On the morning of Good Friday 1916, Sir Roger Casement landed on the beaches of Banna Strand in County Kerry. He was suffering from a recurrence of malaria which he had contracted some time ago in the Congo and didn’t make it too far from the Irish shore. He was arrested by two officers from the Royal Irish Constabulary on charges of treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. In his coat pockets they found a German admiralty codebook and the ticket stub for a railway journey from Berlin to Wilhelmshaven, a U-boat port. The life of Roger Casement, whether rendered in the briefest of vignettes or the lengthiest of critical biographies, paints a portrait of a mysterious and often contradictory figure. His haunting presence, particularly in the centenary year of the Easter Rising, is the focus of a new exhibition in Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane (10 March–2 October).
On the threshold of the exhibition’s main room is a plaque with the words of W.B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Ghost of Roger Casement’ (1938):
O what has made that sudden noise?
What on the threshold stands?
It never crossed the sea because
John Bull and the sea are friends;
But this is not the old sea
Nor this the old seashore.
What gave that roar of mockery,
That roar in the sea’s roar?
The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.
Casement’s attempt to deliver German rifles and ammunition to the Irish Volunteers was thwarted, but the Easter Rising would go ahead on Easter Monday while he was locked up in the Tower of London. In the aftermath of the rebellion and the execution of the rebel leaders in Kilmainham Gaol, Casement was tried in London for high treason and then hanged at Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916.
Sir John Lavery’s magisterial and monumental painting of Casement’s court appeal is the centrepiece of the Hugh Lane exhibition. Weighing in at 194.5 x 302.5 cm, his painting of the court room scene hardly bears comparison with the smaller, but nevertheless subtle, portraits of British and Irish high society. Instead we get the coliseum scene and scale; a packed court, tiered rows of magistrates, a sea of papers, the defence counsel mid-speech, and Roger Casement in the dock already behind bars and staring out of the painting to return the viewer’s gaze. The Belfast-born artist attended the appeal against Casement’s death sentence and had a front-row seat in the viewing gallery for the court proceedings. Lavery’s central yet distant depiction of Casement, seated with arms folded and looking on was recalled in Yeats’s ‘The Municipal Gallery Revisited’ (1937): ‘Casement upon trial, half hidden behind bars, / Guarded’. The pun on ‘guarded’ does not go amiss in painting or poem. The spectral image of Casement is at once elusive and haunting. Crucially however, Yeats was probably referring to Lavery’s smaller, preparatory painting of the trial which was on display in the Gallery from 1935. The larger masterpiece was variously considered to be in bad taste or a potential incitement of hostility against the British government and remained in Lavery’s studio until his death. Even after, the painting was rejected by the National Gallery in London and remained in the Royal Courts of Justice until 1951 at which time it was loaned to the Society of King’s Inns, Dublin. The present exhibition brings together the preparatory work (1916) and its summation, the rarely displayed masterpiece High Treason.
Much of the exhibition is dedicated to portraits of Casement’s mates and magistrates. But the Hugh Lane has an embarrassment of riches to parade in its principle exhibition for the centenary; including Rodin’s marble bust of George Bernard Shaw, portraits by Sarah Purser, William Orpen, John B. Yeats, and two portraits of his young son, Dubya. The 2002 documentary film The Ghost of Roger Casement runs on loop in the far room and provides a wider view of the man’s humanitarian efforts in the Congo Free State and Putumayo, Brazil, as well as broaching the topic of Casement’s ‘Black Diaries’, which contained explicit details of homosexual encounters that would be used against him at trial. Questions about the miscarriage of justice, abuse of power and long-held assertions that the diaries were forgeries explain the range of art-afterlives of Roger Casement. The final display piece is a poster recording Casement’s famous speech from the dock rendered in verse. The exhibition does not show the date of the propaganda piece, but its subtitle ‘The Ideal Recitation for Volunteers’ gives an idea of its use in the aftermath of the Rising, and on the threshold of the War of Independence. In a carefully curated exhibition that begins and ends with representations Casement in verse, the restless ghost of Roger Casement is still beating on the door.
Jack Quin is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate in the Department of English and Related Literature, University of York. His research explores the relationship between poetry and sculpture in the later works of W.B. Yeats. He has also studied at Queen's University Belfast and is currently working as a Research Assistant at Trinity College Dublin on an interdisciplinary project entitled ‘Yeats and the Writing of Art’.
The High Treason: Roger Casement Exhibition will be in the Hugh Lane Gallery, Parnell Square North, Dublin 1 from 10 March - 02 October 2016.