Brian Gillespie talks about his new play,
Convicted on a Comma: the Trial of Roger Casement
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
So said William Butler Yeats of the leaders of the 1916 Easter rebellion. It is particularly true of Roger Casement.
In 1911 Roger Casement knelt before King George V, knighted for his outstanding investigative work on the abuses against the Indigenous population of the Congo and Peru by Colonial rulers.
Five short years later he was stripped of his title, hanged for Treason and buried naked in a pit of lime in a prison yard.
One of the most controversial figures in Irish and British Colonial history, the story of his journey from high-profile Foreign Service diplomat to Nationalist rebel has fascinated historians for the past 100 years. His 21 years service in the Foreign Service was served with distinction and recognised appropriately, but exposing Imperialism in the Congo and Peru for its corruption and slavery left a lasting impression on him.
Seeing how Ireland was similarly affected, he aligned himself more and more to the cause of Irish Nationalism. A staunch advocate of Home Rule he, like many others, was frustrated at the failure time and time again to get this through the House of Lords.
Following his resignation from the Foreign Service in 1913, he became heavily involved in the formation of the Irish Volunteers (forerunner to the IRA).
The turning of this Knight of the Empire to Nationalist rebel was read by the British as an insult to the ruling Establishment, a feeling that was compounded when Britain went to war with Germany. With a price on his head he went to Germany to solicit support for an armed rebellion. The lukewarm response from the Germans and Irish POWs and token offer of armaments and support led him to return to Ireland on Good Friday 1916 to try to stop the insurrection.
Arrested and interned at the Tower of London, he was the sixteenth and last of the leaders of the Easter Rising to be executed. While the others were court-martialed and shot, Casement was tried under Common Law and hanged. His trial was fraught with difficulty, and sabotaged in various ways. It rested on a legal technicality which this play seeks to untangle. It also tells the story of what preceded the trial and made it one of the most egregious in modern history.
In the weeks before his execution at Pentonville, the ‘Black Diaries’ surfaced which were deemed to indicate homosexual activity. Ernley Blackwell of the Home Office circulated excerpts of the diaries to Cabinet and the gentlemen’s clubs in a sinister attempt to taint his name by innuendo and foul his memory , and to discourage pleas of clemency. 100 years on, arguments continue as to the authenticity of these diaries, and the exact nature of his relations with young men. More has been written about this complex man than the all the other 1916 leaders.
What motivates this play is my intense conviction that he deserves to be remembered for his fearless unselfish devotion to the causes he believed in.
Convicted on a Comma is a new play written and directed by Brian Gillespie and is a re-enactment of the trial of Roger Casement and it tells some of his dramatic story. It will be performed by Bloomsday in Melbourne on August 6th.
Two performances only at 3.00pm and 7.30pm at the old Council Chambers in Trades Hall at the corner Lygon and Victoria streets.
This production is supported by the Embassy of Ireland via the Global Diaspora Programme.
Donegal-born, Brian has been involved with the Irish History Circle and Irish theatre for many decades in both Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne.