Autumnal Equinox. Second Harvest. Mea’n Fo’mhair. Mabon. Whatever you call it, this day marks the changing of the seasons and it celebrates equality and planetary harmony on the earth. The Northern and Southern hemisphere rarely get the same thing at the same time. There are only two days that they see eye to eye when it comes to light and darkness, and Mabon is one of those days. During the Autumnal Equinox both hemispheres get exactly the same amount of light—and the same amount of darkness—due to the tilt of the Earth and the position of the sun. The seasons may still be reversed, but the lengths of the day and the night are exactly the same and that balance only happens one other time throughout the year. The harmony may not have anything to do with mankind at all, but man has celebrated it for centuries.
On this day in 1757, “St. Patrick’s Hospital for Imbeciles,” Ireland’s first mental hospital, was opened in Dublin. The name has changed throughout the years to the simpler St. Patrick’s Hospital – but when it opened it was a hospital designed to house the insane and afflicted. It was the final gift that Jonathan Swift (of Gulliver’s Travels fame) bestowed upon the world, and it was created at his request with money left for it in his will.
Kathleen Lynn was an anomaly among women at the turn of the century in Ireland. She was extremely well educated, which was very rare for females at the time, and she was a doctor – not a nurse – which was an incredibly unusual profession for a woman of that era. She faced discrimination and difficulty in the field for many years due to her gender and it made her a strong suffragist and a very tough woman.
I usually stay away from religious holidays in general, but today is too good to pass up. Today is the feast day of St. Disbode – a 7th century Irish missionary. He was a bit of a hermit when he was not spreading his faith, but he traveled on a mission to Germany to convert the population. Legend has it that while in Germany, wine suddenly began flowing from his pilgrim’s staff and this convinced the Germans not necessarily to convert, but to create a thriving wine industry.
That’s a better reason than many for turning someone into a saint. Eat, drink, and be merry today – especially if you can find yourself some German wine…and if you’re a fan of Hildegard Von Bingen, throw some of her music in there too. She wrote a vita in his honor.
Lawyers are a group of people in an occupation that everyone loves to hate. Endless jokes use them as the punchline, there’s an eternal stream of songs and stories about how evil they are, and it seems that no matter which area of law they practice, they’re always hated by someone. It takes a thick skin, an obsessive attention to detail, endless patience, and a lot of manipulation to succeed in the field. In the North of Ireland, the law not only takes over their lives, but sometimes it ends them. It is not a job for the weak.
Rosemary Nelson lived her life trying to make the world a better place for everyone. She lived in a hotbed of Sectarianism during the Troubles but she represented people on both sides of the religious divide in small matters for years and went to bat for those that other people would ignore. She fought on behalf of the Garvaghy Road residents during the long Drumcree conflict in nearby Portadown, which thrust her firmly into politics and ruined any rapport she had with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (the RUC). That relationship only got worse when she decided to represent Colin Duffy, a man accused of killing their officers. That case would change her life and it ultimately took it as well. In the North, there have been many cases where certain factions of the population are unable to separate the lawyer from the criminal, and the assumption is that they’re one and the same. Even before she got Duffy released on a successful appeal, she was getting death threats from officers and Loyalist paramilitaries alike, just for representing him. There were twenty serious and documented death threats over a two year period, and two of them allegedly came directly from police officers. She dutifully reported each one, but was consistently refused protection by the police and the government, even after the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur stated on television that he felt her life was in danger. He recommended that the British government take action. They chose not to. She eventually testified about the threats before a committee of the United States Congress that was investigating human rights in the North of Ireland. It seems everyone was concerned about Nelson, except the very people whose job it was to take care of her.
The British government, MI5, and the RUC did not investigate any of these threats, nor did they ever give her protection. In case you feel like they didn’t do anything, rest assured that they did – they put Rosemary herself under surveillance for criminal activity. Between 1994-1998 security reports about her life increased until her home was bugged. She was seen as a criminal, rather than an attorney; and a threat, rather than a victim.
Rosemary Nelson was killed when a bomb planted under her car exploded on March 15th, 1999. The Red Hand Defenders, a Loyalist paramilitary group that was mostly made up of members of the LVF and the UDA, took credit for her assassination. Many of the members of the Red Hand Defenders were also RUC officers and British Army soldiers – people who belonged to the same organizations that had ignored her complaints for years, even while they were watching her every move. Strangely though, they didn’t have much in their records to investigate when it came to her death, despite all the surveillance – at least nothing they were willing to share with anyone else. There were a few inquiries into her murder and the final reports stated that all three agencies (the Government, MI5, and the RUC) had failed to protect her and had helped “legitimize” her as a target in the eyes of Loyalist paramilitaries. It also stated that these agencies and their employees had publicly threatened her and that their intelligence information had been “leaked”, making it easier for the murderers to get to her. It noted that numerous requests and warrants for surveillance footage or reports had been ignored completely. The inquiry couldn’t prove definitively that anyone in these departments had directly been involved in her death, but it certainly couldn’t prove otherwise either and their report clearly stated that investigators could not rule out the possibility that officers or soldiers might have aided the murderers.
Nelson was awarded the Train Foundation’s Civil Courage Prize after her death – an award that honors “extraordinary heroes of conscience.” Her humanitarian status was celebrated and mourned world-wide in the aftermath of her murder – and while some Loyalists still see her as a symbol of hate, those who she spent her life trying to help remember her as an incredible and determined woman, who wanted justice for everyone whether they were young, old, Catholic, or Protestant. Today would be her birthday and I humbly suggest doing something wonderful in her honor. Help someone in whatever way you can, large or small, friend or stranger. I’m sure she’d want to be remembered in that way, rather than for the horrific way she was targeted, abandoned, and killed.
Congo Casement. Comma Casement. Sir Casement. These names and more applied to Roger Casement, over the course of his life. He was born on this day in 1864, and by the time he was executed, he had gone from being a world-renowned humanitarian, a British Consul, and a favored knight to a social pariah, an arms dealer, and a dastardly rebel. If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, there are many – and Roger Casement traveled more than a few.
Roger Casement was born outside of Dublin and had a strict, Protestant father. When he was three, his mother secretly had him baptized as a Catholic and by the age of thirteen, both of his parents were dead. He and his brother were sent to relatives in the North, County Antrim, and he considered that his home, even though he spent much of his life away from it.
Casement left Ireland at sixteen to find work. He took a job at a shipping company, and spent a great deal of time in Africa. He learned more than one language there and he began trying to improve the treatment and the communication between the native population and the foreign traders. He then went to work for the English Government, first by clerking in the Foreign Office and then as an appointed British consul. He was tasked with reporting about any human rights violations that he was witnessing first hand. He traveled all over Africa talking to residents and viewing destroyed villages before writing a blistering account of imperialism and its impact on the native population. It was controversial and rejected outright by the traders, his former boss included, but it provided other humanitarian groups with enough information to mount an international campaign against King Leopold of Belgium, the man who claimed to rule the area. The campaign was effective and eventually led to the king relinquishing his hold on the area. It was one instance where his idealism worked out.
When he returned to England, he continued his humanitarian efforts by founding the Anti-Slavery Society.After that, he was sent back to Africa to make sure that improvements had been made, and he was disheartened to discover that the horrific abuse continued. He continued to chronicle the plight of the natives and was eventually knighted for his work and his activism on their behalf.
During a break from Africa, he visited Ireland and joined the Gaelic League. He idealistically tried to learn Irish, but despite a gift for languages, he never got a grasp on it. He met with leaders to petition them for their support in Africa, but Ireland had its own problems and the meetings weren’t fruitful. However, in the process he developed an infatuation with Sinn Fein and their commitment to a Free Ireland. As his fascination with the idea grew, he retired from his position in the English government and devoted himself full time to the cause of Irish Freedom. He co-founded the Irish Volunteers and used his formidable writing skills to help pen their manifesto. He then traveled to America to raise funds among the exiled Irish. He was naive and he imagined himself a sort of ambassador for Irish Nationalism. He did not realize that the Irish Republican Brotherhood had already quietly taken over the Volunteers and were excluding him from their plans. He was also too wrapped up in his travels to notice that his activities were no longer as covert as he thought. The IRB were watching him to make sure he stayed out of the way, and the English government was keeping tabs on his travels and his contacts as well.
Despite the prying eyes, he donned a disguise and traveled to Germany in order to secure funds and arms for Irish freedom fighters. He spun it as a mutually beneficial agreement between countries, trying to convince the Germans that if they supplied arms to Ireland, the Irish would divert England’s attention away from them and their war. The request was not as well-received as he hoped, but he secured a promise from German authorities that said, “The Imperial Government formally declares that under no circumstances would Germany invade Ireland with a view to its conquest or the overthrow of any native institutions in that country. Should the fortune of this Great War, that was not of Germany’s seeking, ever bring in its course German troops to the shores of Ireland, they would land there not as an army of invaders to pillage and destroy but as the forces of a Government that is inspired by goodwill towards a country and people for whom Germany desires only national prosperity and national freedom“.
He spent the rest of his time there trying to raise an Irish Brigade out of the prisoners of war that Germany held. He had been sure that many Irish soldiers would jump at the chance to fight for Ireland, but he was sadly mistaken. After months of pitching the idea, he finally admitted defeat and accepted the much smaller arms deal that the Germans offered. It didn’t include any support beyond the weapons and was nowhere close to the agreement he had been hoping for. Meanwhile, he learned of the planned uprising and he hoped to get them to cancel it, because of the inadequate aid from Germany. Because he had been kept in the dark the entire time, he had no way of knowing that it would go ahead with or without the weapons…and with or without him.
Casement made it to Ireland in a submarine, but the arms that came by boat did not. They were intercepted by the English, who immediately arrested Roger for treason, sabotage, and espionage. He missed the Rising altogether and heard of it while languishing in the Tower of London. If he thought that his life of service would keep him from prison, he was wrong. He was stripped of his knighthood and left to his own devices – neither the English or the Irish would help him and no rescue attempts were made. His important friends were vocal but only until the English shared his “Black diaries” publicly. They allegedly chronicled his homosexual adventures throughout the world. They made him look more like a predatory sex tourist than an idealistic humanitarian and they destroyed any hopes for support or leniency. Homosexuality was nearly enough to get someone killed already in that day and age, and when they added a charge of treason to it, well – it was only a matter of time before death came calling. He was hanged on August 3rd, 1916 – making him the only man connected to the Rising who was executed in that fashion, and the only one who was killed on foreign soil. His remains were repatriated to Ireland fifty years after he was killed, but they were not allowed to be brought North, so he lies in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin….not too far from where his life began.
There are a lot of what ifs to his tale. What if the arms had landed? What if he had been involved in the planning of the Rising? What if he had been able to bring reinforcements that were culled from the P.O.W.s in Germany? What if the diaries were fiction? There are many who still believe that they were fabricated, or at least exaggerated by the English in order to allow his execution. What if homosexuality had not been such a grave charge at that time? If his powerful friends and activists had been supportive throughout the trial and imprisonment, maybe he would have lived.
Roger Casement would have been one of the most important men in Irish history, regardless of his sexual orientation, if any one of his idealistic plans had come to fruition. He still has a large place in it, despite the fact that they didn’t. His goals were always intertwined with helping people achieve a better life and teaching them to fight the over-reaching powers that be. He was an idealist and was always rooting for the underdog – even when he was one. His short life was full of naivete and the best intentions – and if anyone had truly trusted and followed him, Irish history may be very different today. Even with the stain of the diaries hanging over him, his story has persevered and as we all move toward a more open society, maybe some day he will be remembered on equal footing with the rest of the leaders of that time.