer casualties among the Allies were mounting towards the one million mark. Casement’s original trial lasted four days. The jury took less than an hour to declare him guilty. His knighthood was immediately cancelled. Casement’s appeal was rejected on July 24.

All was not lost at this point in time, however. Following the negative publicity world-wide after the execution of the 14 leaders of the Easter Rising in April that year, there was growing hope that a reprieve might be granted. George Bernard Shaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and WB Yeats supported the call. The American senate added its weight to the plea.

But whatever hope there was, was dashed when British intelligence revealed extracts from Casement’s private diaries. If the revelation was designed to undermine growing public support for Casement, it succeeded. Coming as it did barely two decades after the Oscar Wilde trials, with all its hypocrisy and lurid publicity, many people were embarrassed and confused. Lavery poignantly portrays Casement as a diminished figure, lost in the drama of this pulsating court scene, where points of law superseded the humanity of the man; while outside, there was a growing public dislike for the whole affair.

Casement, as a child, was a ward of Chancery with a guardian he hardly knew. At 19 Casement went to the Belgian Congo, delivering a painstakingly accurate report in 1903 of the atrocities committed against the natives by the Belgian regime, the report on the atrocities committed on the natives by the British owned Amazon Rubber Company, 1911, ensured Casement was knighted in 1911. The Casement diaries, the British re-wrote parallel diaries (refer:-Pigott diaries written to discredit Parnell) from1911 thereby doubling and falsifying entries which contradicted Casement's journals in which he wrote daily some 3,000 words. Casement, the first humanitarian, upset two Empires.

There was never any hope of a reprieve. He went to the scaffold in Pentonville jail, on August 3 1916, the fifteenth man to be executed following the Easter Rising. Roger Casement, the principal organiser of the Howth gun-running, without which the Easter Rising might never have happened, initially entered Irish revolutionary politics with a love for the Irish language which he saw was a dying cause. It would cost him humiliation, and his life. Despite his vigorous campaigns against enslavement of the indigenous people of the Congo, and Amazonia, and knighted for his work, he was in fact killed twice. Once by the coarse hands of the executioner, and the other seeing his reputation as a brave humanitarian destroyed by forged diaries.

Sir John Lavery (1856-1941 ) was an exceptionally fine portrait artist, and included in this painting are 40 recognisable legal figures of the day. Lavery worked long and hard on the picture which was not completed until 1931. For whatever reason, the painting was never exhibited during the artist’s lifetime. Sir Charles Datrling commissioned Lavery to paint the 2 day appeal from the unused jury box. The oil sketch depicted 40 individual portraits. Attorney General Sir FE Smith was on the same 1911 honours list as Casement, and as Lord Birkenhead he was on the British delegation that negotiated the Anglo-Irish Treaty. An establishment Judge dismissed the appeal. Sullivan opposed to Sinn Fein passionately defended a Sinn Fein member. Obscurity for the painting lasted until 1950 when Kings Inn Dublin asked to buy the painting. The painting was lent to Dublin in 2001. it was sent to London for refurbishment and valuation and was displayed in the National Portrait Gallery until 2003 before returning to Dublin. It now hangs in the stairwell of the King’s Inns, Henrietta St., Dublin. With his wife Hazel they were strong supporters of the Irish revolution. Casement a traitor to one island, a patriot to another, the only man to receive freedom of both Belfast and Dublin. Casement GAA stadium is currently being restored. WB Yeats wrote in 1936: 'The ghost of Roger Casemednt/Is beating on the door'.

George Gavin Duffy, a successful partner in a prestigious London firm, which warned him that if he took the case he must leave the partnership. Without hesitation he accepted Casement as his client, and was fired. In 1965 Casement’s remains were repatriated to Ireland and buried at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, with full military honours. Despite the withdrawal of his knighthood after his conviction, British Cabinet papers referred to him as Sir Roger Casement during the talks on repatriation.

The sketch on which this painting was based was sold at auction for £181,000 in London, March 2024.

Galway Advertiser, Sunday Independent, A Complex Paradox in Paint, Sam McBride Sunday Independent, February 25, 2024; Broken Archangel: The Tempestuous Lives of Roger Casement, Roland Phillips


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