Entertainment Festivals

Friday 14 December 2018

Stage: Ghost of Casement still beats at the door

True revolutionary: Roger Casement is being waked in a Kilkenny nightclub next week
True revolutionary: Roger Casement is being waked in a Kilkenny nightclub next week

Maggie Armstrong

Here's another solemn reminder in a year of commemorations: this Wednesday, 100 years ago, Roger Casement was hanged. A group of artists are staging A Wake for Roger Casement in a nightclub as part of Kilkenny Arts Festival. Kooky as the event may sound, it's easy to see Casement as an icon fit for a nightclub.

Of all the 1916 deaths, Casement's feels particularly unfair today. Casement had tried to stop the Rising. But the judge convicted him of treason anyway. When he appealed his sentence of death, they built a flimsy case against him, using certain 'black diaries' to besmirch his name and destroy him.

The 'black diaries' were the leaked private books in which Casement recorded his sexual encounters with men. Some said they were fabricated by political enemies. Most agree on the proof that they were real.

Whether they were Casement's fantasies is a different question. Whether they are really "black" and degenerate - some of the men were actually adolescents - is a can of worms. Whichever way, it wasn't Casement's part in the Rising that got him hanged, it was that he was gay.

Which is a great shame. Of all the martyrs, Casement was a superhero. Never mind the submarine he set off in for the coast of Kerry, arriving shivering wet and malarial on Banna Strand in April 1916 before his untimely capture. He was a human-rights activist before human rights existed - as a British consul, he exposed the slavery, murder and abuse of indigenous people in the Congo and Amazon.

Roger Casement lived his life an outsider, made up of contradictions. English and Irish, Protestant and Catholic, knight and nationalist, humanitarian and poet. And a closet homosexual. Artists will always be intoxicated with curiosity for such a fascinating person.

In 1916, WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw were among the men of letters who wrote pleas for his clemency. The appeal failed: handsome Casement, aged 51, was noosed and hanged.

Another stab to the heart: he was buried in an unmarked grave inside Pentonville prison, his naked body thrown in quicklime.

Yeats wrote a poem that would give you the cold sweats, with the line, "The ghost of Roger Casement/ Is beating at the door." It wasn't until 1965 that the martyr's bones were brought back and buried in Glasnevin.

And so to Kilkenny, where that ghost is still beating at the door. A Wake for Roger Casement is part of this year's Arts Council-funded 'Casement Project' packed with Casementite events - a dance piece, Butterflies and Bones, is still to open in Ireland. At this wake/club night, dance artist Fearghus Ó Conchúir and drag queen Mangina Jones (aka Cian O'Brien, director the Project Arts Centre) are giving Casement the burial rites they feel he deserves, as a martyr not just for Irish freedom but for gay people. "I see him as a hero," says O'Brien.

There will be a eulogy written by journalist Una Mullally, while actress Olwen Fouéré will read from the aforementioned 'black diaries'.

The sought-after Fouéré, of the long pearly white hair and magisterial voice, jumped at doing this project even though she had no time. (She was about to play 'death' in Death at Intervals in Galway when we met). She believes Casement is a "true revolutionary", because his revolution began "within the person".

Fouéré has something of the revolutionary in her, too. Her father, Yann Fouéré, was a Breton activist who came to Ireland in the 1950s escaping a prison sentence, though his work had been peaceful. "He was on the run, just like Casement, for treason," says Fouéré.

As an artist, she says: "I can never accept the formulaic world-view. The various systems we live within. I have a natural tendency to dismantle anything that becomes a system to which you must conform.

''Whether it has to do with growing up a foreigner in Ireland, I don't know. I spent a lot of time trying to become assimilated."

The Fouéré family lived by the sea in Connemara, where Yann Fouéré assumed a false name and farmed lobster. They spoke French and drank cider. "In the fifties, there were really no foreigners in Ireland. You become very aware of not being of Irish descent. And you realise the fact that you don't fit in is a gift of sorts.

"I think that displacement or cultural alienation of any kind works two ways, it makes or breaks you. What it usually makes is a mind that has had to really negotiate a very" - she pauses - "true path."

Upon channelling Roger Casement, Fouéré says she believes "true art" is not about self expression. "True art" is "something that you happen to be in the space to see. It's giving space to that 'other' thing, the elephant in the room, or the ghosts in the room."

Casement's ghost might never find rest but at least he gets a fabulous wake.

A Wake for Roger Casement, Set Theatre, Kilkenny, Friday, August 5 at 11.30pm. Kilkenny Arts Festival. kilkennyarts.ie

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