‘Convicted on a Comma’, explained perfectly

A Review of Brian Gillespie’s new play on Roger Casement by Maireid Sullivan

Roger Casement, gentleman. Reproduced by RTE for its Centenary of the Rising coverage.

Roger Casement, gentleman. Reproduced by RTE for its Centenary of the Rising coverage.

Brian Gillespie (writer and director) , Convicted on a Comma: The Trial of Roger Casement, Old Council Chambers, Trades Hall, Saturday 5 August 2016.

World-wide, across the Irish diaspora, we’ve seen an unprecedented effort to understand what really happened within the ranks of those who planned the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin. Melbourne was host to an impressive series of events presented by several organisations, including Melbourne University, the State Library of Victoria, The Celtic Club, and  Bloomsday in Melbourne Inc. which never fails to bring life to history.

The 2016 Bloomsday in Melbourne Festival program culminated with the Bloomsday Players casting new light on the Easter Rising with the première of a new play, written and directed by Brian Gillespie, to commemorate the centenary of the tragic execution of Roger Casement.

The ‘traditional’ view of Irish history has always been based on ‘the Irish people’s moral right to fight for their political, economic, social and cultural independence against imperialist ethics’ (P.B. Ellis, 1989).

Historical quotes often enter public awareness without context. For example, it would be rare to find an Irish citizen who hasn’t heard that Roger Casement was ‘convicted on a comma’, but what does it mean?  Donegal-born Brian Gillespie, has solved this riddle.

Convicted on a Comma is a example of essential storytelling, without a hint of spin, based on the transcripts of the trial of Roger Casement. Gillespie has skillfully answered the questions the play posed: how did a lord of the realm, and a passionate humanitarian and diplomat who changed the course of colonial history, come to be hanged in Pentonville Prison as a traitor? Who defended him? What dark forces mobilized against him?

A remarkably perceptive and intelligent cast inspired riveting performances:

Roger Casement – Bruce Langdon

Alice Green – Deirdre Gillespie

Sergeant Sullivan – Rohan Walker

Sir Frederick Smith – Kevin Summers

Lord Chief Justice Reading – Jim Cusack

Singer – Marian Griffin

Cronin – Gerry Halliday

Narrator – Brian Gillespie

Bruce Langdon’s performance was a champion portrayal of Casement. The friendship and trust Casement shared with the eminent nationalist historian Alice Stopford Green (1847-1929) was beautifully represented with Deirdre Gillespie in the role.

What emerged is a deeper insight into the 1916 Easter Rising as a campaign driven by optimistic acts of patriotism on all fronts. One of those patriots was Sir Roger Casement, born near Dublin on September 1, 1864, to a Protestant father and a mother who was Catholic by conversion. At an early age, he lost both parents and he and his three siblings went to live with relatives in the North. He also became a Catholic later in life by conversion.  He was executed on 3 August, 1916, one month before his fifty-second birthday.

For more than twenty-one years, Roger Casement had been employed in the British Consular Service. In 1911, he was rewarded for outstanding work in the Foreign Service with a Knighthood, particularly for his exposé of human rights abuses – first in the Congo and later Peru. In 1913 he had retired on a pension.

Haunted by the scale of barbaric atrocities unleashed by imperialist colonisation in the Congo and later in the Putumayo, Colombia, Casement aligned with the Irish ‘freedom fighters’ who believed the Irish could achieve freedom from the scourge of British colonialism. The play’s narrative frame set out clearly what he contributed to thinking about colonialism in his damning reports about the cruelties of the rubber trade and its toll on indigenous workers. His work led to demands for reform.

In 1906 the Foreign Office sent Casement to Brazil where after some time he was promoted to Consul-General in Rio de Janeiro.  From here he investigated slavery in the rubber plantations of the Putumayo region of the Amazon run by a single British company with a British board of directors.

On my visits deep into the Amazon I discovered the natives there had been forced into unpaid labour too and were near starvation. If anything I found conditions even more inhumane than the Congo.  As usual I recorded everything in my private diaries. Corruption was entrenched and widespread….’ Roger Casement

As the narrator noted, ‘Casement’s report was described as a brilliant piece of journalism’.  First person accounts by both victims and perpetrators gave personal voice to an official document.  His lobbying lifted his profile in the United States as well as Europe.

But another cause drew him,

One closest to [his] heart.  Witnessing the enslavement and cruelty as I did in the Congo and Putomayo, I cannot stand by seeing the effects of the oppressor in Ireland and do nothing.  I saw in Connemara, conditions every bit as bad as I encountered abroad.  Disease, poverty, famine, exploitation, lack of education and people devoid of hope.  In Dublin I see some 6000 families of seven or more are living in a single tenement room. … The “White Indians of Ireland” are heavier on my heart than all the Indians of the rest of the earth.’ (Roger Casement)

Casement was very much aware that he embarked upon a treasonous expedition to gain German support for the Irish cause when he stated in his diary,  ‘It is not every day that even an Irishman commits High Treason especially one who has been in the service of the Sovereign he discards.’ His last diary entry on the 11th April 1916 reveals he was fully aware of the consequences of his failure,

Thank God – tomorrow my last day in Germany – again thank God, an English jail, or scaffold, would be better than to dwell with these people longer. All deception – all self-interest.

On June 26th Roger Casement stood trial, his defence predominantly funded by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A complete verbatim transcript of the trial, including a detailed Introduction, is available.

The Right Honorable Viscount Reading Lord Chief Justice of England presided at the trial of Roger Casement for High Treason. Representing the Crown, Attorney-General Sir Frederick Smith was a Unionist MP and staunch opponent of Home Rule. Casement was represented by Seargent Alexander Martin Sullivan, Dublin barrister and Kings Counsel at the Irish Bar, who fought the case on a technicality. Gillespie’s play distilled the arguments, clarified the technical details of the statute on which the arguments were based, and how the comma had been deployed for different legal purposes over the centuries, and revealed the defence to have been woefully inadequate, even if correct.

Roger Casement’s Speech from the Dock is former UK Chancellor Norman Lamont’s choice as the greatest speech of all time.

Roger Casement was found guilty and hanged on 3 August 1916 at Pentonville Prison, London. The Irish State Commemoration Ceremony report shows how the current government marked the occasion of his execution.

For those interested in understanding the motives, thoughts and feelings of one of the most controversial figures in early 20th century Ireland, historian Angus Mitchell is considered the foremost authority on ‘humanitarian pioneer and Irish patriot’ Roger Casement, having written a number of books and scholarly articles on him, including editing and annotating Casement’s diary, recently reviewed by Brian Gillespie for Tinteán.

Maireid Sullivan

This play will be reprised at the Trades Hall on 8 Oct. as a benefit for a revived Irish History Circle.  Watch this space for update.