Sir Roger Casement: the complete story

The Times are running from the Times Literary Supplement a sparkling review by Roy Foster of the new biography “Roger Casement” by Seamus O Siochain. In 1916 Casement became a traitor to his past life as a colonial civil servant and a hero to an Ireland about to be born. The author gives equal weight to Casement’s twin diary projects, his chronicling of colonial brutalities and the Black Diaries. It was horror at the contents, once thought to be British forgeries but long since authenticated, as much as his act of rebellion, that sealed his fate with Edwardian society.

“His experiences in the Congo and the Amazon had begun a long process of disenchantment with the operations of Imperial commerce; they had also provided a network of radical allies working for humanitarian causes. This helped swing his attitude to Britain around to a point on the political compass very distant from Unionist Ballymena.”

Séamas Ó Síocháin
Imperialist, rebel, revolutionary
352pp. The Lilliput Press. 40 euros (£30).“Alas! Poor Peruvian, poor South American Indian! The world thinks the slave trade was killed a century ago! The worst form of slave trade and slavery … worse… than anything African savagery gave birth to, has been in full swing here for three hundred years until the dwindling remnant of a population once numbering millions, is now perishing at the doors of an English Company, under the lash, the chains, the bullet, the machete to give its shareholders a dividend.”

The belief lingered late into the last century that his graphic account of gay life if not forgeries were fantasy. “given the enervating Brazilian climate, “to have one partner [a night] is heroic – five would be downright impossible”.

It was Jeff Dudgeon the hero of the campaign to legalise consenting homosexuality in Northern Ireland who produced the definitive edition of the Black Diaries, neatly conflating his Casement study with one on Mapping 100 years of Gay Life in Belfast.

I pick out for special interest Casement’s path of cultural and political transition.

“From the early 1900s he had been involved in cultural revivalism, notably regarding the Irish language, though he never learned to speak it himself. Even before this, his boyhood in Antrim had infused him with some romantic Gaelicism, apparently shared by some other members of his generally Unionist family, and he saw himself (inaccurately) as “an implacable Celt”.

“Above all, he maintained a close relationship with Francis Bigger, a mother-fixated bachelor antiquarian who organized boys’ nationalist activities in Belfast and designed Irish dance costumes for his “Neophytes”. Parades of budding Republicans passed through Bigger’s house on Cave Hill, “Ardrigh”, fetchingly kitted out in Celtic dress. Casement frequently stayed there, and left incriminating possessions in Bigger’s keeping, which his host later apparently burnt. He was also closely connected with Bulmer Hobson, the Quaker radical who helped revive the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the north from 1904: Casement was involved in circulating anti-recruiting material as early as 1905.”

“An Irish friend, Lady ffrench, thought he was “the strangest person imaginable to come out of Ulster”, but in many ways he fits the archetype of the romantic convert to nationalism, from a marginalized and fragmented background. The kind of nationalism he embraced gave him a new sense of community; a reaction against Ulster Unionism was followed by an even more violent repudiation of the British Empire in which he had once sought his destiny. When accepting his knighthood in 1911, he was uneasily conscious that some of his friends would see it as a betrayal.”

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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