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Diarmaid Ferriter: Complex Roger Casement has avoided cancellation so far

Republican’s humanitarianism not obscured by claims of sexual exploitation

Twenty years ago, the American historian Kevin Grant described Roger Casement as “a memory in motion”. Little was settled in relation to this intriguing and complicated Irish republican who was born in Sandycove in 1864 and became a controversial 1916 martyr.

He was celebrated while alive as one of the great humanitarians of his age due to his work in the British diplomatic service exposing the barbaric treatment of natives in the Congo and Amazon by European imperial powers. Despite being knighted in 1911, he devoted himself to Irish republican endeavour, attempted to recruit an Irish brigade from prisoners of war in Germany to fight against Britain, and was arrested after landing from a German submarine on the Irish coast on his way to persuade those organising the 1916 Rising to postpone it until more support could be arranged. After his petition for clemency was rejected, he was hanged at Pentonville Prison and his body was not returned to Ireland until 1965, where he received full honours as an Irish patriot.

The discovery after his arrest of his Black Diaries, containing graphic information on homosexual encounters facilitated a smear campaign that fatally undermined his status. For years, it was maintained they were forged to blacken his name, but, particularly after forensic examination in 2002, they are accepted by most as genuine. The diaries undoubtedly created awkwardness about how he was remembered which meant that until the 1960s his legacy remained in limbo, but by the time of the golden jubilee of the Rising in 1966, with his remains back in Dublin and improved Anglo-Irish relations, the balance had swung back in his favour. Embarrassment and silence around homosexuality was partly solved by Irish governments remaining content for the notorious diaries to remain in London.

Description as pederast

In more recent years, due to focus on his sexual encounters, Casement has been described as both a predatory sex tourist and pederast who exploited teenage boys, but those contentions have also been disputed and he has so far weathered the era of cancellation. The conclusion to Michael Laffan’s account of his life for the Dictionary of Irish Biography holds true: “The diaries have provoked understandable controversy, but this cannot obscure Casement’s importance. He was a humanitarian who fought with bravery and determination against the enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Congo and Amazonia. He was the principal organiser of the Howth gun running, without which the Easter Rising might not have taken place. Despite his attempts to prevent what he believed would be a doomed insurrection, he was also the last victim of the executions that followed the Easter Rising, and thereby became a nationalist martyr.”


The diaries created awkwardness about how he was remembered which meant that until the 1960s his legacy remained in limbo

The impressive and imposing statue of him by Mark Richards unveiled this week at the site of the Dún Laoghaire baths, commissioned by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, brings him right home.

Casement was more than just a 1916 martyr. His descent from consular service and knighthood to traitor and quicklime in Pentonville captivated creative writers, including George Bernard Shaw, poets WB Yeats and Richard Murphy and influenced Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (Casement and Conrad first met in the Belgian Congo in 1890). He was also eventually claimed by gay-rights groups, as he became, in the words of Lucy McDiarmid, “an object lesson in the many forms of patriotism for the new, revisionist Ireland”.

Revolutionary decade

Crucially, Casement’s preoccupation with Irish independence stemmed from what he had witnessed in the Congo and his career is a reminder of the wider context for our revolutionary decade of 1913-1923. The idea of his life as a lens through which searching, global questions could be viewed also influenced Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa in his 2012 novel The Dream of the Celt as he sought to make sense of the public and private worlds of Casement. Llosa suggests many of the diary entries were imagined rather than real, “writing what he hadn’t experienced in order to pretend he had”.

Llosa includes a non-fiction epilogue in which he makes clear his admiration for Casement, but does not sentimentalise or simplify him, concluding: “It’s not a bad thing that a climate of uncertainty hovers over Casement as proof that it is impossible to know definitively a human being.” He certainly succeeds in painting a sensitive portrait of Casement’s personal uncertainties and his struggles with religion, alongside his considerable courage, and lays bare the excesses of the colonial exploitations of rubber plantation workers Casement witnessed: one sadistic officer would “raise them with a chain, tied to a tall tree and then release them to see how their heads split open and their bones broke or their teeth severed their tongues when they fell to the ground”.

The unveiling of the new statue is an important reminder of the motivations, mentalities and labyrinthine inner worlds of those who, in Casement’s words “went a road I knew must lead to the dock”.