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Home - Spying - The 1916 Easter Uprising - Roger Casement - Letter from GB Shaw


Following the passing of Roger Casement's death sentence, there was a campaign to commute the sentence. Several people wrote letters to British newspapers, and overseas newspapers especially in the then neutral USA. Most of the British newspapers reflected the official line that Casement was a traitor who had justly been sentenced to death, and that the sentence should be carried out. It was during this period that passages were leaked from Casement's private diaries showing Casement's homosexuality.

George Bernard Shaw wrote a letter to The Times newspaper. This letter was rejected by The Times, but was subsequently printed by the Manchester Guardian on 22 July 1916, and New York American on 13 August 1916. Roger Casement was hanged within London's Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916.

G.B. Shaw's Letter


As several English newspapers have answered the above question vehemently in the affirmative, may I, as an Irishman, be allowed to balance their judgment by a reminder of certain considerations, easily overlooked in England, which seem glaringly obvious in Ireland.

First let me say that I have no sentimental appeal to make. Casement (he is no longer technically Sir Roger: but I really cannot bring myself to throw Mister in his teeth at such a moment) has lived his life not without distinction. His estimate of the relative values of the political rights of his country as he conceives them and of the integrity of his neck may be more Irish than English (though I hope I have no right to say so): but at any rate he has staked his life and lost, and cannot with any sort of dignity ask, or allow anyone else to ask on his behalf, for sentimental privilege. There need be no hesitation to carry out the sentence if it should appear, on reflection, a sensible one. Indeed,  with a view to  extricating the discussion completely from the sentimental vein, I will go far as to confess that there is a great deal to be said for hanging all public men at the age of fifty-two, though under such a regulation I should myself have perished eight years ago. Were it in force throughout Europe, the condition of the world at present would be much more prosperous.

I presume I may count on a general agreement that Casement's treatment should not be exceptional. This is important, because it happens that his case is not an isolated one just now. There are several traitors in the public eye at present. At the head of them stands Christian De Wet. If De Wet is spared and Casement hanged, the unavoidable conclusion will be that Casement will be hanged, not because he is a traitor, but because he is an Irishman. We have also a group of unconvicted, and indeed unprosecuted, traitors whose action helped very powerfully to convince Germany that she might attack France without incurring our active hostility. As all these gentlemen belong to the same political party, their impunity, if Casement be executed, will lead to the still closer conclusion that his real offence is not merely that of being an Irishman but of being a nationalist Irishman. I see no way of getting around this. If it was proper to reprieve De Wet, whose case was a very flagrant one, Casement cannot be executed except on the assumption that Casement is a more hateful person than De Wet; and there is no other apparent ground for this discrimination that the fact that Casement is an Irishman and De Wet a Boer. Now this is clearly a consideration that should not weight the scales of justice. It may represent a fierce feeling which, though neither general nor civilised, is real and natural; but its gratification in the exercise of the Royal prerogative would make all the difference between an execution and a political assassination.

Sir Harry Poland and Sir Homewood Crawford are obviously right in claiming that Casement's trial was conducted in a manner which was, if anything, unduly indulgent the the accused, though Sir Homewood might perhaps have found a more tactful precedent than the case of Wainewright the murderer. Nevertheless, the real case was not put before the Court at all. The Crown, sure of its verdict, contended itself with a perfunctory police-court charge. The defence, after manufacturing a legal point to provide technical ground for an appeal, put up the sort of excuse usual in criminal cases: that is, the excuse of a pickpocket. Accused, having - very unwisely in my opinion - allowed his case to be pleaded for him instead of pleading it himself, could not very well repudiate the defence he had thus brought on himself: he could only ignore it. It was then too late. But there is no reason why the real case should not be stated now. It is fully set forth in Casement's recent writings published in America. No one dares publish them here, apparently, though the works of Treitschke and Mr. Houston Chamberlain, under cover of derisory titles and prefaces that deceive no sensible reader circulate freely.

Casement's contention is simple enough. He does not pretend that Ireland can be a Power. But Belgium is not a Power. Greece is not a Power. They exist politically because it suits the Powers to maintain them as 'buffer states' or 'open doors'. Casement, like Sir Edward Grey and all the professional diplomatists, knows that the sore point in the British position for the rest of the world is our command of the sea. He argued that, if Britain is ever defeated, the victor's first care will be to abolish our power of blockade, and he suggested that the most obvious and effectual means of doing this would be to establish an independent kingdom of Ireland, guaranteed as an open door by the non-British Powers. So far, his views are on record. I infer that he regarded a victory by the Central Empires in the present war as probable enough to justify him in opening negotiations with the German Government with a view to the eventuality he had forecast.

Now this was a perfectly legitimate political speculation. An Irishman cannot reasonably be deterred from entertaining it, and even acting on it, by an loyalty which he yet owes to the British Empire. My own objection to it, for instance, is expressed by pointing to the predicament of Belgium and Greece, and asking whether that sort of independence is really preferable to the integration of Austria or Bavaria, with adequate modern units of defensive force. It seems to me an obsolete speculation, but it implies no moral delinquency.

On the question of allegiance, Casement was equally explicit. He pointed out that five centuries of Turkish rule in the Balkans had not, in the opinion of the British nation, abrogated the right of every Serbian to strike for independence, and he concluded quite logically that the same period of British rule could not abrogate the right of every Irishman to do the same. In England we are still so strongly of that opinion so far as Serbia is concerned that we have not allowed an event which could be paralleled in these islands only by the assassination of the Prince of Wales in the streets of Dublin to shake our adherence to, and our support by armed force of, this principle of nationality. It seems to me that Casement is here quite unanswerable. In any case, the word traitor as applied to a rebel has always been a mere vituperation from the days of Wallace to those of Sir Edward Carson and Sir Frederick Smith, and in my opinion it should be disused in this sense by intelligent men. Certainly, no one outside Great Britain will have any desire to apply it, even for vituperative purposes, to Casement.

Public opinion seems to be influenced to some extent by the notion that because Casement received money for his work from the British Empire, and earned it with such distinction that he became personally famous and was knighted for it, and expressed himself as gentlemen do on such occasions, he is in the odious position of having bitten the hand that fed him. To the people who take this view I put my own case. I have been employed by Germany as a playwright for many years, and by the Austrian Emperor in the great theatre in Vienna which is part of his household. I have received thousands of pounds for my services. I was recognised in this way when the English theatres were contemptuously closed to me. I was compelled to produce my last important play [Pygmalion] in Berlin in order that it might not be prejudiced by the carefully telegraphed abuse of the English press. Am I to understand that it is therefore my duty to fight for Germany and Austria, and that, in taking advantage of the international reputation which I unquestionably owe to Germany more than to any other country to make the first statement of the case against her which could have convinced anybody outside England. I was biting the hand of the venerable Franz Josef, whose bread I had eaten? I cannot admit it for a moment. I hope I have not been ungrateful. I have refused to join in the popular game of throwing mud at the Germans, and I have said nothing against them that I did not say when many of our most ardent patriots were lighting illuminations and raising triumphal arches to welcome the Kaiser in London. But to Germany's attack on France I remain a conscientious objector, and I must take my side accordingly. Clearly, Casement may claim precisely the same right to take his side according to his convictions, all the more because his former services prove that he does so without malice.

The reasonable conclusion is that Casement should be treated as a prisoner of war. I believe this is the view that will be taken in the neutral countries, whose good opinion is much more important to us than the satisfaction of our resentment. In Ireland he will be regarded as a national hero if he is executed, and quite possibly a spy if he is not. For that reason it may well be that he would object very strongly to my attempt to prevent his canonisation. But Ireland has enough heroes and martyrs already, and if England has not by this time had enough of manufacturing them in fits of temper experience is thrown away on her, and she will continue to be governed, as she is at present to so great an extent unconsciously, by Casement's countrymen.

Yours, &c.,

G. Bernard Shaw.

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