Belfast Telegraph

Easter Rising: The missionary, the anarchist and the pacifist... but all were radical Protestant rebels

Some of the key figures in the iconography of the Easter Rising were, in fact, radical dissenting Protestants with strong Ulster links. Philip Orr assesses the legacy of Roger Casement, Jack White and Bulmer Hobson.

Casement Park in west Belfast is being redeveloped right now. No doubt most of the spectators who will enjoy their Gaelic games at this new stadium will be aware that Roger Casement was a hero of the Easter Rising. Yet I wonder how many would know about the years that Casement spent in Africa, working as a British diplomat and achieving fame as the man who exposed the horrors of the Belgian Congo.

It was in this vast region at the heart of Africa that native people were being worked to death in the production of the rubber, which was needed by manufacturers all over the world in the early years of the 20th century.

For those who care about this side of Casement's life, a visit to the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle might be in order. It was in the hotel coffee room on a January day in 1904 that Casement and his friend Edmund Morel contemplated the idea of a Congo Reform Association. This would become one of the 20th century's first international pressure groups, seeking support for an end to the human rights abuses which Casement himself had witnessed.

Yet, even those who know of Casement's role in the Congo may not know that, for several months, he worked for the Baptist Missionary Association in Africa. The missionary who appointed him spoke of "Mr Casement's conversion". He was now a devoted, Christian gentleman. A few months later, when the novelist Joseph Conrad met him, he confirmed this detail, noting how "pious" the young Irishman was.

Casement spent a lot of time in the company of Protestant missionaries. When he sought a vessel to carry him up river on one of his investigations, the Congo Babolo Mission provided a boat and a pilot. The man at the wheel was a former Danish sailor who had been converted at a gospel meeting in Glasgow. Those who are familiar with evangelical missionary work today might know the name of a mission which is descended from the Congo Babolo organisation, simply called Regions Beyond.

When the Congo reform project was established in 1904 Casement's associate was the missionary Henry Grattan Guinness jnr, descendant of Arthur Guinness, responsible for Ireland's most famous beer. Henry Grattan Guinness snr had been an evangelical preacher who spoke to vast crowds in Belfast's Botanic Gardens during the religious revival of 1859. Many figures such as Guinness were horrified at the wrongs they witnessed as missionaries abroad.

Casement would move on. His exposure to the worst excesses of Empire and his affection for Ireland took him towards support for revolution in his native land. Controversially, he travelled to Germany in search of support for the revolutionary cause in Ireland. When captured in 1916, he was tried for treason and executed in Pentonville Gaol.

By that stage many former friends had been alienated by his revolutionary politics. Dwindling friendships were made more fraught when scandalous revelations emerged about Casement's sexuality.

It is interesting, however, that at the end of his life, awaiting death, it was to the Catholic Church and not an evangelical Protestant one that he turned. Evidence exists that, as a child, his mother had given him a Catholic baptism, in keeping with her own religious sympathies.

So, the man who had a Belfast stadium named after him was a more complex, surprising figure than is often thought. But perhaps we should not be surprised at Casement's profession of faith in his twenties and his work for Baptist Missions.

After all, as an orphan he had been taken under the wing of relatives in Co Antrim and sent to Ballymena Academy. Living in Ulster's Bible Belt, where the revival of 1859 began, he would have been familiar with the Christian message to which he responded in Africa.

But this is not the only story showing connections between a familiar local Protestant heritage and some of the main characters in the Irish revolutionary period. A few miles from Ballymena, in the village of Broughshane, there is a graveyard in front of one of the village's Presbyterian churches. It contains a tomb that tells a fascinating story.

Buried there is Sir George White, a Victoria Cross winner and hero of the Boer War. Yet also buried there is his son, Captain Jack White, who was a decorated soldier, but also helped to found and train the Irish Citizen Army, the small Marxist militia led by James Connolly, which took part in the Easter Rising.

By 1916 White had left for other fields of duty, serving on the Western Front with an ambulance unit.

White was a rebel right up to his death in 1946. Yet, it would be a mistake to see him as a nationalist. Above all else, the thread of anarchism ran right throughout his life, starting with enthusiasm for the Christian Anarchism of the writer Tolstoy.

When he first took an interest in the politics of his native land in 1912 he was living in an altogether more racy anarchist commune in the Cotswolds, that was reputed to practise "free love" - and there were rumours that members of the commune practised nudism. For some of the pious fathers of the Irish Republic, or indeed the Presbyterian Church, this would have been a scandalous revelation.

Many revolutionary figures in this era do not fit into the tight moulds that are so often devised for heroes. Bulmer Hobson was another Protestant who had been educated in a famous Ulster school. He, too, played an important part in generating revolution, even while still remaining a member of the pacifist Society of Friends, or Quakers.

He helped revive the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the secret organisation that launched the rebellion in 1916, but at the age of 13, as a boarder at Friends School, Lisburn, he was already reading magazines about heroes of the Celtic past.

The curriculum was innovative in Lisburn, with a huge emphasis on extra-curricular activity, debating and nature study. A photo exists of the pupils and staff making visit to Antrim Round Tower in 1898, when he was a student. When he left the school in 1899 Hobson was already well along the path to being a convinced revolutionary.

Yet, in 1916, he was convinced that the leadership of the IRB were on the wrong track when they planned their insurrection in central Dublin. He had other, less spectacular ideas about military tactics. As a result of the disagreement he was held captive until the Rising was well under way.

When I was a young teacher in Friends School I knew a little about Hobson, but in the 1980s, when the Troubles were at their height, no one was in the mood to research this former pupil's political story given the terrible events unfolding for us all in Northern Ireland and the violence that had visited our own school community.

Nowadays, in more peaceful times, the story of Hobson, White and Casement may be more comfortably retrieved.

Of course, unionists may feel that a Broughshane churchyard and two of Ulster's premier grammar schools are shocking places in which to find connections to the Easter Rising. However, a close look at the men who have been mentioned in this article may also prompt nationalists and republicans to ask whether they really know the inner world of some of the Protestant men and women who are being so keenly remembered during this period of political centenaries.

  • Philip Orr is a writer and community activist. He is giving a talk entitled Republican Icons Or Complex Protestant Irishmen? at the Falls Library in Belfast today (1pm) as part of the West Belfast Spring Festival

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.


From Belfast Telegraph