Field Day Review 8. 2012 (University of Notre Dame, Indiana)
Angus Mitchell “A Strange Chapter of Irish History”: Sir Roger Casement, Germany and the 1916 Rising
Diary of Roger Casement, 1914-16, Part I: “My Journey to the German Headquarters at Charleville”, annotated by Angus Mitchell
Roger Casement “A last Page of My Diary”, 17 March to 8 April 1916, with an introduction by Angus Mitchell
Angus Mitchell “Phases of a Dishonourable Phantasy”
In Part I of this essay, Casement’s War, published in Dublin Review of Books issue 31 (March 25th, 2013, http://www.drb.ie/essays/casement-s-war) we saw how Roger Casement had spent his first weeks in Imperial Germany in 1914, successfully working to gain recognition of an independent state of Ireland, and, attempting, ineffectively, to raise an Irish Brigade. His last days in Berlin in March and April 1916 were then observed as he obtained a shipment of arms for Ireland while seeking to leave separately in a submarine. His intention however was to get the Easter Rising called off because of inadequate German support.
Now we come to responding to “Phases of a Dishonourable Phantasy”, Angus Mitchell’s most substantive work on Casement’s Black Diaries since “The Riddle of the Two Casements”, his contribution to the 2005 Royal Irish Academy (RIA) publication Roger Casement in Irish and World History. This book purported to be the Proceedings of the RIA Symposium that had been mounted by the Irish Government in 2000. Mitchell honourably points out that the RIA “volume also excluded an overtly gay voice”. In fact my Symposium presentation was missing from the Proceedings while his was one not even delivered at the event.
The book offered Mitchell the opportunity to further develop his thinking on the diaries after the relatively small number of discrepancies he had highlighted in his 1998 Amazon Journal of Roger Casement. These, in turn, were addressed succinctly by Séamas Ó Síocháin in his 656-page biography, Roger Casement: Imperialist, Rebel, Revolutionary (2008) which I reviewed in the drb in October 2008, under the title “He Could Tell You Things”.
In his harsh review of Ó Síocháin’s book in History Ireland Mitchell wrote that Casement’s “evolution into a revolutionary however and the deep veneration his name commanded in IRA ranks prevent him from achieving the legitimacy his life deserves”. This is just not true. It was Casement’s separatist revolutionism – stunningly successful within five years of his execution – that gives him enormous legitimacy and which justified his political and military work from 1914-16 in Ireland and Germany.
He was not left out of the discourse, as his state funeral and reburial in Dublin reveal. But Mitchell believes otherwise, saying only: “The return of his body to Ireland in 1965 temporarily calmed the bitter controversy that has raged over his life and death for the preceding half century.” This comes after asserting that “all discussion of the Black Diaries was closed down in 1965 at an official level”. As if the Irish government was going to encourage discussion about that subject at a moment of state solemnity.
In this main Field Day Review article – from the batch of four – Mitchell returns to the field as a “Casement Wars” combatant, telling a tale replete with mystery, deceit and conspiracy, and that isn’t just when it comes to Casement’s own machinations. It is a well-researched, well-told narrative peppered with a good, often modish, turn of phrase. He has certainly unearthed – some might say obsessively – and references many new articles on Casement and his controversies, alongside every twist and turn in the authenticity debate for nearly a century.
Well-notated, it offers an in-depth and interesting, if dense, account of the decades of dispute and argument, and of very recent events, in the context of Irish, English, and, to a degree, global politics. However he dulls the story with a mood of conspiracy and victimhood. Indeed it is pervaded by a tone of resentment while, at times, the text seems a revenge vehicle for sins of lèse majesté and too many slights.
Significantly, the writer hardly addresses the outstanding and contemporary issues of Ulster and the Irish nation, else he might reveal Casement, and his representatives on earth today, have little original or useful to say on that subject beyond bien pensant peace process remarks and abuse of England.
We are told that “Casement always saw the bigger picture for humanity and fought against the bitter pettiness born of sectarian posturing”. But he saw no bigger picture where the North was concerned. As stated, “He organised gun running into Ireland” (twice) yet did not conceptualise the consequences. He, like Redmond, had believed that Carson and Craig were bluffing and he was horribly wrong, despite reality staring him in the face by 1914 in the form of the Covenant, the UVF and their German guns. Not that Asquith hadn’t also made the same error. No analysis of Casement’s failure and the fact that partition has lasted for nearly a century is to be found here nor, sadly, would I expect to have seen one.
What does Mitchell tell us that is new or convincing about diary authenticity or forgery, and why are we bothered, if we are not voyeurs, of which some here are accused? He assumes other historians work in tandem, and there is some degree of truth in that, although many learn and advance their ideas through the clash of argument and dispute. Not so where diary forgery theory is concerned. Facts are rarely adduced and issues always disputed, as in republican lawyering, until most other writers, especially English ones, despair and leave the field. This writer doesn’t, having a dog or two in the fight.
So why is Mitchell taking up the cudgels on behalf of the forgery theorists, again and now? The school was formerly more united, being composed of himself, the Roger Casement Foundation, various unreconstructed old-time nationalists (who could not always be relied upon to curb their anti-homosexual sentiments), and the nexus of the Irish Political Review/BICO/Athol Books under Brendan Clifford.
That combination had gone its separate ways and Mitchell, having, as he says, taken advice from his mentors, perhaps wisely, set out on an academic and global path. Yet after being told for the sake of his career to keep out of the controversy he now seems released from that advice. One clue may be that the piece is a precursor to a big international conference on Casement in Tralee in October 2013 run by the University of Notre Dame, one that, in turn, may be linked to The Gathering.
The British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO, formerly the ICO), with its HQ in Athol Street, Belfast, used to have a different view on the diaries and Casement’s homosexual activities, but now only appreciate him for his anti-English, anti-war writings and activities. Unwisely, they linked up with the forgery theorists, seriously subverting their own case on the origins of First World War that are now underpinned and sustained by a monocular Anglophobia.
For the record, in February 1984, the BICO publication The Irish Communist said:
The great Irish homosexual is Roger Casement. The great English homosexual is Oscar Wilde. Casement was of the Keynes variety and Wilde of the Quentin Crisp variety. Casement never got into trouble over his apparently rampant sexual activity while he was a British imperialist agent, but his diaries were used after his conviction for treason in order to dampen down the demand for a reprieve. And Wilde wouldn’t have got into trouble if his sense of humour has not failed him at a critical moment. The most outrageous humourist in the English language struck a high moral attitude when it was vital that he should have made a joke. He insisted on going to court, and he ended up doing hard labour for unnatural practices.
Irish national culture could only cope with Casement by declaring the allegation of homosexuality to be an imperialist slander and insisting that the diaries had been forged by Scotland Yard. It was tacitly conceded that if the diaries were not forged, then Casement was an abominable person. But Wilde, unnatural practices notwithstanding, became part of the fabric of English culture – both in his own proper person, and through the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience.
Official tolerance of homosexuality in England came after a long period of de facto tolerance connected with the growth of liberal culture. Perhaps that is why many English homosexuals can take queer jokes in their stride, and even contribute to them. The culture of nationalist Ireland was not tolerant of sexual perversion and its classification of perversions was very extensive indeed. In the good old anti-imperialist days, a demand for “gay rights” would have been given short shrift. The de facto tolerance of “gay liberation” in recent years is not the product of a growth of liberal culture. It is a product of cultural collapse.
For half a century after independence nationalist Ireland embarked on a line of cultural development diverging from that of Britain. But that line of development was cut short by the influence of the Second Vatican Council. The past decade has seen a collapse in the value system which the society had been cultivating since the mid-nineteenth century. The old convictions are giving way to mere confusion. The society is beginning to follow on behind Britain for want of anything else to do, but the strongly developed liberal convictions of the British are absent. “Gay liberation” has sprung into being in this vacuum. Perhaps that is why it is so thin-skinned.
(This article followed a dispute over a comic squib in the Irish Communist’s December 1983 issue entitled “Gay Noise”, which prompted the Cork Quay Co-op to withdraw all ICO publications from sale.)
Mitchell offers, early on, an interesting fact that Casement’s name is absent from “the principal historiographic collection analysing Irish revisionism, Interpreting Irish History, edited by Ciaran Brady (2004). He follows this when discussing the Casement biographies by Brian Inglis and BL Reid, of 1973 and 1976, respectively, by writing:
The medico-psychiatric vocabulary masqueraded as a form of analysis, and it remained a favoured element of the new propaganda offensive against Irish republicanism and nationalism in Northern Ireland, an obsessive determination by people, who were usually woefully undereducated, to identify nationalism as a pathology. These biographies were widely reviewed in both academic and mainstream journals as part of a strategy of depoliticising and criminalizing the broader republican movement. In terms of their interpretative trajectory, the Black Diaries comply with what Kevin Whelan (2004) has defined as the second and third phases of Irish revisionism from the late 1950s to 1990s.
This is Mitchell trying to turn Casement into the prevailing wind, but Inglis and Reid were researching before the 1970s Troubles, and writing some time before the anti-revisionist movement set sail. He also adds in something of a non-sequitur, that Inglis’s acceptance of authenticity masked his lack of consideration of “the Diaries as documents of historical record” and thus ignored “what they were intended to reveal about the crimes against humanity under investigation”. Both writers, he remarks, saw Casement “as a disaffected consul with tendencies to psychosis and erotomania”.
In 2002, I wrote of the two: “Reid attempts, evidentially, if not always accurately, to prove the diaries genuine and psychologically consistent. He deals with the homosexuality issue in an interesting and amusing mode, clearing away his own prejudices and treating Casement very much as a human sexual being with all the absurdity that can appear to involve for the outsider looking in. This novelised history was overshadowed by that of Brian Inglis. The two authors’ paths frequently crossed in those source rooms of Casementia – the National Library of Ireland in Dublin’s Kildare Street and the Public Record Office in London.”
I would repeat that BL Reid, a prizewinning American journalist, did try too hard to find evidence of Casement being homosexual. The recently rediscovered 1881 “Scribbling Diary” (in the NLI) has undone another of his assumptions about the teenage Casement’s desire for a “Sweet boy of Dublin”, one whom he saw in his dreams. It appears he was innocently quoting lines from a song – Colleen dhas cruthen na moe.
Mitchell’s view of a corroding, cruel revisionism exploiting medical terminology on the Troubles does not fit the facts. It is based on the idea of the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence – which did become an unassailable founding myth for the first fifty years of independence – as the settled and single view of the Irish people. In truth, that view was imposed on top of a variety of outlooks. It was inevitably to wear out, allowing for older, more complex outlooks such as Redmondism to resurface, like Fermanagh’s dreary steeples.
The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 bears great similarity to the Easter Rising, each being a well organised conspiracy and putsch that changed everything for decades, suppressing all that went before, but failing to stay the course. Although in Ireland’s case, the unintended victor from the struggle, the English-speaking Catholic Free State, became more of a target. It is currently more vulnerable than separatism or Sinn Féin.
Casement’s policies of European union (without England), and Commonwealth as a replacement for Empire, have stayed the course despite the destabilisation caused by Dublin overplaying its economic hand in the Celtic Tiger years. Even the Blairite idea of an ethical foreign policy and the adoption of benign, global and transnational strategies can also be traced back to Casement.
However revisionism hardly got a look-in in post-1968 Northern Ireland. The IRA operated within the separatist founding myth and neither the British nor the Unionists bothered to query or undermine it. There were some who did, a few admirable exceptions like BICO, Jim Kemmy of the Democratic Socialist Party and Conor Cruise O’Brien.
Mitchell fancifully tries to locate Casement far closer to modern realities than he merits when he says “Release of the diaries [in 1959] co-incided with various political and cultural changes in Ireland. A new era in Anglo-Irish relations dawned, and with it the promotion of ‘transparency’ in government. On 31 August 1994 the Provisional IRA announced a complete cessation of military operations and negotiations opened between Westminster, Leinster House and the Sinn Fein leadership. In October 1995, a further 200 closed Casement files were declassified.”
There was no “new propaganda offensive against Irish republicanism and nationalism in Northern Ireland [nor] an obsessive determination…to identify nationalism as a pathology”. There was however an understandable aversion to the extreme violence of the IRA and INLA, and a separate attempt to suggest that Ulster Protestants had rights, within or without the single Irish nation.
Neither managed to gain much purchase and the war ran its long course, until the spoils of Northern Ireland came to be split after 1998 in a consociational Stormont. This process only happened because Sinn Fein/IRA chose, at last, to cash in their large accumulation of political chips, won by a titanic military campaign, essentially of armed Hibernians not Republicans. It succeeded otherwise only in decimating the Unionist population, literally, but then that is not a human rights issue concerning Mitchell. Casement hardly figured in the Troubles, although his diaries became part of the loosening of the Catholic state in the south that he inadvertently created.
Within a limited number of committed separatists, notably James Connolly, he stood largely apart from Irish political sentiment. Their pro-Germanism also put them at odds with both British socialists and radicals like Ramsay MacDonald and Casement’s close friend, ED Morel, and the German Communist Party leader Karl Liebknecht, all of whom maintained a due distance from their countries’ patriotic wars.
The arrest on May 1st, 1916 of Liebknecht tells an unmentioned tale. As I wrote, “He was charged with attempted war treason because of a speech he had made in the Reichstag on 8 April about Casement. While still in Germany, Casement had been advised of the speech. ‘How Liebknecht got a hold of this, goodness only knows’, he noted. The charging was reported on 16 May in the Daily Chronicle and Casement sent the clipping to Gavan Duffy, scribbling alongside it, ‘I am still anxious on this matter.’ It could be dangerous for several reasons, but the most obvious and immediate was that Liebknecht’s alleged crime had been reading out the Irish Brigade Treaty in the Reichstag. He had prefaced his remarks by saying that Germany had entered ‘a treaty with the arch-traitor Sir Roger Casement whereby English soldiers were to be used against England.’ Luckily, Liebknecht’s quotation of the actual details had been suppressed in the German newspapers.”
Mitchell adds little meat to the diaries issue, just sowing doubt wherever he can, as when reminding readers, “In Derridean terms Casement’s ghost is a reminder of an alternative history”. Nor does his homage to the archive and its integrity go so far as to allow him to remark on significant gaps in Casement’s otherwise voluminous manuscript documentation.
Most notably there is a paucity of letters from two of his most frequent correspondents, ED Morel and his cousin Gertrude, nor are there inward boyfriend letters, as mentioned in the diaries – a few innocuous Millar Gordon items aside, or indeed other diaries. His Amazon and Congo investigation material including the Black Diaries was left in London and seized in April 1916, although returned; his German material was eventually brought back from that country.
I presume the missing items were stored in Belfast at FJ Bigger’s house, “Ardrigh”. The lack of other diaries is interesting but unresolved although it seems to fascinate Mitchell. The most substantive reference to another was when Casement’s papers were inspected at Ardrigh (perhaps including a 1913 diary) after he left for the US and were then burned in panic as realisation dawned about their contents. This was detailed by Bigger’s nephew Senator Joseph Warwick Bigger in warning letters, his memorable remarks only being replicated in correspondence between Dr WJ Maloney, author of The Forged Casement Diaries, and the writer Frances Hackett.
I wrote of this in 2002 quoting from a Maloney letter:
“Bigger’s uncle Francis Joseph, the one who lived at Ardrigh where Shane Leslie used to call, was interested in the boy scout movement about thirty years ago when I occasionally went to Belfast and never had any interest in what he was doing. Yet that did not spare my shocked ears from hearing that the Greeks had a name for Francis Joseph Bigger’s habits and that he needed none to show him how to scout for boys. In this rumor he was I am sure misrepresented … As far as I can ascertain his sexual habits were not obtrusive and were presumably normal.
But then no friend’s nephew has come forward to tell with correct reluctance and with noble purpose of Bigger [sic] the sodomite’s diary secretly burned at a midnight fire in the kitchen stove … I don’t place the proper significance on the informer Bigger’s statement that he learnt from the cook and his uncle that Casement went out much at night.
Bigger tells you that his uncle, when Casement’s activity in Germany became known (which was in October 1914) ‘feared a search by the military authorities and got rid of his (Casement’s) bags and old clothing’. As late possibly as September 1915 the nephew ‘had found in the small room on the right of the hall at Ardrigh which Mr Leslie may remember’ a diary telling of anti-British activities in organising the Irish Volunteers, in pitting German against British shipping interests in Ireland and in other spheres as well as exposing myself [sic] as a confirmed sodomist.”
Joseph Bigger described his uncle Frank almost fainting on making the discovery adding that the thing was destroyed “immediately in the kitchen fire – it was late at night – everyone but ourselves had gone to bed.”
Maloney’s commentary intervenes again: “The only collateral statement that can be tested is the reference to Casement’s brother being in debt in 1914.” Finally, Professor Bigger tried to explain: “My object in writing [to Hackett and Leslie] is to attempt to bring the controversy to an end because I am convinced that the British Government had and probably has diaries of Roger Casement which if published would establish beyond question that he was a pervert.” Bigger’s assessment of Casement nonetheless was that “his present position of national hero and martyr is one that is well deserved”.
Casement had indeed sent instructions from Berlin via Washington in November 1914 for things to be hidden: “Also let him tell Bigger solicitor Belfast to conceal everything belonging to me. Roger.” There could have been little subversive in the cache as he did not start dealing with Germany until after he left for America so one must assume it was the private letters and diaries that concerned him. MI5, as was their wont and despite Mitchell’s talk of the “efficacy of the intelligence services”, having deciphered the message, ignored it.
Angus Mitchell does advise of his own view that “the Diaries are skilled forgeries”; their creation involved “rewritten versions of existing journals”; and also that the forgers “interpolated existing Diaries or manufactured a new set with the sex-centred narrative”. Regardless of which, he is clear, if it was Casement’s writing, “he deliberately authored diaries that executed him, dramatically compromised his work as an investigator of atrocities and betrayed himself as ‘a man of no mind,’” (Joseph Conrad’s phrasing), adding they are “homophobic documents” portraying “a predatory sex tourist who debased and objectified the native”.
Anyway Casement’s first extant diary was commenced before he even received the commission for his Congo investigation. Mitchell then offers this unworthy remark, “If the Black Diaries’ Casement is the one true Casement, it is right that gay history should claim him as their own, for Casement was the true martyr of the gay rights cause more than Oscar Wilde or John Addington Symonds.”
He also repeats his somewhat crazed notion that, “The authorities actually had 43 years to perfect the look of the Black Diaries”, these forty-three years being from their delivery to Scotland Yard in April 1916 to the Kew release in 1959. However the typed versions effectively stolen by Sir Basil Thomson, from Scotland Yard in the 1920s (he was by then a renegade), are, typos aside, how the documents read that are currently in the National Archives at Kew.
In a few belittling paragraphs, he turns briefly to this author. “Among the many Casement publications to appear during this period, the most deliberately provocative was the stalwart voice of gay activism in Northern Ireland, Jeff Dudgeon. As a devout Unionist and professed Irish non-nationalist and both veteran and architect of Northern Ireland’s gay rights movement, Dudgeon took apparent pleasure in antagonizing and enflaming nationalist feeling on the Casement issue.” (I actually got no reviews of my book in the northern nationalist press despite provision of multiple copies – even to An Phoblacht. It was studiously ignored.)
He describes my book (the title is carefully not provided) thus: “His new version of the Black Diaries published privately in the Spring of 2002 [November actually], gained academic approval, following a launch by Professor Lord Bew of Queen’s University, Belfast. This somewhat eccentric publication which included extensive passages from all the disputed diaries, along with fresh interpolations, and thoughtful omissions amounted to little more than an updated and camped-up version of the 1959 edition, with a few original insights into Casement’s early years in Antrim. Dudgeon upheld the diaries as the heart and soul of Casement’s biography and used them provocatively as a means of destabilising (or queering) the martial spirit of Northern Irish Protestant nationalism and representing it as some deviant youth movement. The book baffled academics, and was as unashamedly political as it was scholastically unsound.”
Exactly not. I gave equal space to Casement’s family and upbringing and his role in Irish and Ulster politics, which role Mitchell seems incapable of engaging with. My book’s title tells it precisely: Roger Casement: The Black Diaries – With a Study of his Background, Sexuality, and Irish Political Life.
I am no academic but am, I hope, a scholar. If I “gained academic approval” does that not suggest some merit in the work is recognised? I even received a commendation for my researches from Brendan Clifford in his IPR review, although the book and its launch was largely mined for ammunition against the revisionist school. I am essentially accused of being “a gay unionist”. I am one but I especially don’t like being accused of it by an ersatz Scotsman from London who went to Harrow and won’t ever engage on the matter of the union and partition. If I am a Unionist, Mitchell is a Nationalist, indeed another ersatz Irishman hiding his partisan politics behind a mask of internationalism.
He had written earlier, “Jeff Dudgeon uses the Black Diaries to update the queer geographies of Ulster and to re-imagine Northern Protestant nationalism as some high camp drama driven by a cabal of queer crusaders and then accuses me of homophobia! If I enflame anyone, it is he, who, like Alice Stopford Green, has taken on the mantle of Ireland.
Another stalwart of homosexual politics in the North gets the same treatment. Harford Montgomery Hyde was a Unionist MP in the 1950s and wrote extensively on Oscar Wilde, Casement and espionage. He lost his north Belfast seat in 1959 because of his courageous (politically suicidal?) efforts in the House of Commons, almost alone, to bring about the decriminalisation of homosexuality after the Wolfenden Report.
However all we get in the Field Day Review are constant clunky reminders of his period working in MI5 during the war, such as “the hand of British intelligence was again evident in the intervention of the Unionist MP H. Montgomery Hyde”. Links between top people in London, in this case Lord Beaverbrook, René MacColl, a popular and racy journalist (who in 1956 published Roger Casement: A New Judgment, the first critical biography,), and Hyde, also a journalist and often short of money, are found. But they prove nothing except that Fleet Street was a small world. They fail even to be suggestive.
Mitchell does however mention that Hyde’s1960 Casement trial book carried “passages that were possibly the most explicit descriptions of homosexuality ever to appear in a mainstream publication in Britain”. This was a fortnight of entries in the 1911 Black Diary, which I republished in full for the first and, so far, only time in 2002. Even the Maurice Girodias edition of 1959 did not carry them. He, meantime, is rubbished for consorting with elements of the British establishment ie Singleton-Gates who provided the text of the diaries (via Basil Thomson). And this despite the nationalist tone of the Irish historical material he carried in his Paris-published volume. (Henry Miller was the most famous of Girodias authors.)
Venom is reserved, at length, for Bill McCormack, who had earlier accused Mitchell of “substituting personalized insinuation for argument and evidence” in a review of his book Roger Casement in Death or Haunting the Free State. The diary forensics and handwriting tests are then filleted, along with the accompanying BBC film, where it is said “those who argued for forgery were dismissed as atavistic republicans”.
McCormack is accused of having “adopted an agenda-driven position, assuming an aggressive malignancy towards the tradition advocating forgery, while affecting a position of calculated neutrality”. This was all based on “personal political interests”. Good to know that writers can have them! That and a headline-focused press get condemned although Professor Eunan O’Halpin is quoted, helpfully, as saying the forgery theory is “essentially an article of belief not susceptible to conventional historical analysis”.
Bravely, Mitchell does then enter the sensitive and difficult area of paedophilia, explaining that as the years passed, “Casement’s sexuality was being rebranded. He would emerge by 2005 not as acceptable homosexual, but as unacceptable pederast and/or paedophile.” He tells at length of a hostile review of my book in the American Irish Literary Supplement by one Coilin Owens who was as unpleasant about Casement’s sexual activities with boys as he was about me, and then of an unsparing Irish Times article by Vincent Browne in 2004.
He quotes him saying of Casement that “almost certainly he abused young boys” although it was “unfair to write off someone because of a perversity”. Mary Kenny added to the debate, similarly, by asserting “a good man can also be a paedophile”. My responding letter to The Irish Times tried to clarify the question:
Vincent Browne’s assertion that Casement “was probably a paedophile” is relatively new. I suspect any evidence to support that allegation comes from my book, published two years ago. In the 1911 diary, not previously available and the biography, readers were enabled to observe several occasions when Casement’s behaviour moved into the unacceptable. It involved the importuning and sexualising of two young teenagers, Teddy Biddy in Barbados and José Gonzalez in Peru. Otherwise his self-recorded penchant was for young men who were plainly eager for sexual contact.
If one must categorise a person’s sexual mode at a hundred years distance, Casement was not a paedophile but might best be described as a pederast, the casual French expression that, in its particularity, means both homosexual and someone keen on teenage boys. Paedophile is generally taken to mean someone interested in pre-pubescent children. The danger for those who respect and applaud Casement has been that the remaining forgery theorists, having an idealised view of the man, perhaps accept that he was gay but assert instead that the “forging” diarist was variously “a psychopathic predator” and a “pederastic exploiter” (Angus Mitchell) or someone who “had absolutely no conscience in regard to his own sexual life” (Martin Mansergh). But, as he was the diarist, these descriptions apply to Casement.
It is one thing to argue forgery but another to regard the diarist as a sexual monster; indeed it is quite perilous if that person is proven to be one and the same man who Dr Mansergh has also stated it was “legitimate to co-opt … as a forerunner of Ireland’s independent foreign policy”.
Of course paedophilia in the last decade has brought down the mighty in Ireland with the mightiest of all, the Catholic Church, still on the ropes because of a near-century of exemption from the laws of independent Ireland and their enforcement. Lesser mortals like Cathal Ó Searchaigh have fallen into the exclusion abyss for misbehaviour with boys in Nepal, described as fair-trade sex tourism, while Senator David Norris came under serious pressure, twice, during the recent presidential election on the matter.
Initially it was for a standard issue (old) interview which touched on the subject of Greek love – the unlikely arrangement in Athens where teenage boys were passed around family friends as part of the maturing process – and then when it emerged Norris had sought clemency for his former partner after he was convicted in Israel of having sex with a fifteen-year-old. One way or another, a national treasure, who had led the opinion polls for the presidency, was reduced to an also-ran who couldn’t achieve the necessary percentage for refunding his expenses.
Casement, had he survived, untried, would have probably become President of Ireland in 1938 and escaped notice because of the media omerta of the time, but his reputation would have been shredded by the 1980s.
Mitchell’s essay is seamed with portentous statements, often inflating Casement, which ensure that he will not be taken as seriously as his abilities probably warrant. He asserts that Michael Collins in 1922 “officially accepted the authenticity of the Black Diaries and that this acceptance was part of a secret deal in the diplomatic shadows of the negotiations [explaining] why the Irish government remained so ambiguous about the authenticity of the diaries for many decades afterwards”; that “A process was set in motion in 1916 to shut Casement down through a dangerous act of historical necromancy…This conspiracy was then shared at the birth of the Irish Free State and awkwardly carried through subsequent decades in the sensitive and shadowy negotiations of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom & Northern Ireland.”
Earlier it was “Archival releases of the 1990s suggest that Ireland had to embrace the Black Diaries as part of the secret diplomacy behind the Irish Free State treaty. But, as Martin Luther King commented, no lie can live forever.” The only Irish governmental comments I recall, over the decades, were de Valera’s remarks on the Maloney book, “the British allegations against Casement have never been believed by Irishmen and so far as they are concerned no refutation is needed”; his effective, if ambiguous, answer in the Dáil in February 1937: “Roger Casement’s reputation is safe in the affections of the Irish people, the only people who mattered to him;” and, finally, his expression of relief in 1965, “Now thanks be to God he is back here.” The fact that Casement knew all the founding fathers of the Free State and that they loved him, as they did their own achievement, is disregarded, even disrespected. They saw him as one of their own and instinctively defended him against all comers – the partial exception being John Devoy, the other man from New York.
Later Mitchell also states, “In the 1990s a political transformation in Anglo-Irish relations in turn transformed the image of Casement and the issues surrounding the Black Diaries.” And elsewhere, “The archive has played the crucial role in the privileging of a dominant narrative convenient to Anglo-Irish relations” yet also that Casement’s “memory was elevated to a level of devotion among the generations of Irish republicans who fought the War of Independence”.
Other writers get short shrift. Colm Tóibín is disposed of in grand style as someone who, “in his rush to proclaim a gay patriot overrode all methodological, archival and historical concerns”. Mitchell gives no credit to rivals, or other writers and researchers except those who follow his path like Jordan Goodman, author of The Devil and Mr Casement (2009) of whom he wrote in a drb review, “When placed in the environment of the atrocity they claim to describe, the politics of the Black Diaries become deeply suspect. That it has taken non-Irish historians and intellectuals like Goodman to throw the most disinterested and scholarly light on Casement further reveals the abusive nature of the controversy.” However Goodman is not as faultless as he would have us believe, given that he has praised him for “deliberately avoided using the diaries in his narrative”. But Goodman could not resist the colour the diaries provide and several times quotes them as Casement’s words without any reference.
Another writer to whom Mitchell is curiously nasty, despite his previous obsequious interview in 2009 and somewhat fawning later articles, is the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa who did not, could not, write a novel where Casement turned out straight. In truth, in Dream of the Celt, he did the second best thing, so far as Mitchell should be concerned, he portrayed Casement as a guilt-ridden, mother-fixated, sexual incompetent. None of which he was.
One senses a Casement-like mood of betrayal being experienced in this turnabout, when he feels obliged to use phrases like, “The Irish rebel emerges as a man of priapic stamina … not merely sexually deviant but prone to bouts of psychosis and delusional dreaming.” The novel itself is described as a heavy-handed biographical pastiche with “maladroit sexuality at the core of the story”. It is also overloaded with those “sexual antics” Mitchell so often disdains, although the sexual element in the novel was relatively slight and unconvincing.
A sad betrayal, hard-felt, but he really should be grateful, as I suspect his early influence ensured an impoverished novel (the riveting Amazon episodes aside) turned out to be a history, one much as an Irish writer in the 1930s would have produced, with Casement as hero, rebel, angel, patriot, martyr and anti-imperialist. Or indeed as Angus Mitchell would today.
The issue of whether the British government’s circulation of copies of diary pages, particularly to Americans, prevented a reprieve, a view which is now conventional wisdom, gets mention. An article in Eire-Ireland by Elizabeth Jaeger is referenced, which is quite convincing in that her researches prove the diaries hardly surfaced in the public debates in the US over a reprieve. But they did get significant circulation in Washington society by means of a “photographic facsimile & transcript”.
She writes “The most recent books on Casement do not concern themselves with the U.S. government’s perceptions of Casement. The works by Jeffrey Dudgeon, W.J. McCormack, Angus Mitchell, and Séamas Ó Síocháin focus on Casement’s diaries, his trial, and/or his humanitarian work without exploring U.S. involvement.” However I don’t think she read my text on the diaries and Woodrow Wilson, where I argued it was Casement’s documented links to German-inspired and assisted bombings in America that were the strongest reason for Wilson’s inaction and silence in the face of a Senate appeal seeking White House support for a reprieve.
And it was certainly not what Manus O’Riordan asserted in the Irish Political Review in 2011 when he wrote that “President Wilson’s raw-nerve of pure-and-simple Ulster Presbyterian homophobia had been touched in July 1916”. Seeing Wilson as an Orange homophobe is not just anachronistic but unpolitical, which is not to say he had not been influenced by Asquith who, as he noted in a contemporary journal entry, had told him “of the unmentionable Casement diary, which shows a degree of perversion and depravity without parallel in modern times”.
The reality is that on April 18th, 1916, just before Casement landed in Kerry, the American Secret Service raided the New York offices of Wolf von Igel, a German diplomat masquerading as an advertising executive, and gathered up a cache of documents on sabotage operations in the US that implicated Casement and von Papen amongst many others. I wrote in 2002: “The seized documents were erroneously thought by John Devoy to be the reason for Casement’s capture on Good Friday in Kerry. In fact his arrest was a matter of chance as the British had not warned the RIC in Tralee of his imminent arrival. Whether decrypts of Berlin’s January 1915 message to von Papen in Washington specifically naming Casement as someone suggesting people ‘suitable for sabotage in the United States’ reached Wilson matters not. He knew enough by April 1916 to be assured Casement = von Papen = US sabotage and thus was someone he was not going to be seeking a reprieve for.”
In the upshot, President Wilson told his Irish secretary in July 1916, somewhat obscurely, “It would be inexcusable to touch this,” adding “It would involve serious international embarrassment.”
The sabotage, along with the sinking of the Lusitania off Cork in May 1915 was to become part of the gathering recognition in Washington that conflict was looming. The proximate casus belli was the mindless telegram from the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann, which London deciphered as it headed from Berlin to the German minister in Mexico. It is worth restating those ten lines which brought America into the war:
We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President’s attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace. Signed, ZIMMERMANN”.
How much easier and more efficacious it would have been to forge that than the thousands of lines in Casement’s diaries?
A reprieve from the August 3rd execution, probably desired by many of Casement’s acquaintances in the Cabinet, was politically impossible, not least because of the huge Irish casualties in the Battle of the Somme that began in July and the execution by the Germans as a franc-tireur of Captain Robert Fryatt at the end of the month. (His merchant navy ship had rammed a German submarine.) It is almost as if Imperial Germany wanted Casement dead. Yet had he stayed in Germany, as Berlin wanted, rather than make a largely pointless, if honourable, journey to Ireland he would have survived the war. It was his choice to go to a certain death.
In conclusion, one has to ask, as at the end of a trial, how a proper judgment or assessment on the authenticity of the diaries can be made, for that is the issue.
I reckon there are five options:
• Firstly, under the criminal trial rule, judgment is by the classic, if confusing, phrase “beyond reasonable doubt”. I have proved to my satisfaction the diaries are genuine. I tested a fair number of such doubts and none remain, although the bulk of the evidence, it must be said, is the diaries themselves alongside circumstantial and secondary material, but the diaries, if admissible, as they must surely be, have colossal weight;
• Secondly, the evidential test in a civil case with its lesser burden of proof – “the balance of probabilities”. This is the one I would expect most other highly interested parties to use to bring in a positive verdict. Mitchell certainly offers next to no evidence to prevent such a verdict, just the mood of a mystic victim.
He at one time in a 1997 letter to The Irish Times wrote approvingly of the probability test: “When writing about the Public Record Office manuscripts, Prof Roger McHugh quoted Montaigne: Historians can decide which of two reports is the more probable. That is what I did.” But as the contrary evidence mounts, he no longer sticks to that position. He doesn’t even go down to the next level.
• Thirdly, for the academic, the historian and the reader of history there is a common sense measure based on the evidence provided, so far as it is possible to obtain in the circumstances of passing years, and a subject’s natural secretiveness. This has to be set against any alternatives presented, but alternatives there have to be, not just assertions or the casting of doubt. Obviously historical judgments in most non-contemporary cases are made on limited or small amounts of evidence. No such alternative evidence, for example of a forging process, has ever been adduced. Mitchell and his colleagues know many are not too fussy about the lack of alternatives given the natural instinct of Irish nationalists to be super-sceptical.
• Fourthly, there is the test in the court of common sense where judgment is based on what evidence there is, and then on an understanding of what is likely, given human nature and people’s own experiences. This court does not sit often over Casement’s diaries, certainly not in many parts of Ireland.
• And finally, there is the test applied by those who believe truth a moveable feast, the Derridean or Foucaultian interpretation, which is also the view of the Irish republican, not to mention the conspiracy theorist and the unconvincible. If there is a scintilla of doubt, then the case is unproven. Indeed as soon as one avenue of doubt is closed down, another is opened up. That is the evidential test that will never be met, short of Casement’s resurrection.
Mitchell in his conclusion returns to the First World War, quoting the famous speech from the dock where Casement invoked an alternate and radically different world: anti-war and separatist if effectively anti-Unionist. He dared to dream and turned out to be a nation-builder, regardless of the foolish attempts of his more enthusiastic supporters to deny the reality of his sexual nature. If that was accepted, his stature would rise. The choice is theirs.
Jeff Dudgeon is the author of Roger Casement: The Black Diaries – With a Study of his Background, Sexuality, and Irish Political Life (Belfast Press, 2002, 692 pp.) His website, an archive of documentation on Casement and other controversies, is at jeffdudgeon.com