One hundred and five years after his execution, Roger Casement is home. Mark Richards’s statue of the renowned diplomat, humanitarian, and Easter Rising leader stands over the coast from an impressive perch in front of the old Dún Laoghaire baths. Ironically, for a man who died for Irish freedom, his new address is Windsor Terrace on Queen’s Road.
Casement was born at Doyle’s Cottage in Sandycove, located between Fitzgerald’s pub and The Butler’s Pantry, in a row of houses formerly known as Lawson’s Terrace. His birthplace and childhood home is marked by this grey plaque.
His story is well-documented, but a complex relationship with Dún Laoghaire after his death isn’t. The eventual unveiling of a statue in 2021 concludes a long and often turbulent effort to commemorate him in the township formerly known as Kingstown.
Michael Cronin of Boston College documents the tangled story behind the erection of Oisin Kelly’s sculpture in Kerry in great detail in an article entitled Roger Casement’s Long Journey to Ballyheigue. For several reasons, it became the statue that got away from Dún Laoghaire.
Kelly is also responsible for two very prominent and well known pieces of public sculpture in Dublin; the Children of Lir in the Garden of Remembrance on Parnell Square and ‘Big’ Jim Larkin on O’Connell Street.
There was much interest and speculation about where Kelly’s statue would be placed. In the running were Glasnevin cemetery, where Casement was eventually re-interred in 1965, Murlough Bay in Co. Antrim, and Ballyheigue, Co. Kerry. When the commission was completed, Charles Haughey was sitting as Taoiseach for the first his three stints in office. Haughey and his administration favoured Dún Laoghaire.
Despite being given formal permission by the state to take the Casement statue, the Council spent four years arguing about where exactly it should be erected. The initial location of the car ferry terminal was eventually dismissed. The Harbour Commissioners also expressed their concern that the proposal was not compatible with their plans to update and modernise the harbour.
In 1981, the Queen Victoria fountain was vandalised, reportedly as an act of protest at the treatment of the hunger strikers in the Maze Prison. Owen Hammond, a Fianna Fáil councillor for Ballybrack, put forward a motion in January 1982 that the Victoria fountain site should be used to house Oisin Kelly’s Casement statue.
The motion was defeated 9 votes to 2. Councillor Hammond angrily berated his fellow councillors by telling them that they “still favoured the retention of a link with Britain, and to them the Royal Borough of Kingstown is still not part of the Irish Republic.”
Kelly’s statue went to Kerry. This wasn’t the first time that an attempt to commemorate Casement in Dún Laoghaire fell through. In 1966, as part of a nationwide effort to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, it was suggested that Dún Laoghaire should abandon the colonial name of its main street.
Joseph Ryan and Milo W. Broderick of the Casement Street Committee wrote to rate payers in the town based on George’s Street in November. “Ladies and Gentlemen, Within the last few months a number of ratepayers felt that the name of your street should be altered and now would be a good time to do it,” they began. “Its name was given to honour George the Fourth, King of England, who visited Ireland shortly after his coronation in 1821, and, also to honour him, the name of the town was changed from Dún Laoghaire to Kingstown, and it remained Kingstown until 1920 when by the vote of the residents the original name was restored by law.”
The letter continues to lambast King George IV. “While allowance should be made for the circumstances of the time, George the Fourth was, as you probably know, no ornament to the English throne,” they state. “In a special article on the Monarchy in the English Sunday Times of Sunday, 13th November, a distinguished English historian refers to his “scandalous and undignified career,” and he was certainly no friend of Ireland, and he held out against Catholic Emancipation to the last till Wellington warned him that the consequences of continuing opposition would be Civil War, and even then he only signed the Emancipation Act “tearful and protesting.””
According to the Casement Street Committee, in a straw poll of 50 people asked if they should re-name the town’s main thoroughfare after the Sandycove rebel, 47 responded in the affirmative. Despite widespread support for the renaming proposal, it never fully got off the ground. George’s Street is still named after an English Monarch.
Homophobia also played a large part in delaying the commemoration of Casement in Dún Laoghaire. In a brilliant podcast entitled The Economics of Casement, Carson, Congo and Colonialism, David McWilliams refers to how Casement’s sexuality and private life made him an unpalatable figure for traditional Ireland.
“The Casement statue was originally supposed to be erected in Dún Laoghaire, allegedly the home of liberal Ireland,” McWilliams says. “In 1966 it was vetoed by the local Catholic Church because he was gay and because he was a Prod. There was an anti-Prod thing going on but it was mainly the gay thing. One of the few public acknowledgements of Roger Casement was Casement Park, the local GAA club in West Belfast, but there are very few of them around here.”
In 2021, we have seemingly finally accepted Roger Casement as a modern Irish hero. He has inspired, enthralled, fascinated and appalled many throughout history. Intriguingly, Norman Lamont, former English Chancellor of the Exchequer and member of the so-called Cambridge Mafia, who was part of John Major’s Gulf War cabinet in 1991 when the IRA launched a mortar bomb attack on Downing Street, said that Roger Casement’s statement from the dock was the greatest speech of the 20th Century.
We will conclude with some quotes from this speech, the final act of an Irishman who we are finally appraising and commemorating as one of our own.
“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 Féineach or Orangemen, and I shall accept the verdict, and bow to the statute and all its penalties. But I shall accept no meaner finding against me than that of those whose loyalty I have endangered by my example and to whom alone I made appeal. If they adjudge me guilty, then guilty I am. It is not I who am afraid of their verdict — it is the Crown. If this is not so, why fear the test? I fear it not. I demand it as my right.
“This is the condemnation of English rule, of English-made law, of English government in Ireland, that it dare not rest on the will of the Irish people, but exists in defiance of their will: that it is a rule, derived not from right, but from conquest.”