Irish nationalist revolutionaries have consistently sought outside support in their endeavours, recognising that having a major European, or even world, power is a practical necessity when trying to fight an opponent with the size and reach of England, and later the British Empire. France has been a frequent target for such support, but also Spain, the Duchy of Lorraine and, as time passed, the United States. With the outbreak of the First World War, it was only logical that the IRB factions preparing a Rising would consider employing a mindset of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.
And so, secret approaches were made to Imperial Germany, locked in what would eventually prove be a fatal struggle with Britain and the other allies. But the main drivers behind this attempted alliance would be two very unlikely figures: the first, a man who at one point was a heartfelt believer in the cause of British imperialism, now giving the same enthusiasm, if not more, to the cause of Irish independence and the second, the son of a Papal count who came to be one of the Easter Rising’s key military minds despite a lack of genuine military experience and the impediment of suffering from what was likely a terminal illness.
Roger Casement was born in Dublin in 1864, the son of a Royal Dragoons Captain who had fought in Afghanistan. The family were genteel but not wealthy, and Casement found himself bounced around relatives in Ireland after the death of both his parents by age 13, before heading to England to work as a shipping company clerk. After a few years he signed up to work with the African International Association of Belgian King Leopold II: despite stated aims of altruism and humanitarianism, the association was little more than a front for Leopold’s attempt to seize a huge swath of the African continent for his own, at a time when the so-called “scramble for Africa” was in its early stages. He later transferred to the British Colonial Service, and then the Foreign Office in the Congo.
Casement came to Africa as a proponent of European civilizations’ right, even responsibility, to bring that very civilisation into the heart of Africa, but he very soon realised that the “white man’s burden” was an excuse for large scale exploitation and repeated atrocity. He witnessed a litany of terrible sights, wherein natives were essentially enslaved by white colonial powers and forced to partake in the ransacking of natural resources. Appalled by the conditions that he saw, Casement’s view of colonialism and imperialism as positive forces was forever lost. His work in bringing the abuses of Leopold’s regime to light, in the so-called “Casement Report”, was instrumental in the dismantling of the Belgian King’s private ownership of the area, though it is debatable if the Belgian government were better overseers. Later, he received praise for similar work in detailing widespread abuses against natives of South America, especially in Peru. In 1911, Casement was knighted.
By then though, Casement was already getting wrapped up in Irish nationalism, having joined the Gaelic League in 1904, and then Sinn Fein the following year. Retirement from his foreign service brought on bouts of manic-depression as he surveyed the apparently bleak prospects of Irish nationhood, and Casement soon became a committed adherent to the ideal, and made numerous relationships with key figures, like Eoin MacNeill of the Irish Volunteers, Bulmer Hobson of the IRB, and Clan na Gael leaders in America. Casement helped write the Irish Volunteers’ manifesto and raised funds for the Howth gun-running. His past work for the British government meant that he was never entirely trusted by some, and he did not join the IRB, but Casement’s belief in the idea of a free Ireland, achieved through force of arms if necessary, became obvious with his actions after the start of the First World War.
And then there was Joseph Plunkett, already mentioned in the last entry. He was born into an affluent Dublin family in 1887, the son of George Plunkett, a Papal Count who would go on to have a significant presence in later Irish political circles. Plunkett’s relative financial largesse allowed for an impressive education that included time in the British Officer Training Corps while studying in England. However, while Plunket would become well-read on the topics of military tactics and strategy, he would never garner personal experience until 1916, and was perhaps equally as proficient at poetry and theatre, having a flair for the dramatic that would continue all the way to the GPO.
Unfortunately, Plunkett contracted tuberculosis relatively young, and was never able to fully shake the disease, this being before the widespread application of antibiotics created a more viable treatment than the oft-proscribed taking of fresh or warm air (Plunkett spent part of his childhood in North Africa for this reason). It is likely enough that Plunkett, who would be 28 at the time of the Rising, would not have lived to an old age, with “consumption”, as the disease was often dubbed, responsible for a large number of deaths in this period, especially among urban dwellers.
Plunkett’s family were committed nationalists, with his father allowing his land in Dublin to be a training camp for those avoiding conscription. Much of this was driven by Joseph himself, who was an active member of the Gaelic League and the Irish Volunteers, where he had strong friendships with the likes of Thomas McDonough. By 1915, Plunkett was inducted into the IRB and, as stated previously, was one of the primary planners for what would become the Easter Rising.
Casement and Plunkett would become the primary agents for the negotiations between Imperial Germany and those planning a rebellion, though they did not work together on the project from the beginning. The originator of the scheme, alongside John Devoy, was Casement who, as early as August 1914, was in contact with German diplomatic staff in America, with the aim of getting German military material and officers to help start a rebellion in Ireland, which would benefit the Germany effort on the Western Front. After a first visit by Clan na Gael president John Kenny to set the stage, Casement himself travelled to Germany, via Norway, in October 1914.
This somewhat extraordinary volte face from a British Knight did not go unnoticed: it is claimed that personnel from the British embassy in Oslo attempted to pay one of Casement’s companions to either kill or incapacitate the Dubliner before he had a chance to reach Germany, which obviously indicates that Casement’s pro-Irish independence activities had already gotten official attention, though the exact details are murky. Regardless, Casement was in Germany and undertaking negotiations by November. Plunkett followed later, in April 1915, travelling through Span, Italy and Switzerland, partly because he was an IRB man when Casement wasn’t, and the Brotherhood wanted to keep an eye on what the American-financed Casement was doing.
Casement’s first success was getting a declaration of friendship from Imperial Germany in November 1914, one that wished the Irish “national liberty” and promised that any fighting in Ireland carried out by German troops would not involve conquering. It was a vague statement that fell short of the direct recognition that some hoped for, but it was a start. However, from there Casement became gradually more and more disillusioned by Germany, his feelings exacerbated by the failure of his personal project of recruiting Irish soldiers from German POW camps to fight for Irish independence – a story for the next entry – and it was as things were starting to break down that Plunkett arrived.
In order to try and sway German opinion more firmly behind the idea of supporting an Irish rebellion, Casement and Plunkett prepared a document outlining the practicality of a German invasion of Ireland, that gives some insight into the big picture thinking behind 1916. In it, the authors accepted that substantial success would be impossible without outside intervention of the kind that Germany could provide, but that such intervention could easily account for the limited number of British troops in Ireland, scattered among numerous small garrisons. They suggested a landing with 12’000 troops, carrying rifles for many more Irish Volunteers, in the vicinity of the Shannon mouth, to help launch a widescale insurrection in the west while the Dublin based Volunteers seized the capital. Just as in previous wars, the Shannon would prove a natural line of defence to hold, between Athlone and Limerick, urban areas Casement and Plunkett claimed could be fortified with ease.
The plan downplayed or ignored the weak points that were patently obvious, like how the German were to get such an invasion force past the Royal Navy, how they were to be re-supplied if they were able to land, and how quickly the British were liable to have reinforcements in Ireland. In discussing historical incidents, like the Year of the French, references were made to the near-useless support of the native Irish, which would probably have been something of serious concerns for German military leaders. And the plan did not make any promises of outright victory, merely indicating that the proposed operation would sap British military strength. Outright fabrications were also suggested, such as the idea that the Volunteers were prepared for a guerrilla war (Plunkett’s faction within the IRB treated the idea with disdain) or that plans were in place to seize or destroy vital bridges (if they did exist, they were very shallow in detail).
For Plunkett, it was the guns that were the main point, and he was prepared to accept only a promise of them, and not troops. Modern German rifles arming the Volunteers may have changed the entire strategic situation, if they could be landed and dispersed to the units that needed them. This was a big if, but it is fair to say that without German arms the rebellion would almost certainly amount to little more than the gesture of blood-sacrifice Pearse was prepared to settle for. With them, it could potentially be more.
The Germans did eventually assent to sending a shipment of arms to Ireland, but no more than that, much to Casement’s disappointment. However, they were to be second rate rifles, and there were to be only 20’000 of them. Aside from a general sense that the “Strategical Plan” was not trustworthy, Germany simply didn’t have the resources to give Casement and Plunkett everything they wanted. Getting any quantity of troops to the west coast of Ireland, with the might of the Royal Navy in the way, would be extraordinarily difficult, and they had no soldiers or officers to spare on what was probably perceived as a reckless adventure. Like they tried in other parts of the British Empire, fermenting rebellion in the back yard of London was all well and good, but they weren’t going to risk too much. Even the transport arrangements were dicey: by the time the guns were sent on their way, the Germans needed every U-Boat going to fight their naval war.
The plan would be to land the guns on the west coast, to coincide with the launching of a rebellion. Irish Volunteers would see the guns ashore and distributed, to instigate a national rising to compliment what would be happening in Dublin. Simple enough, but a plan too open to interference, as it so fatefully proved.
We will get to the story of the Aud and the attempted gun-running in time. For now, we must stay in Germany, and discuss Casement’s attempt to craft a military unit out of Irish POW’s, an idealistic and ultimately futile dream, that has done much to colour his legacy.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.