Rewind - The repatriation of Roger Casement’s remains

By Danielle Walsh Ronan

When an Aer Lingus plane touched down at Baldonnel Aerodrome on February 23, 1965 with the remains of the Irish Nationalist and humanitarian Roger Casement, it signalled the end of a near 50-year wait for the remains to be repatriated to Ireland.

Roger Casement’s body had been buried at Pentonville Prison cemetery in London where he had been executed for treason against the crown in 1916.

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Roger Casement

In preparation for the 1916 Rising, Roger Casement, who had worked as a British diplomat, had been tasked by the military council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood to go to Germany and secure arms and ammunition for the rebellion.

On his trip he was successful in securing weapons which included 20,000 rifles and 10 machine guns. However, the German boat, the Aud, which had been transporting these weapons back to Ireland was captured off the coast of Kerry by the British navy.

 

Subsequently, Casement was arrested by British forces after landing on the Irish coast via a German submarine. After his failed attempt to supply Irish rebels with arms for the 1916 Rising, Casement was tried and found guilty of high treason in London on June 29, 1916.

He was sentenced to death and subsequently buried at Pentonville Prison cemetery.

In the decades that followed, the resting place of Casement’s remains became a disputed issue between consecutive British and Irish governments, with the Irish government having made several requests to the British for the remains to be returned to Ireland.

However, these requests had always been refused for various reasons including technical difficulties and the fear of stimulating anti-British sentiment in Ireland.

The issue of the location of Roger Casement’s remains continued to be disputed until the 1960s when Anglo-Irish relations had become less adversary.

After a formal request for the remains to be returned to Ireland was made by the Irish Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, in November 1964, it was approved by the British government and preparations came underway.

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The remains of Roger Casement arrive at Baldonnel Aerodrome, 1965. (Image: courtesy of Kilmainham Gaol Museum/OPW (Copyright Irish Press))

The day before Casement’s remains arrived at Baldonnel on February 23, 1965, prison officers at Pentoville Prison were tasked with retrieving the remains from the grave. After three hours of digging, officers began to retrieve bones, including the skull which was more or less still intact.

The bones were placed in a coffin and transported to Northolt military airport the next day. At 3.30pm on February 23, a specially chartered Aer Lingus plane, carrying the remains of Roger Casement, took off for arrival at Baldonnel.

According to the front page of the Irish Independent on February 24, 1965, the repatriation of Casement to Baldonnel had been shrouded in secrecy.

As reported by the paper, the army air corps headquarters at Baldonnel received cryptic instruction to have a guard of honour of 100 men ready for 5pm, with officers in charge being told that it was for a funeral, with there being no mention of Casement.

It was not until later that day that the Government Information Bureau announced the imminent repatriation of Roger Casement.

When the plane carrying the remains of Roger Casement landed at Baldonnel, it was met by government representatives and army personnel who paid formal tribute to the patriot.

The coffin bearing the remains, which had been draped in the Irish tricolour, was placed on a gun-carriage for the ceremony. The Band of the Curragh Training Camp played the Dead March in Saul and the ceremony proceeded.

Roger Casements remains were later brought to the Church of the Sacred Heart at Arbour Hill, which was open to the public for those wishing to pay their respects, followed by a State funeral which took place on March 1, 1965.

Despite his wishes to be buried in Murlough Bay, Co. Antrim, Roger Casement was buried in the Republican Plot at Glasnevin Cemetery.

To mark the importance of Roger Casement’s remains being repatriated to Ireland via Baldonnel in 1965, the aerodrome was renamed Casement Aerodrome in his honour.

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