Prelude to the Easter Rising: Sir Roger Casement in Imperial Germany, Reinhard Doerries. (Frank Cass, £21.85) ISBN 0714680702

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 1 (Spring 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

On 28 June 1914, Sir Roger Casement delivered an oration beside Shane O’Neill’s stone, above Cushendun, deep in the Glens of Antrim. It brought to an end six months of recruiting of Irish Volunteers and proved to be his last public address in Ireland. The following day he travelled to Glasgow and from there by boat to New York. As the representative of the provisional committee of the Irish Volunteers, he met with leaders of the Irish-American revolutionary organisations, the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Clan na Gael. At the end of July he celebrated, with John Devoy and Jo McGarrity, news of the success of his plan to run guns into Howth. ‘The Irish here would make me into a Demi God if I let them’, he wrote in a letter to his confidant, Alice Stopford Green, ‘In Phila.[delphia] they have christened me “Robert Emmet”’. A few days later the First World War began.
Declaration of war changed allegiances and alliances. Irishmen had more soul searching to do than most men who chose or chose not to enlist. The undefined voice of the Irish Revolutionary directory decided that Casement should go to Germany as their envoy. The German Ambassador in the US, Count Johann von Bernstorff, wrote letters of introduction to the Imperial Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg. In October Casement left America by the Oskar II. Travelling via Norway, where he escaped an assassination plot, he arrived in Berlin. Apart from a brief visit to the western front, Casement remained in Germany until his return to Ireland aboard the U-19 with his loyal Captain Robert Monteith. Their landing together on the dunes of Banna Strand, on Good Friday, begins any narrative of the events of Easter 1916.
Professor Reinhard Doerries, a diplomatic historian of the Rankean tradition and co-founder of the Intelligence History Study Group, has assembled letters, memoranda, cyphers and diary notes relevant to Casement’s mission in Germany. They come from several archives, most notably the Politisches Archiv of the Austwärtiges Amt (German Foreign Office Archive) in Bonn. Particularly illuminating is the extensive correspondence between Casement and his closest ally in the German Foreign Office, Count Georg von Wedel.
The chronological narrative of documents reveals the slow and complex game of diplomatic negotiations played by Casement as he forced guarantees of Irish independence on to the international agenda. It highlights the tribulations of his efforts to recruit an Irish brigade from captured POWs and how months of frustrating delay led him to a new scheme to have the fifty-five volunteers deployed to fight with the Turks for the liberation of Egypt.
His long, confessional letter to von Wedel of 30 March 1916, written days before he set out on his last adventure, shows how he was eventually forced into a hopeless position by German prevarication. His disillusionment stemmed from the Imperial Foreign Office’s failure to properly commit to Ireland’s revolutionary cause. He also states his view that the planned rising in Ireland was ‘wholly futile at the best, and at the worst something I dreaded to think of’. We may now see Casement’s effort to stop the rising, which he had been so active in nurturing, as the measured view of a militarily doomed venture.
Casement’s close liaison with German intelligence also becomes clear through papers revealing his dealings with figures such as Captain Walter Isendahl, Franz von Papen, and in the US, Wolf von Igel. Other documents divulge how the revolutionary leaders adopted feminine identities in their encrypted exchanges. When writing for Irish Freedom Casement had signed a number of his articles ‘The Poor Old Woman’. In 1914, he addressed a letter to Jo McGarrity ‘Dear Sister’ and signed himself ‘Mary’. This was not, as one recent commentator on the Casement controversy has tried to suggest, some deep urge on Casement’s part to transexualise rebellious activity. The progressive thinking underlying Irish revolutionary thought, in the build up to 1916, deliberately feminised Ireland’s identity in reaction to the male dominated world of John Bull.
The documents also clarify Casement’s response to the press campaign mounted by Britain’s war propaganda machine to discredit his activities, undermine his reputation and ultimately condemn his action in the public mind. Professor Doerries conclusively disproves the niggling accusations, published first in the American press, suggesting that Casement was a ‘paid tool’ of Germany.
The main omission of the work is any significant reference to Casement’s German Diaries (NLI MS 1689/90). It is not obvious, for instance, that from the moment Casement arrived in Germany he knew that he was committing treason and treading a path that could only lead him to the dock. Nevertheless the volume is an immensely valuable contribution to the expanding field of Casement Studies and throws new light on several aspects of Ireland’s most problematic patriot. The narrative gleaned from the documents, when compared to the received notions told in the standard biographies on Casement by Brian Inglis (1974) and Benjamin Reid (1976), reveals how selective and misleading interpretations of Casement’s mission to Germany have been up to now. As Professor Doerries points out: historians working on Ireland are handicapped by the wealth of German documentation that is generally ignored. Certainly interpretations of Casement’s activities in Germany have suffered from a partial reading of the available material.
Until the recent Royal Irish Academy symposium, Casement’s role in the foundation of the Irish state was heading for oblivion. He had been air-brushed out of history as an inconvenient problem more easily forgotten than remembered. His awkward and isolated part in the rising ended on the scaffold, not in the sacrificial cross-fire of the GPO. In November 1915, Jo McGarrity wrote a reassuring letter to Casement: ‘Don’t for one moment think we underestimate the splendid work you have done and the sacrifice you have made’. There are several unsolved riddles still surrounding Casement’s complex and controversial life, but as more documentation is put in the public domain, easier will be the task of the next generation of historians to work out where the truth lies.

Angus Mitchell


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