Casement’s Black Diaries

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2017), Letters, Uncategorized, Volume 25

Sir,—In a letter concerning when the diaries first came into police hands (HI 24.5, Sept./Oct. 2016), Jeffrey Dudgeon cites Metropolitan Police files distributed at the Royal Irish Academy Casement symposium of 2000. Here two internal police documents refer to the diaries arriving from 50 Ebury Street, London, on Easter Tuesday, 25 April 1916. Dudgeon calls this ‘hard documentary evidence’, implying that we must accept it as definitive. But should we?

In his autobiography The scene changes (1939), the 1916 head of Metropolitan Police Special Branch, Sir Basil Thomson, wrote of the date he first saw the diaries. On page 276 he describes how, according to his very own diary, he first interrogated Casement on 23 April, Easter Sunday, and it was on this day he discovered the diaries. In a letter to the Irish Times of 24 September 1964, H. Montgomery Hyde, a prolific writer and enthusiastic proponent of the diaries’ authenticity, disputed 25 April as the correct date. His argument: ‘I have accepted Thomson’s version because it is based upon his own diary’. So, there is yet more apparently impressive documentary evidence. With it is a stark date contradiction.

Faced with stark contradictions, we are naturally inclined to suspect deceit. Could deceit have emanated from Metropolitan Police Special Branch? Sir Reginald Hall, in 1916 chief of Naval Intelligence, who had worked closely with Thomson regarding Casement, testified under oath in January 1926 that Thomson was of ‘irreproachable character’ (Time magazine, 18 Jan. 1926). Thomson was facing a charge of public indecency in Hyde Park involving a young woman identified as ‘Thelma de Lava—an actress’. Thomson claimed that he was gathering data for a planned book on prostitution and that a policeman had misinterpreted his actions. Thomson and the young woman were convicted and fined.

Could Hall and Thomson have conjured up fake documentary evidence as to when the diaries had been found? After all, had they been subjected to a process of forgery a significant time-span was required—the task being so delicate. By making the time-span in which they held them appear brief, forgery is made to look close to impossible. But Hall, in particular, was a known master of the intelligence game, of which deceit, misdirection and the laying down of false trails is part and parcel. That these men contrived police memoranda to give the impression that the diaries had been found just after Casement’s arrest can plausibly be envisaged.

Context is vital when we attempt to gauge the validity of documentation. If the documents do not fit in cleanly with the known realities of a situation we must adjudge them suspect. Casement’s ‘treachery’ was known worldwide by December 1914. On 30 November 1914 the Carbonate Chronicle, published in Leadville, Colorado, reported:

‘London, Nov. 28th—The London papers print today for the first time, full accounts concerning the reported visit to Berlin recently of Sir Roger Casement, a leader in the Irish National volunteer movement.’

Are we to believe that the authorities, knowing in late 1914 of the ‘treacherous’ activities of a knight of the realm in Germany, and enjoying draconian powers under the Defence of the Realm Act, did nothing beyond twiddling their thumbs?

At the very least we would have expected that they sought out and searched where he had resided. A handwritten statement from Casement’s cousin and confidante Gertrude Parry, dated 10 January 1926, prompted by Sir Basil’s then recent public disgrace and archived in Dublin, paints a far more plausible scenario (MS 11844, NLI):

‘As a matter of fact the trunks left behind by Roger in Ebury Street, were handed over to the police by the landlady at the instigation of another lodger, as soon as Roger went to Germany in 1914. Sir B.T. [Basil Thomson] had the diary in his possession for at least 16 months before Roger’s trial & he had plenty of time to see that it was so doctored as to suit his purpose.’ —Yours etc.,

TIM O’SULLIVAN
Dublin 9

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