Roger Casement: Imperialist, Rebel, Revolutionary, by Séamas Ó Síocháin, Lilliput Press, 656 pp, €40, ISBN: 978-1843510215
Séamas Ó Síocháin has become one of the select band to have written two or more books on Roger Casement. He joins Roger Sawyer, the doyen of Casement authors, and Angus Mitchell in that pantheon, along with Herbert Mackey, the 1950s sanctifier. He, however, was more of a pamphleteer.
Such frequency illustrates the abiding fascination that Casement excites. Perhaps it is that he covers so much ground – Africa, the First World War, the Amazon and the Easter Rising, not to mention slavery, treason, and homosexuality. That range of subjects has made him the most written about Irish revolutionary.
Or perhaps it is because he was volatile, contrary, someone who changed his opinions and held contradictory views – all those traits which make people memorable and dynamic and are often the mark of great men and women.
Such large books as that under review are fewer. However Peter Singleton Gates’s 1959 Black Diaries, Angus Mitchell’s Heart of Darkness (mostly 1911 Amazon documentation), and this writer’s1 also came in at more than 600 pages.
Ó Síocháin’s biography of Casement was launched at Maynooth where he lectures in anthropology. Indeed he is currently editor of the Irish Journal of Anthropology. The main speaker was Niall Crowley, the estimable chair of the Equality Commission, who shares an interest in the Third World. In response, the author spoke of the long gestation of the book and – raising a laugh – of the frequent queries as to when he was coming out.
Eyes of Another Race, his earlier Casement book (with Michael O’Sullivan) was published in 2000. It reprinted Casement’s 1903 Black Diary and the British government Congo report he wrote, along with commentaries, giving both documents equal measure and status. The 1903 diary was meticulously transcribed in its entirety, much better than before, and is plainly a key document that helps to explain many aspects of Casement’s report as well as illustrating his motives, outlook and foibles.
That report and Casement’s off-duty efforts in the Congo Reform Association broke King Leopold’s grip on his personal fiefdom and in 1908 he was forced to make it a Belgian colony.
Literally at the launch, someone produced a new photograph of Casement with Mrs May French Sheldon, a hostile critic of his Congo report. It was probably taken on the island of São Thomé in 1903. Such a post-publication discovery happens too often and is irritating for authors. Just as when people who write to enquire about your sources turn out to be interested in some tangential character or event.
However it illustrates that no subject is entirely mined and that quite startling facts may still be out there, secreted or unremarked. Indeed the NLI has recently purchased several Casement notebooks written when he was little more than a teenager (one illustrated). The name of the older item’s owner is being withheld by the NLI. Given its early provenance it suggests more could follow.
It is useful here to point out that reviewers comment on the faults, omissions and failings of a work and often only briefly on its virtues. They tend also to write about the subject rather than the book. Or simply compare their own to the new production.
This volume is the first comprehensive effort since those of Brian Inglis and B.L. Reid to write a full life of Roger Casement. It is informed by the clarifying work of others – Sawyer, Mitchell, Reinhard Doerries, Bill Mc Cormack, and myself, to draw together a smooth, seamless account.
As a fellow Casement biographer, I write to a significant degree comparatively, to my own work, the recent spate of new books, and the earlier post-war biographies by Reid, Inglis and René MacColl, the last two, significantly, journalist historians. Each later author has chosen to major on a particular area of Casement’s life bringing their own speciality to the task – be it Irish and Ulster politics, slavery, homosexuality, literary history, anthropology or the rubber industry.
It is no secret that this book was ready for publication some years ago and that it had to be updated and at times corrected as other volumes appeared. Occasionally the rejigging shows but it would go unnoticed by the general reader while most of the new discoveries have been included.2
The author states in his preface that “the predominant focus of the present work is on Casement’s public life” with more attention than hitherto being given to his twenty years in Africa. He adds it “is in no sense a psychological study.” Elsewhere he wrote that it “does lack a strong author’s voice, i.e. my analysis of events being more a detailed narrative.” This is an accurate steer but the book remains a definitive biography of the man in all his settings.
Many see Casement in a negative light, Séamas Ó Síocháin does not. He is both neutral and sympathetic. Ever avoiding judgment and letting the facts speak for themselves, he remains intrigued by Casement and in awe of his attainments. And why not? He is a citizen of a model European state whose very existence and current formation owe much to the man.
Backing this up, Martin Mansergh TD said of Casement at the government-sponsored Casement symposium in the Royal Irish Academy that he was someone, “legitimate to co-opt as a forerunner of Ireland’s independent foreign policy tradition.” And this is the way states develop their founding stories, along with their heroes.
Dr Mansergh also pointed out “there appears to be a very wide gulf between the public persona and the private portrayed in the Black Diaries.” Presumably knowing he would never publicly need to accept their authenticity, he added that the author of the diaries had “absolutely no conscience in regard to his own sexual life.” But Ó Síocháin disputes these absolutes and makes of Casement a man of achievement and consequence, despite his cruising and the unacceptable grooming of adolescents.
In relation to the man in Africa, he takes up from Eyes of Another Race and covers Casement’s postings in Nigeria, Angola, and Mozambique extensively and comprehensively. His good librarianship is exemplified by his tracking down the book Niger Memories by A.C. Douglas with its assessment of the early Casement.
The documents consulted by Ó Síocháin at the Sanford Memorial Library in Florida tell of a cranky, difficult man (as do later Foreign Office handwritten annotations) so why did companies and officialdom bother with him? Perhaps it was because he was a gentleman, well connected and usually industrious, although oddly described as ‘lazy’ in one wonderfully upfront job appraisal.
Casement’s early days as an adventurer and trader in Africa are explored in a section of the book that breaks new ground. Ó Síocháin records an intriguing range of description written by bosses and colleagues. This was when Casement was in his early twenties and working for the Sanford Exploring Expedition, and later for Baptist missionaries. They range from “upright and honourable,” “willing and obliging,” “a Christian man and an exceedingly pleasant man,” to “recently led to Christ,” “too much of a boy,” “a scapegoat for everyone’s faults,” “utterly useless as a trader” and “very good and patient with the natives.”
It is plain that even then Casement aroused strong feelings both for and against. What seems constant is a person of liberal sensibilities combining them with a near truculent set of certainties that led to tensions wherever he went. Ó Síocháin admits that occasionally Casement’s views were intemperate. Although a relatively benign colonialist, he is recorded here on a punitive expedition for Leopold’s State in 1886 to a village that left eleven dead.
The author knows more about Casement in the Congo than any other but he also knows the complexity of colonialism. He infers that although Leopold’s Belgians were undoubtedly brutal in their exploitative trading and taxing, the British and French could be and were mercilessly military. And the Arab oppressors of Africans, whom Casement rather came to favour, were of course enthusiastic slavers. Not to mention the Portuguese and the Germans neither of whose methods was pretty.
Leopold is blamed for millions of dead but estimates of recent casualties in the Congo run to some four million, which is not so different. Perhaps kleptocrats like Mobutu are preferable to the chaos of revolution. Better the secular devil you know like Sadaam Hussein?
Casement’s part in the Boer War is properly illuminated for the first time, particularly his somewhat freelance, sabotage scheme. This involved the aborted, and possibly unnecessary, blowing up of the railway line to Mozambique, which he advocated so fiercely and successfully to Lord Milner.
Ó Síocháin correctly disputes one commentator’s view that “most of his biographers have openly disliked Casement in a way almost unique in the genre.” That view is perhaps better stated by saying that no historian comes to Casement or leaves him, without revealing their own prejudices, be they derived from nationalism, unionism, or socialist anti-imperialism. This author however comes close to objectivity as befits a senior academic, although it annoyed the Irish Times reviewer who felt the book was insufficiently subjective.
He (Frank Callanan) remarked of Ó Síocháin’s approach: “It commits him to avoiding a sustained engagement with much of the modern scholarship on Casement’s career and thought, and leaves the reader somewhat adrift at the outset.” This might be true in relation to continuing or re-awakening controversies such as the 1st World War or Leopold, but not of others which are largely settled or undisputed.
What this biography does constitute is a readable reference book, something of an encyclopaedia for anyone wanting to investigate areas of Casement’s career more closely. It comes in the form of a dateline narrative. An invaluable work unlikely to be equalled, libraries, particularly those in Irish schools and colleges, should have a copy.
The lack of much analytic or partisan criticism of Casement’s actions may be because most writers have sympathised with him, or at least his aims, and where they have not, as in the case of René MacColl, he was written off as intemperate, English, and just a journalist. The American Pulitzer Prize winner, B.L. Reid, does deconstruct Casement psychologically, in novelised prose, but leaves the politics relatively unscathed. Seriously academic, yet lightly written, this book is definitely not journalistic.
Ó Síocháin recognises “Casement’s tendency to rant” and the fact of his voluminous correspondence. He rarely makes criticism, so when he does, it stands out, and must be taken especially seriously. Other people’s reproaches are provided. One telling admonition quoted, to Casement on Ulster, is that from Mitchell Innes, a sympathetic diplomatic colleague: “You lash yourself with your own eloquence, till the pain makes you forget everything else…That which to you is natural and right, to Carson is intolerable and wicked.”
In self-confirmation of his extremism, Casement in 1912 wrote to his Scottish friend Lady Constance Emmott in a depressed state of mind, “I am dour beyond words and litigious to that degree that I would pick holes in – well I can’t call up the immensity I should not attack.”3
The author recalls that Joseph Conrad (who shared a billet with Casement in the Congo) described him in one of his oft-quoted remarks as being “all emotion.” Another contemporary remarked in 1917 that he “could indulge his rage but could not bear long malice” while an African colleague said he was always “sweet tempered and ready to help.” A German observer wrote Casement’s belief in his fellow human beings “led him to completely trust everyone he met.”
It seems that Casement was essentially a thoughtful, nice guy, if at times naïve. He was not inherently unstable as some have written (although he became mentally distressed in Germany) but extremity of view made him dangerous to his enemies and himself.
Joseph Conrad also remarked of Casement in 1903, “He could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget; things I never did know” describing him as having “a touch of the conquistador.” Ó Síocháin says Conrad was guilty of contributing to a romanticisation of Casement in his early descriptions. In his later, somewhat crass, view of Casement, prejudiced by his anti-Germanism, Conrad retained none of that romance. His anglophilia took command.
This illuminating extract is from a Conrad letter of October 1918 to John Quinn, the Irish-American lawyer and art collector:
The Irishmen would not be conciliated. That’s a fact. And I don’t presume to judge whether they were right or not. I only know that they took the money and went on cursing the oppressor with renewed zest. Their able men scrupled not to make their careers in England and exploit all the advantages that arose from a connection with a great and prosperous empire.
I have seen those things, I, who also spring from an oppressed race where oppression was not a matter of history but a crushing fact in the daily life of all individuals, made still more bitter by declared hatred and contempt. A very different thing from an historical sense of wrong and a blundering administration, which last I will admit if you like.
…I can’t help asking myself, if Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill had passed what our position would be now, with an independent power (for it would have come to that by this) with an army and a navy just across St. George’s Channel, still nursing a sense of historical wrong as their dearest possession and chumming up with Germany in sheer lightness of heart and for the sake of a jolly good fight. However they will get their independence, I haven’t the slightest doubt, in some way or another…Don’t be angry for my sally at the Irish. I wish them all possible happiness.”
As an exponent in the colonial world of the 3Cs – Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation – Casement was an unremarkable enthusiast. This book deals successfully with his efforts to advance those Cs, be it his work with missionaries, his assistance, if at times reluctant, to British traders, and his endeavours on behalf of benighted British and Belgian Africans.
The early British imperialist changed to anti-imperialist after the Boer War. Yet Casement was rarely an anti-imperial absolutist except in relation to Ireland (and then from his teens). He is quoted in praise of the civilising potential of Germany and its Teutonic virtues. That naïve view was however to be tested and broken in Berlin when he found the German military and civil service to be hopelessly inflexible and unimaginative.
The author’s researches have led him to the discovery of previously unseen or unnoticed caches of Casement documents which he uses to good effect. He spotted manuscripts in Farmleigh House in Dublin, while in Cushendall came across a remnant of some of the material4 scattered around North Antrim after the deaths of Casement’s cousin Gertrude Parry and her Protestant nationalist friends Ada McNeill and Margaret Dobbs. In TCD he unearthed decades of letters to Fritz Pincus (“bald-headed, Wagner loving, fiddle playing Pincus”) a German trader whom Casement knew and assisted in Mozambique, plus the lad’s actual schoolbooks of 1873.
The Pincus letters are heavily drawn on to give a work-related yet private picture of Casement and to explain his growing opposition to the British in South Africa. It was the “brainless noodles of ultra-English ‘society’ officials” and “the Milner type of young man” which turned him, along with the use of Chinese indentured labour and its attendant cruelties. This is not to mention the crushing of the Zulu revolt in 1906 with its “abominable cowardly butchery” done to please “the panic-struck ‘Loyalists’. God’s wrath upon all ‘Loyalists’ – the brand is always the same.”
One of the book’s most noticeable features is the constant refrain of illness, sick leave, special leave and plain ordinary leave sought, and obtained, by Casement. The author quotes numerous applications being made to London. For example, in November 1897 only two days back in his Mozambique post after six months holiday, Casement was requesting sick leave for an operation which never took place.
“Flaringly armadillo” are the words scribbled on the Foreign Office copy. Sadly nothing frank like that can now be noted on official papers – the downside of our Freedom of Information laws. Barring November 1897, Casement was to be away for eighteen months which is quite a length even by today’s public sector standards. This was all of a part with his somewhat lordly manner – and his moveable ailments.
The book’s maps of the Congo in particular, but also of Brazil and the Putumayo, are the best yet published. Both river regions lack focus to the outsider, being so vast and literally meandering. In the Amazon’s case the problem is exacerbated by the Putumayo acting as a frontier now between three countries, after re-alignments following border wars over the last century, so one is grateful for the clarity these maps provide.
The cover is especially memorable and warming. Coloured orange, it has two photographs in Italian ragged style depicting Casement as long, lean and distant. Both were taken on mission when he was worn and stressed. They make him look somewhat odd or eccentric and belie most others where he appears serene and regal.
Earlier this year, BBC Radio Ulster’s Book Programme with William Crawley in the chair reviewed Roger Casement: Imperialist, Rebel, Revolutionary. Crawley asked of Casement, “Can he be rescued?” Eamon Phoenix, the historian of Belfast nationalism said, “Yes, he is rescued from the stain of the Black Diaries” and felt it was a “splendid book.” He alluded to Casement’s “big house background” and of him being a “proconsul in Britain’s colonial service” yet who “never opened his knighthood scroll.”5 Phoenix described Casement accurately as “meticulous, and a brand leader in his humanitarian objective” but plainly felt his sexuality could not be integrated into the narrative.
Ó Síocháin’s scrutiny of the Black Diaries, coming as he does from an Irish-speaking, progressive, and anthropological background is refreshingly candid, if briefer than many readers would wish, being some seventeen pages in an appendix.
Indeed the audience for the diary controversy is probably many times greater than that interested in Casement’s anti-slavery work or his involvement in Irish politics. I know, to my chagrin, that the considerable sections I wrote on Casement in Ulster and his part in the Easter Rising (with much new material) went largely unnoticed or unremarked. Reviewers concentrated on the diaries aspect, except ironically in Gay Times.
Of the diaries, the author accepts they “cast a long shadow” over Casement adding bluntly, “I am convinced, on the available evidence, of their authenticity and of the record therein of a robust sexual life.” He briskly covers the forgery theories, including interpolation, and dismisses them all. His is a commonsensical analysis and he concludes, “I take them to be genuine.”
Unconvinced nationalists complain of the emphasis on the Black Diaries in writings on Casement’s life (and of the tiresome homosexual aspect) not realising that by producing and convoluting forgery theories they ensure that what they hate only acquires new legs.
Ó Síocháin uses the Black Diaries to expand and deepen understanding of Casement’s reasoning and decision-making in the three key years of 1903, 1910 and 1911 when he was reporting to the government from the Congo and Peru. That resource is invaluable for an historian and, of course, lost to those forgery advocates who deny themselves the extra information and detail the journals provide. However like all intimate writings, they reveal much of a self-centred nature and little heroism. Heroes should not be seen to do sex.
The author believes, maturely, that the expressions in the diaries “of longing and remembrance could not have been sustained by any forger.” He then quotes BL Reid’s memorable phrasing, “This matter of wholeness or homogeneity cannot be demonstrated by piecemeal analysis, it has to be felt in its own experience of a total texture.”
Later he asks rhetorically, “Is it conceivable that any forger could have replicated the Kikongo phrases incorporated into the diary, phrases which have a sexual reference? …Is it at all conceivable that the process of forgery continued up to 1959, long after Casement’s execution, as has been claimed by a few?” Nothing of what the author writes can be faulted except perhaps an over-reliance on the more prurient statements about Casement and Adler provided to MI5 by Oslo hotel staff. And he restates the simplest truth – the diaries are far too extensive to have been forged
Some reviewers have expressed disappointment at this book’s relative brevity, indeed brusqueness, on the diaries, as the authenticity question remains one of the world’s great controversies. The brusqueness seems to be in response to the lack of evidence provided by forgery theorists and the unacademic techniques they employ. They doubt every fact regardless of its provenance. Historians cannot be expected to muster, long after the event, evidence sufficient to convince a criminal case jury (‘beyond a reasonable doubt’) but the forgery school expects it.
The case for forgery is analysed by addressing, in particular, Angus Mitchell’s “long list of supposed discrepancies and contradictions” in his 1910 documentation book Amazon Journal. Ó Síocháin disposes of most but is not sufficiently unkind to accuse forgery proponents of lacking common sense or of bad faith. He does call their arguments “tendentious.”
The Peruvian writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, recently announced that he intends to write a novel on Casement in the Congo. However the little he said was sufficient to make one fear what silliness it might contain. He could do no better than to consult this book, and its Congo-specific predecessor.
Indeed the novelist is best-advised, knowing his own country, to write about Casement in Iquitos or on the Putumayo, and the Indian tribes he did so much to protect from extreme cruelty. Exploiters like Senator Julio Arana and the bestial Armando Normand, who made Leopold’s Congo look comparatively benign, could usefully be represented fictionally, especially as the same Indians remain vulnerable.
By 1912, with two humanitarian investigations under his belt Casement had become bigger than his consular career so a return to Rio was unacceptable but it was all that London would offer. He resigned, in two minds about what to do next. Looming developments in Ireland ended up shaping the remainder of his life.
The author provides a coherent picture of Casement’s part in developing the Irish Volunteers from 1913, although less emphasis is placed on his important role in their arming. An extensive picture is given of the consul criss-crossing the island, speaking in many cities, towns and villages. His presence seemed almost an essential to such gatherings and parades. Little wonder that Dublin Castle and the RIC came to see Casement as a prime mover of the Rising.
An illustration of his outlook, a combination of the self-deluding and the effective, is when he wrote in June 1914 that he and Eoin MacNeill had “brought the gospel of the gun to Ireland and it is the Gospel of patriotism and good will. An armed Ireland will be a friendly Ireland.” Later in the month Casement did recognise, “the hand that holds the rifle will be much mightier than that dipping the pen.” In his denunciations of the Irish Parliamentary Party (“solely for office”) there are echoes of those opposing Sinn Féin in government in Belfast, which makes one wonder if a reborn Casement might not be a dissident Republican (short of bombing).
I suspect the author is somewhat nervous of the northern or Ulster question and avoids significant commentary on Casement’s activities in that respect. This is a pity, especially as we seem to be entering a post-revisionist era.
Angus Mitchell in his harsh review in History Ireland, writes 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 of course misses the point entirely. It is his Irish separatist revolutionism, successful within five years of his execution that gives him enormous legitimacy and justified his political and military work in Germany and Ireland. This even if he remains unburied at Murlough Bay in Co. Antrim, his chosen grave site for nearly a century, revealing his one great failure – partition. Without Ireland (and the diaries) his official reports and his unofficial campaigns around them would be a dim memory.
Ó Síocháin devotes some sixty pages to the German period of 1914-16. He confirms that the foolish Findlay affair – Adler Christensen’s attempt to make money by going to the British Minister in Christiania (Oslo) to betray Casement, meant he “was losing sight of the key goals of his mission.” Casement unwisely believed Christensen, his Norwegian companion and erstwhile sexual partner, when he claimed the British had sought him out on their arrival in Norway from America. Months were spent hunting Findlay down, contrary to his US instructions.
Adler’s later perfidy was to be relayed by John Devoy in a letter of 19 December 1915,6 giving chapter and verse on his blatant thieving and frauds. Devoy wrote, “Unfortunately, the proof is conclusive and overwhelming that he has been swindling us and recklessly and foolishly lying.” It was probably this information the Germans used to try and frighten Casement.
Devoy, who was never as fond of Casement as the more extreme Irish-American leader Joseph McGarrity, later accused Casement of nearly wrecking the Easter Rising and made it plain to two of the Gifford sisters7 in New York in late 1916 that he knew Casement was homosexual. Referring to Birkenhead’s calling Casement an “Oscar Wilde,” he said “Oh well, its all true, every word of it. I know it is.”8
If Findlay was a distraction, Germany’s less than total enthusiasm for Irish independence, let alone armed rebellion, was one that baffled and disillusioned Casement. A wiser man would have recognised that neither party was interested in the other’s plight, and simply had a common enemy in England. Ó Síocháin says accurately the German outlook was based “less on idealistic considerations than on a hard-nosed assessment of its potential to weaken the British war-effort.”
Another suggestion is that the lukewarm or confused German help was due more to the notion of a future deal with England than cackhandedness. Nonetheless Casement, now hopelessly despondent, felt he was being “fooled and used by a most selfish and unscrupulous government.”
But Casement had achieved a Declaration from the Imperial Chancellor on Ireland and its “people for whom Germany desires only national prosperity and freedom.” Writing, “my country can only gain from my treason,” Casement justifiably crowed, “The blow struck today for Ireland must change the course of British policy towards that country. Things will never be quite the same.”9 He had successfully put the cause of Ireland on an international plane.
Of all the areas of Casement’s life, his time in Germany and the Easter Rising remains the most elusive. Judgments still need to be made and mysteries, not to mention time sequences, resolved. The author says he had a peripheral position in the Rising. This may be true geographically but not otherwise. Casement made it possible (also by arming Óglaigh na hÉireann twice) and nearly thwarted it.
Ó Síocháin suggests that Casement was eventually provided with passage on a submarine to Ireland to give him “a better chance of evading capture.” This was once the Germans knew they could not get shot of the Irish Brigade on the arms ship due to Casement’s relentless opposition to his men fighting in Ireland. At the same time the U-Boat was to rendezvous with the arms ship, indicating, as the author says, that the Germans were keen not to risk Casement warning “the planners of the rising about the meagreness of German help.” This of course made the submarine an entirely useless exercise as it was desired by Casement to get ahead of the arms ship.
The “evading capture” explanation is inadequate, as the German navy knew Casement had already sent a messenger to Dublin, John McGoey, to try and get the Rising called off. Maybe the Admiralty was aware McGoey had been detained in Germany or perhaps unlike the General Staff they did not want to get involved in the politics. Either way McGoey disappeared.
McGoey’s movements remain unclear. Did the Germans eliminate him or was he executed by the British in Scotland as Republicans allege?10 And that is not to mention the fate of the remaining fifty members of the Irish Brigade. Another unanswered question is whether in Germany, Casement maintained any of his previously vigorous sexual activities, and if not, why not?
The role, motives and later life of four other of his associates need researched further. The first is the London Irishman, Daniel Julian Bailey (nom de guerre Beverley) who accompanied Casement and Monteith on the submarine and was also charged with high treason. After Casement was sentenced to death, F.E. Smith11 suddenly dropped the case against Bailey and he was acquitted. His claim that he only joined the Irish Brigade as an opportunity to get back to Blighty was unlikely to say the least, but for no clear reason Smith decided not to hang a second traitor.
The second is Adler Christensen who attempted to betray Casement again after his capture in 1916, this time at the British consulate in Philadelphia. Adler lingers on for six more years at least, amazingly unscathed, and still trying to wheedle money out of Joe McGarrity.
The third is Corporal Timothy Quinlisk of the Irish Brigade, executed in February 1920 in Cork by Thomas McCurtain as an alleged British spy. Casement initially reckoned Quinlisk a rogue. He was 18 and a Wexford boy educated at a Christian Brothers school – “of a R.I.C. stock! Father and grandfather both sold to the British govt…His younger brother, only 17, was shot through the heart near La Bassie. He saw him killed.” Latterly he reckoned Quinlisk “a fine type – brave and fearless.”12
Finally there is the Bavarian schoolboy Max Zehndler who appears to be being groomed by Casement if the clutch of letters and cards he received are anything to go by.
Angus Mitchell states, in a dab of conspiracy, that Casement’s “prosecution required the highest paid legal minds in the country to collaborate in fast tracking him to the gallows.” However F.E. Smith was the Attorney General and someone who was expected to lead for the prosecution in such high profile cases. He of course did.
Casement’s problem was not his prosecutor but who to get to defend him, or whether a more political defence against Carson’s Galloper might have been of benefit. Disputed or unnoticed, Timothy Healy KC MP declined to take the brief as indicated by Casement’s cousin Gertrude Bannister who wrote, “Mrs Green attempted to get Sir John Simon to undertake it but he refused. Mr Tim Healy was also approached but returned the same answer.”13
So Casement ended up with his solicitor George Gavan Duffy’s brother-in-law, Serjeant Sullivan, who loathed his politics and was insufficiently senior. Sullivan ultimately admitted Casement never told him anything about his homosexuality or the diaries. Whether Casement would have been better to defend himself, like Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague Court, is a moot point.
Oddly, Yeats did not sign any public petition for clemency but pleaded, somewhat disingenuously, with Herbert Samuel, the Home Secretary, in a letter of 14 July 1916 which read in part:
I have never before written to an English Minister on an Irish question, but I am convinced that the execution of Sir Roger Casement will have so evil an effect that I break the habit of years. I have worked most of my life precisely among that type of young man and woman which is today under the belief that the late rebellion was repressed with great harshness, becoming more and more disaffected. These young people, on whom perhaps the intellectual life of Ireland depends, are less likely to be restrained by fear than excited by sympathy.
There is such a thing as the vertigo of self-sacrifice. The evil has been done, it cannot be undone, but it needs not to be aggravated weeks afterwards with every circumstance of deliberation…Whether England has or has not been as harsh as much Irish and American opinion believes is not a historical question which has no implications for the moment. The pardon of Sir Roger Casement, upon the other hand may give an opportunity for moderate opinion in Ireland to recover something of its weight.
That Casement remains a continuing problem for Sinn Féin and Irish separatism in general, is instanced by Belfast Gay Pride’s Question Time in July. This annual meeting showcases the political parties, except of course for the DUP.
Bairbre de Brún, Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland MEP first said that she did not know if the Casement diaries (which she had read) were genuine or forged. When she came under serious cross-examination (again by the BBC’s William Crawley) she faltered in mid-sentence and changed her mind to say they were authentic. Presumably this was her view all along. It seems she felt she could no longer hide behind a party line given the audience’s potential to turn on her for holding a homophobic view – albeit coming from a time when almost everybody was homophobic, including most gays!
That Sinn Féin line was originally adopted because to be gay before the 1970s was to be a pervert, and probably British to boot. Her swivelling may encourage others in the party to be more honest, which can only be of use both in creating positive role models for young gay nationalists and removing another barrier to better Anglo-Irish relations. With this grievance gone, gays in the party may feel able to come out which they have so far conspicuously failed to do.
The author is generous to the present writer, seeming to acknowledge me as an expert on matters gay. In an anthropological sense, he appreciates my understanding of Casement and his sexual manners which is a rare and telling compliment from an outsider.
Where Ulster is concerned, the British and Irish Communist Organisation (BICO), proponents of the two nations theory, should disapprove of Casement – a total one-nationist, as only a Protestant nationalist can be.
BICO in its most recent formation, the Irish Political Review (published by Athol Books) is now an enthusiast for Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin, determined to stymie the Irish historical revisionist school of Roy Foster, Peter Hart and Paul Bew. Where Ireland and England are concerned, BICO (along with the more traditional Roger Casement Foundation) reckons Casement to be a model of anti-English policy and prescience and he has become their icon. Sadly they have also felt obliged to believe in and argue the forgery theory, which leaves their key concurrences with Casement on Home Rule and the 1st World War looking dotty.
The book’s referencing is exceptional and well presented including, usefully, a list of items consulted in each library or primary source. The author is excellent on names and British titles, which often stump the Irish and the non-academic. It is effectively indexed barring one mistake regarding Millar Gordon (Casement’s Belfast boyfriend).
The indexer is plainly not used to the Presbyterian habit of turning mothers’ maiden names, such as ‘Millar,’ into sons’ Christian names. On close perusal, this reader has only noticed half a dozen errors or misapprehensions in perhaps 25,000 facts, which is amazing given such an enormous number. Other authors should be envious.
An interesting fact that contradicts one of Angus Mitchell’s notions is not present. That is that Millar Gordon signed the Ulster Covenant in 1912. This is confirmed through PRONI’s invaluable electronic archive. Mitchell had suggested that Millar most likely became an ardent Nationalist and used his motor cycling skills in the service of the Irish Volunteers.
This discovery is an example of the new electronically searchable archives that are only coming on stream and which can answer questions no researcher would previously have had the resources to discover. It challenges the assertion Mitchell makes in his July History Ireland review that “the archive has played the crucial role in the privileging of a dominant narrative convenient to Anglo-Irish relations.”
One other of the Casement mysteries is not solved in this book, and that is the origin of his mother, Annie Jephson, who was probably a Dublin Protestant yet became, a possibly secret, Catholic early in her marriage. Her background remains obscure, and was deceptively detailed to Casement within the family, yet her reassigned religion was surely significant in the making of his nationalism. His eponymous father also remains somewhat shadowy. He was certainly liberal and seemingly nationally-minded but after he quit the army, jobless and bitter.
Little known, but intriguing facts crop up in the numerous footnotes which can often be the most enthralling part of a biographical history. A good example is when Ó Síocháin reveals that one of Casement’s post-defection Foreign Office trackers was Sir Arthur Nicolson, described by one writer as “a vehement Ulsterman” – although he was Scottish. Married to a Miss Rowan Hamilton (presumably from Killyleagh), he turns out to be the husband of Victoria Sackville West and father of Harold Nicolson MP, himself both gay and a famous diarist.
Literary history, or historical detective work, its poor cousin, is exampled at its recent finest by Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger detailing Shakespeare’s sojourn with Huguenot hatters and the small but discernible influence it had on his plays and his love life. It explains why researching Casement can be so fascinating and fulfilling.
This may well be the last of a very long line of Casement books, certainly until the centenary of the Easter Rising when we can expect a veritable harvest of reprints and new histories. Indeed it is the best in the sense of objective biography.
That 100th anniversary of the Rising will represent a centenary of success where Irish separatism, so effectively argued and developed by Casement, is concerned. 2016 will however be a moment when usually melancholy Unionists, have something to celebrate in that they escaped the grey skies of an Irish Republic for ten decades. But this was to be at a terrible price in terms of a very long war and inordinate casualties.
It remains worth assessing where and how Casement got it so monumentally wrong on the Ulster Protestants and thus failed to fully separate the island.
What is yet to be said after Séamas Ó Síocháin’s biography? All individual Casement themes have been pretty well mined. But the diaries controversy continues unabated, particularly in the pages of the Irish Political Review. So Casement will not be going away.
Mitchell in the conclusion to his review calls for a multi-volume issue of his writings (as done recently for Wolfe Tone). This book stands in admirably for such a multi-volume work. Casement’s writing and correspondence are too extensive. At times an original letter, a holograph copy, a typed transcript and a photocopy are in four different archives! What he next merits is a comprehensive and annotated catalogue.
1. Roger Casement: The Black Diaries – with a Study of his Background, Sexuality, and Irish Political Life . It includes Casement’s never-before-published 1911 diary.
2. One unmentioned change is that the NLI’s key Accession 4902 has now been fully catalogued and renumbered. It can now be found in ‘Roger Casement Additional Papers Collection List No. 103’ in fourteen folders, 36,199-36,212. It includes extensive correspondence with Richard Morten, Francis Cowper, Alice Stopford Green and Gertrude Bannister.
3. PRONI T/3072/9. Lady Constance was the Duke of Argyll’s daughter and sister-in-law of Alfred, Lord Emmott, a Liberal politician and Casement friend.
4. These are the Oliver McMullan papers, which contain part of the lost 1881 Casement Scribbling Book.
5. Actually it was Casement’s CMG medal case of 1905 that he never opened. London had the gall to ask for it back in 1916 but it could not be found before the execution. It is now in the NLI.
6. NLI MS 13073/44/viii. Devoy’s letter was not received by Casement until 19 February 1916.
7. The Gifford sisters who were originally Protestant were Grace (later Plunkett), Muriel (later MacDonagh), Nellie (later Donnelly), and Sydney (later Czira). The first two married signatories of the Easter Rising proclamation and were thus to be widowed. Sydney was resident in America and Nellie visited in 1916, so it is probably these two who saw Devoy.
8. This conversation was reported in a letter from Nina Newman (Casement’s sister) to her cousin Gertrude Parry née Bannister (NLI MS 13075/4).
9. NLI MS 13084
10. Evidence just recently uncovered indicates McGoey survived the war but what he did after supposedly leaving Germany for Ireland in April 1916 remains unknown.
11. F.E. Smith became the 1st Lord Birkenhead in 1919 when appointed Lord Chancellor.
12. NLI MSS 1689 and 1690
13. NLI MS 7946
Jeffrey Dudgeon lives in Belfast and was the winning plaintiff in 1981 at the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg in a case against the British government. This resulted in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland and was the first successful gay human rights case in Europe. His book on Roger Casement is available at amazon.co.uk