Roger Casement in Irish and world history

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

Roger Casement in Irish and world history 1Roger Casement in Irish and world history
Mary E. Daly (ed.)
(Royal Irish Academy, ?30)
ISBN 1904890040
This book comprises the papers delivered at a conference—‘Roger Casement in Irish and World History’—held six years ago in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. Mary E. Daly, in her introduction, begins by alluding to Lucy McDiarmid’s comment that Roger Casement is ‘Ireland’s most remembered martyr’. Daly adds that Casement’s ‘life, death, burials and posthumous reputation have been the subject of poems, plays, novels, folklore, and many biographies and historical works’. McDiarmid, in ‘The afterlife of Roger Casement’, writes that, according to Kerry folklore,

‘Casement’s landing in Ireland has a quality that is religious, magical, otherworldly; the Kerry landing that should have been, the hero who comes out of the water to save the people, the people who give the stranger a grand welcome, and the charismatic landscape that blesses and protects those who love it.’

She also examines a 1937 newspaper controversy surrounding Casement, the reinterment of his remains in Ireland in 1965, and ‘the new, sexy, revisionist Casement of the 1990s’, which meant that his ‘sexuality was moralised, appropriated by journalists for the liberation of the collective Irish psyche from precisely the kind of saintliness Casement had previously embodied’.
A considerable portion of the book is given over to the infamous Black Diaries that have haunted Casement’s reputation since his death. Roger Sawyer carefully critiques the stance of those who deny that the diaries are genuine, while Angus Mitchell bravely defends the view that they were forged. Sawyer is nonetheless happy to conclude that both the Black Diaries and the White Diaries ‘take us into the mind of the bravest, most selfless and practical humanitarian of the Edwardian age’. Mitchell, however, cannot find any

‘authoritative arguments establishing why Casement would have written a set of secret diaries that have so effectively written him out of history, condemned him to the eternal torment of an insoluble sexual discussion and banished him until the last decade to the “unspeakable fringes”.’

As well as listing and discussing ‘further matters demanding careful consideration in deciding the veracity of the diaries’, Mitchell argues that the ‘crusade to unravel the deeper truth about Casement . . . will end with the publication of a multi-volume work of his writings that might sit beside the contested diaries and enable readers to judge if both narratives can be sustained as authentic’. Also included are the results and review of an examination of the contested diaries carried out by Dr Audrey Giles at the behest of W. J. McCormack, and Peter Bower, a paper history expert, concludes in his published report that concerning both ‘the paper and bindings: there is nothing out of period for any of these five books’.
Casement’s humanitarian work is well covered in this volume. Jules Marchal examines his work on behalf of the Congolese natives, offering revealing anecdotes about his subject:

‘. . . he was always accompanied by a big bulldog who broke the neck of the goats and chickens he could catch, for which Casement paid the claimed compensation. He travelled second class to protest against the excessive railway fares and always sat between the blacks.’

John Hemming analyses his Putumayo investigation, admitting that he had ‘been on an international team enquiring into the treatment of Amazonian Indians, sent by the same Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society that had supported [Walt] Hardenburg and Casement’, and his admiration for Casement is clear when he reveals that ‘equatorial Amazonia is an enervating place: night falls at six every evening and it must have taken great willpower and stamina for Casement to write his voluminous notes and journal after each day of such gruelling activity’.
Séamus Ó Síocháin’s essay on how land and agriculture, the defence of the underdog and a critique of empire informed Casement’s thoughts and actions usefully shows how each of these themes was rooted in his youth, drew ‘on his later Irish experience, and was affected and developed by his experiences outside Ireland’. Andrew Porter offers us a challenging portrait of Casement, choosing not to see him as ‘an obviously systematic thinker’, decrying the fact that he didn’t write a ‘book of lasting importance’ but viewing his achievement as ‘perhaps of a rather different, more prosaic, but nonetheless significant kind’. Porter sees Casement operating instead ‘at the intersection of governments, business, humanitarian campaigners and missions . . . pulled in different directions, sensitive to the contributions each might make, constantly frustrated by the clashing objectives of different interest groups’.
Michael Laffan writes engagingly of Casement’s complex relationship with the Irish Volunteers, finding ‘something almost touching in the childish pride with which he reported his achievements and the praise that he received’ during his national recruitment tour in 1914, but highlighting also the ‘naïve and uninformed views’ that Casement held until his death in August 1916 about the possibility of linking the Irish Volunteers with the Ulster Volunteers.
Christopher Andrew contributes a highly informative piece on the involvement of British Intelligence with the Casement case, which took the form of intelligence surveillance of his activities between 1914 and his capture in April 1916, interrogation by special branch, naval intelligence and MI5 after his arrest, employing the Black Diaries to undermine the campaign for clemency prior to his execution, and the reviewing of all Casement correspondence relating to Germany by MI5 after the First World War.
Margaret O’Callaghan convincingly argues that the two poetry notebooks written by Casement ‘as a young man in Antrim (long before his departure for Africa) need to be put at the centre of his story’ since his capacity to view ‘the Congo in 1903 with what were specifically “Irish eyes” lay in those Antrim Glens, where he had learnt to see “with the eyes of a people once hunted themselves” ’. Martin Mansergh suggests that Irish foreign policy at its best ‘follows in a straight line from Casement’s activities, and I think it would be legitimate to co-opt him as a forerunner of Ireland’s independent foreign policy tradition’.
Three articles deal specifically with various aspects of Casement’s court appearances. Frank Callanan writes that Casement had experienced his trial and appeal as occasions of personal humiliation, finding ‘his enforced passivity apart from his two interventions exasperating, disorientating and a little weird’. Conor Gearty points out that, whereas Casement was tried in a civil court, ‘a total of 183 civilians were tried by courts-martial for their alleged involvement in the [1916] rebellion, with the death sentence being passed on 90 prisoners’. Finally, Owen Dudley Edwards discusses the close links between law and politics that permeated the Casement trial in London.
This book constitutes a welcome addition to the growing body of material exploring Casement’s legacy, and will hopefully act as a stimulus for further research on one of Ireland’s most complex historical figures.
Frank Bouchier-Hayes

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