Bulmer Hobson and Roger Casement

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2009), Letters, Letters, Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 17

Sir,

 

75_small_1258218722—Angus Mitchell, reviewing Marnie Hay’s excellent biography of Bulmer Hobson (HI 17.5, Sept./Oct. 2009), remarked that

‘Towards the end of his life Hobson devoted much energy to defending Roger Casement, a fellow warrior in his “moral insurrection”. But in the malicious and confusing media debate that raged over his reputation in the 1950s and ’60s, Hobson’s intimate personal memories of Casement counted for little. He never doubted that the so-called Black Diaries were a dastardly dirty trick conjured up by British state agencies in their long war against advanced nationalist sympathisers.’

This is, of course, distortion and overstatement. Hobson’s view on Casement where his sexuality and the diaries were concerned was well regarded in the Dublin media and taken to be gospel amongst the true believers. But Hobson was not above deception, although it may have been denial.
The portrayal of Casement as a normal, red-blooded male ran unchecked for 40 years until René MacColl’s unflattering biography in 1956. With the publication three years later of The Black Diaries by Peter Singleton Gates and the British government’s grant of access to the diaries later that year to Montgomery Hyde and others, it was ever more necessary. When Dr Letitia Fairfield published her analysis of the sexual content of the diaries in Threshhold, Hobson delivered what he hoped would be a decisive blow providing succour to the beleaguered faithful.
Ada McNeill, his old comrade from the Glens, had just died aged 98. She had taken refuge in 1922 with Bulmer’s mother in Marino near Bangor when the killings and burnings intensified in the Glens, where she later provided a holiday home for him and his two children, Declan and Camilla. She was to be buried under a small Celtic cross in the Church of Ireland graveyard in Cushendun. Around the corner, in a classic Antrim contradiction and under a substantial memorial, lay her Unionist propagandist cousin Ronald McNeill, acting foreign secretary in 1928 and the first and last Lord Cushendun.
In a letter to the Sunday Press on 13 September 1959 Bulmer tried an ambush on Dr Fairfield:

‘She does not know that the lady to whom Casement was engaged to be married when he was a young man died just six weeks ago. Circumstances (mainly financial) in the conventions of that time made it impossible for them to marry but they remained devoted to each other throughout their lives and neither ever thought of marrying anybody else. The few surviving friends who knew of these circumstances felt bound to respect her privacy while she lived.’

The problem with this statement is that it was all untrue. Casement was petrified of Ada’s amorous intentions for she would not take no for an answer. There never was such an engagement. Whether Bulmer had been told otherwise or was just using Ada’s death to deceive is unclear, but Casement’s cousin Gertrude Bannister, for one, had known differently.
He had been obliged to write to her as late as January 1913 about the Ada question, presumably in the hope that Gertrude might caution her. ‘I wish, poor old soul’, he wrote, that ‘she would leave me alone. These repeated invitations to go to meet her are a bit out of place. I have very strong feelings of friendship for her, and good will, and brotherly Irish affection, but I wish she would leave other things out of the reckoning.’
Hobson’s 1959 letter can only be construed as an exercise in dissimulation. Ever loyal to the memory of Casement and determined that it would not be sullied by the homosexuality allegation, he had written in 1924 to Patrick McCartan, protesting: ‘As regards what Gaffney or any other living man says about Roger and vice, I hold it to be the dirtiest bit of English propaganda I ever heard of. I was Roger’s intimate friend from 1902 or 1903 until his death.’ However, Declan Hobson, Bulmer’s son, told me that since his father had shared a tent and, at times, even a bed with Casement and had not been propositioned, let alone assaulted, he felt the stories of homosexuality could not be true. He added that he never had the heart to tell him that it might just have been that Casement didn’t fancy him.

—Yours etc.,
JEFFERY DUDGEON
Belfast

Angus Mitchell’s response:
By deconstructing the history of the Black Diaries it is evident that Jeffrey Dudgeon’s argument belongs to both Phase 2 (1940–65) and Phase 3 (1966–93) of the controversy. His late mentor, the Unionist MP and author of popular history H. Montgomery Hyde—a tireless voice at the intersection of the Houses of Commons, the law, different intelligence agencies and the publishing industry—wrote about Casement in order to defend the reputation of the British legal system, and to inform the public about homosexuality, at a time when there was deep societal prejudice against ‘queers’.
Dudgeon’s argument that those who try to defend Casement’s sexuality are ‘the beleaguered faithful’ is a redundant one, once used by Irish revisionists intent on debunking nationalist approaches to the past. For my position on this, I would refer him to my letter in the Times Literary Supplement (17 October 2008), which is inexplicably unavailable on the paper’s electronic archive.
The use of Casement’s name to liberate the gay consciousness is something all Ireland might take pride in. But this, unfortunately, doesn’t make the diaries genuine. Phase 4 (1994–2009) of the Casement controversy unleashed the arguments that Dudgeon has yet to either recognise or address: the separation of the issue of sexuality from the textual.
In case he still hasn’t yet grasped the subtleties of the position, let me remind him once more. The argument is no longer about Casement’s status as a homosexual. What still concerns me and other non-Irish scholars is the legitimacy of the Black Diaries, which so deliberately map his investigation of atrocities in the Congo and Amazon. I would refer Mr Dudgeon to the recently published volume by the eminent British historian Jordan Goodman, The Devil and Mr Casement (Verso, 2009), which completely discounts the Black Diaries in his scrupulously researched narration of Casement’s investigation of crimes against humanity, undertaken during the years covered in greatest detail by Black Diary entries. Goodman reconstructs a Roger Casement that, I suspect, Mr Dudgeon and many other Irishmen will ignore. The reason for this is simple. Mr Dudgeon suffers from a type of outdated intolerance, which once defined unionist views of Irish nationalists. He may be reassured, however, that the sexual dynamic of Casement’s interpretation is made even more interesting by the increasing likelihood that Bulmer Hobson was right and that the diaries are forged. This will provoke a veritable coming out of the Casement controversy. Post-structuralists, queer theorists and post-colonial critics will meet for a field day of interdisciplinarity. Ireland’s loyal band of positivist historians will remain confused. But that is nothing new. They never understood Casement in the first place. They never wanted to.
In the aftermath of Casement’s treason and execution his supporters and friends had to be extremely careful about what they said about the man. Some Protestant families had sailed a little too close to the wind in their collaboration with Casement, Hobson, Alice Green and Jack White. Their survival depended on falling dutifully back behind the Orange line. The speculative hearsay, gossip and expert opinion that Mr Dudgeon unconvincingly strings together to try and discredit Bulmer Hobson’s defence of Casement merely increases the flatulence of his argument. His approach, anyway, is extraneous to what is now the only issue: why were the diaries forged and why has the cover-up persisted for so long? Answers on a postcard!

—Yours etc.,
ANGUS MITCHELL

'


Copyright © 2017 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568