Casement: Decoding False History, by Paul R Hyde, Aubane Historical Society, 120 pp, €15, ISBN 978-1903497951
Anyone interested in the life of Roger Casement, and especially anyone choosing to write about him, faces a serious dilemma. Do they concentrate on his life work, which by any standards was extraordinarily substantial, and ignore the highly contentious but unresolved controversy about the so-called “black” diaries? (The term “black” of course is a deeply homophobic metaphor.) Alternatively, do they focus mainly on the controversy, either with the motive of cancelling any positive perception of Casement’s role in history, or with a view to clearing his name of wickedly false imputations so that his reputation can shine?
A further complicating factor in the last few decades has been the sea-change in public attitudes towards homosexuality, which has seen the emergence of Casement as a gay icon, predicated of course on the assumed authenticity of the diaries. This has led to an awkward, not to say bizarre, situation. To deny the diaries, even though they were deployed in an underhand way by the British to stymie any move for a reprieve for Casement by playing to the general homophobia that prevailed in 1916, is in danger of being treated as evidence of covert homophobic prejudice on the part of the denier. Public figures and others prefer to stay well away from that territory. At the other end of the spectrum, incautious enthusiasts may find themselves making careless statements at variance with some established facts. There is a further twist. Admirers of Casement, who are convinced that the diary claims are false, may nonetheless pragmatically welcome the interest in Casement that they generate and hope that they will provide a window to a wider appreciation of his achievements.
The state and nationalists, especially Northern ones, have decided, for most of the last hundred years and more, simply to ignore the controversy and to treat Casement as the last of the sixteen leaders and patriots to die for Irish freedom in 1916 and as a role model on several other counts. De Valera’s dictum in 1937, when he refused to become involved in the diary controversy – “Sir Roger Casement’s reputation is safe in the affections of the Irish people” ‑ represented from the state’s point of view a masterly putdown of persistent attempts to use the diaries to denigrate his reputation. De Valera was always loyal to Casement’s memory, naming his and his wife, Sinéad’s, fifth child, Ruaidhrí, after him in the autumn after his execution. He used his one and only meeting with British prime minister Winston Churchill in 1953, among other things, to press for the return to Ireland of Casement’s remains, which happened within weeks of Churchill’s death in January 1965.
During the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising, as part of naming the country’s railway stations after the executed leaders, Sligo station was named after Casement, as was the only military aerodrome in the state, at Baldonnell. Today, even if long held up by planning controversies over capacity and local residents’ concerns, the largest GAA grounds in the North will be in Casement Park, Belfast, which will presumably, like Croke Park, also be capable of hosting exceptional international fixtures in other sports.
If the state and the public can ignore or dismiss the diary controversy, the historian cannot make that choice so easily, as it cannot realistically be omitted from a full account of Casement’s life. To be in a position personally to assess the controversy ideally requires a mastery of an enormous mass of detail, not least because Casement on his key missions abroad was a voluminous journal keeper for official purposes, and the loose-leaf journals which were his form of often delayed consular reporting overlap in content with the conventional and make-weight part of the “black diaries”, diaries which are in fact an equal mixture of “black” and “white”. If they had been purely “black” and exclusively pornographic, it might have been much more difficult to authenticate them plausibly as Casement’s. Handwriting alone presumably would not in that case have quite sufficed.
The fury of most of the British establishment at Casement was because, in their perception, after he had earned an exceptionally high public reputation for his courageous reports into gross human rights abuses and been knighted, he had then sided with revolutionary Ireland, Irish-America and imperial Germany from the outset of the Great War. There, among other things, he sought unsuccessfully to subvert and recruit British prisoners of war who were Irish to fight for the Germans. The British purpose was to discredit Casement comprehensively, despite his previous service, and to portray him in as many ways as possible as both a traitor and as a morally reprehensible individual, even if, for the sake of consistency, all this could only have been a very recent discovery. The “black diaries”, however procured, were a heaven-sent tool for this purpose.
In a way that could not have been anticipated by those who were determined to damn both Casement and his reputation, a large segment of his diary-style reports has been published, running to many hundreds of pages, covering his journey up the Amazon and his detailed forensic account of the maltreatment of the Putumayo tribe in the service of the rubber industry. Some of his journals from his time in Germany between 1914 and 1916 have also been published. A huge debt is owed to the Limerick-based lecturer and scholar Angus Mitchell, who edited and published them.
The effect is two-fold. Laid out for all is the energy and idealism that Casement devoted to his humanitarian crusade, first displayed when he successfully challenged King Leopold’s personal demesne in the Congo, where savage brutality was used against the native people. Though decorated for his services to the British empire, Casement’s experience and humanitarian work led to his rejection of imperialism, whether colonial or capitalist in nature, or both. This was not least because his work in the Congo and Latin America led him to perceive that the same system had been in play in his native Ireland and indeed at times across the empire, something that his privileged background had long helped to obscure from him. The other effect, on some readers at least, of the now published journals will be to lead them to question how the idealism so evident in those pages is reconcilable with its complete absence in the cynically promiscuous and athletic sexual exploitation of young males and teenage boys portrayed in the “black diaries”. Even if, which no one disputes, much of this had to be fantasy, many will ask themselves whether these writings can be from the same person.
In the period from Casement’s trial to his execution, extracts purporting to be from the “black diaries”, which, we are asked to believe, were fortuitously discovered by the British security authorities, were judiciously shown around to discourage prominent persons or opinion-formers from pressing for a pardon. What text or copy was used is not clear, but the original diaries, as presented in the National Archives, were not shown, as far as is known to anybody. These diaries, to which purportedly the text extracts belonged, cover years or periods for which there happened to be ample material from the voluminous “white” journal-type reports and were released to what was then the Public Record Office in 1959. There are inconsistent accounts of where, when and how they were found in Casement’s trunks, but independent corroboration of any of these narratives is not available. All the information about them was kept under the control of the British security services. Beyond in-house Home Office handwriting expert examination, on which there are differing opinions, no thoroughgoing forensic examination of the diaries, the pages of which have been specially treated, has been undertaken.
Suggestions that the diaries might be forgeries have been met with great defensiveness, and for decades a number of authors have come out strongly both for and against. However, none has immersed himself so deeply over an academic lifetime in both the career and writings of Roger Casement as Angus Mitchell. In a very detailed analysis in the first part of his book on the Putumayo Journal in 1997, publishing the journal kept by Casement from August 1910 to the beginning of 1911, Mitchell outlines all the reasons, both textual and situational, why he doubts that the “black diaries” are genuine. In 2003, the Irish Manuscripts Commission, an official state body, published a voluminous 800-page edition of the 1911 journal under the title The Heart of Darkness, also edited by him. More recently, Mitchell has published Casement’s German diaries from 1914 to ’16, which are fragmented. As the German scholar Reinhard Doerries pointed out in a seminar at the Royal Irish Academy in 2001, there is voluminous material in the German archives about Casement, none of which contains a hint of homosexual activities; if there were, this would certainly have been ruthlessly exploited by those who were hostile to him or suspicious of him in the German military establishment. This requires those who believe in the authenticity of the “black diaries” to accept that someone who up to three years earlier displayed a seemingly voracious and promiscuous sexual appetite had become, whether for prudential or for health reasons, wholly abstinent.
Paul R Hyde in the last few years has taken up the challenge, adopting a more polemical approach, especially towards historians who accept the authenticity of the “black diaries”, his style having something in common with a courtroom barrister who takes no prisoners. However, his two books published, Anatomy of a Lie published by Wordwell in 2019, now supplemented by a shorter addition Casement: Decoding False History, also contain valuable detective work.
One of the problems faced by the advocates of the authenticity of the “black diaries” is the absence of independent evidence to support their contents or even to demonstrate that Casement was a practising homosexual. However, in the late 1950s a poem in the National Library that expressed strong homosexual tendencies was attributed to Casement as support for his authorship of the “black diaries”. The allegation was made in a Sunday Times article by an Ulster Unionist MP, H Montgomery Hyde, a historian with an interest in the state’s treatment of homosexuals. He also wrote The Strange Death of Lord Castlereagh, a British foreign secretary who committed suicide shortly after being found in a compromising position with a guardsman in an inn in St. Albans in 1822, being already under great mental strain at the time. Hyde had links with British intelligence, but the poem was passed to him by former Oireachtas member and barrister Frank MacDermot, who subsequently moved to Britain and who had an intense dislike of Casement, writing strong letters to the paper whenever the authenticity of the “black diaries” was questioned. Hyde makes a convincing argument that the source of the poem was a British intelligence plant in a New York Public Library copied on microfilm to the National Library of Ireland, to which Frank MacDermot was alerted, with an unsigned note (on microfilm)attached saying that it was a Roger Casement poem in Casement’s handwriting.
Most of Paul Hyde’s later book Decoding False History takes to task all the (mostly) past historians who have accepted the official British narrative and shows up errors or misstatements that they have made. In a foreword, Angus Mitchell crosses swords with leading historian for many years on Irish security policy Professor Eunan O’ Halpin for concluding dismissively in his entry on Casement in the valuable directory The Dead of the Irish Revolution, co-authored with Daithí Ó Corráin, that the forgery theory was “essentially an article of belief, not susceptible to conventional historical analysis”.
While Hyde’s critique of authors holding a different view from his own may be interesting, with rare exceptions it is not easy to convert the identification of mistakes real or alleged into incontrovertible proof of deliberate bad faith. Taking sides in a controversy may be evidence of parti pris, but it has to be assumed that very few of those who publicly defended the authenticity of the “black diaries” would have done so, if they had had reason to believe that they were forged. It can be taken that, from the outset, the minimum number would have been in on the secret, given the acute sensitivity of the issue in Anglo-Irish relations.
One intriguing, though not conclusive, chapter in Casement: Decoding False History is the story of Commander Clipperton. An Irish Press photographer, Kevin McDonnell, based in London since childhood, wrote to President de Valera about a conversation he had in a friend’s house on the Sussex coast with a retired naval commander who called in periodically. This was in early 1965, when Casement was in the news, following the repatriation of his remains to Ireland. Clipperton reminisced endlessly about his naval days, letting drop that he had worked at one time with Admiral William Reginald Hall, head of Naval Intelligence. He said: “He was a very clever man indeed. Brilliant. But he was unscrupulous. Though in many ways I admired him, he shouldn’t have fixed him in the way he did. He fabricated the Diaries, you know, and that was an evil thing to do … Just a few of us knew about it.” When Clipperton realised his interlocutor was Irish, he became agitated, and was very anxious that his indiscretion should go no further. McDonnell never met Clipperton again.
Obviously, this was hearsay, and further proof was needed. Hyde researched Clipperton, established that he was a real person and that he had worked in the same building as Hall, albeit in a junior telegraphist capacity, and that some other family circumstances mentioned in the conversation could be corroborated. That the conversation took place is one thing. The foundation and veracity of the claim is obviously far more difficult to establish.
Part of the role of intelligence services, most especially in wartime, is to engage in deception and misinformation, including manufactured evidence. According to Christopher Andrew’s history of MI6, Admiral Hall and colleagues derived considerable amusement from unfounded press speculation about the contents of another trunk captured by the British in early 1917, this time at sea from a Swedish vessel. It was reported that it might have contained secret and compromising documents belonging to Count Bernstorff, the German ambassador to Washington, who had to depart when America declared war on Germany. The dispatch of Casement had presumably given similar satisfaction, and in terms of permanently muddying the waters the deployment of the “black diaries” must have been one of the most successful operations ever, as incredibly the official British narrative continues to hold sway through all the changes of the past one hundred years.
Hyde accepts the unlikelihood of proof being found with regard to the provenance of the diaries, but that is actually the point. Given persistent doubts and the implausibility of at least some of the explanations surrounding their existence, it comes down to a matter of judgment and opinion as to where the weight of probability lies. The question is not and may never be satisfactorily resolved, and therefore the state is entitled to take the position that there are no consequences to be drawn that might interfere with or occlude the appreciation of Casement’s role on many other grounds, including his attachment to the people and the cultural traditions of his country and his minority espousal of a more nationally-minded destiny for the Protestant community in the North.
It could be said that, over one hundred years, much of Casement’s strategic vision has come to pass. Independent Ireland is politically and economically aligned with the European Union, including its leading powers, France and Germany, not with Brexit Britain. In recent times, there has finally been a sharply critical focus on imperialism, and in particular on the quantity of violence required to uphold colonial empire, once they became internally and externally contested. The Irish state was unique in being able, albeit with a struggle, to detach itself from a victorious British empire after the end of the First World War. In these islands it was the one that successfully got away. Casement’s execution only served to highlight his sacrifice, his contribution and his example. It was foolish as well as futile to attempt to blacken his name by extraneous means, and some day a British leader may have the wisdom and grace to acknowledge that.
Martin Mansergh is a former adviser and politician, deputy chair of the Expert Advisory Group on Centenary Commemorations. He is writing here in a personal capacity.