Monday 19 August 2019

Roger Casement: Single minded

Born in Dublin and schooled in Ballymena, Sir Roger Casement had the history of Ireland at his fingers' ends, writes Donal Fallon

Roger Casement, by artist Sarah Purser
Roger Casement, by artist Sarah Purser
Donal Fallon pictured beside a monument on Parnell Square to mark the Rotunda Rink, the place where the Irish Volunteers were formed. Picture: Damien Eagers
Roger Casement
Roger Casement's infamous 'Black Diaries', photographed in 1962
A letter from Roger Casement to Captain Hans Boehm, during Casement's stay in Germany in 1915. Credit: UCD Archives

Of Roger Casement, Bulmer Hobson would recall that "in over 50 years I have met many of the well-known figures of our time. I have known no one who was more single minded, and more unselfishly devoted to the causes he believed in."

Born in Sandycove in Dublin in September 1864, he was the son of Captain Roger Casement, a veteran of the Regiment of Dragoons who had served in the 1842 Afghan campaign. Casement's father would sell his commission in 1848, and biographer Angus Mitchell has noted that "stories relate of how he held strong Fenian sympathies, identified with the Paris communards, and expressed beliefs in the principles of universal republicanism".

By the time Casement was only 13, both of his parents were dead, and from this young age he and his siblings were dependent on supportive relatives such as their uncle John, who lived near Ballycastle, Co Antrim.

Casement was educated at Ballymena Diocesan School, where he excelled as a capable student who developed a keen interest in poetry. But in 1912, when approached by its headmaster for a financial donation, Casement complained of learning little of Ireland there, and outlining a belief that the educational system should be "designed to build up a country from within, by training its youth to know, love and respect their own land before all other lands."

Regardless of school curriculum, his own passions and interests led him to learn all he could of Irish history and culture. Ada MacNeill, a contemporary of the young Casement, remembered walking endlessly among the Glens of Antrim with him, and that "Roger had the history of Ireland at his fingers' ends".

Young Roger's existence was nothing if not nomadic, and from Ulster he was destined for Liverpool, where he secured his first job as a clerk with the Elder Dempster Shipping Company, though as Stephanie Millar has noted, "Office work upset Casement and so he became a purser on board the SS Bonny. It was his short time with Elder Dempster that initiated his consuming love of Africa."

From 1884, Casement was working in the Congo for the International African Association, which has been described as an "anti-slave-trade front group" of the Belgian King Leopold II, who envisioned himself as an Empire builder. In spite of this, Casement would later come to detail the "wholesale oppression and shocking mismanagement" in the Congo on the part of King Leopold, having joined the British Foreign Office and being appointed British Consul in the eastern part of French Congo in August 1901.

Casement's report on King Leopold's gross mishandling of the Congo has been described by Michael Laffan as "a formidable indictment of a system based on oppression and cruelty". Published in 1904, the Casement Report proved crucial in mobilising international forces which ultimately forced Leopold to relinquish personal holdings in the region. Casement would later detail abuses against Putumayo Indians in Peru, and he was awarded a Knighthood in 1911, something which "turned him into an internationally respected figure and a household name throughout the empire".

A member of the Gaelic League from 1904, he became increasingly involved in nationalist life in Ireland in the years that followed. He was present in October 1913 at an important meeting in Antrim, which aimed to mobilise Ulster Protestants against the anti-Home Rule sentiment in the northern province, which was being actively fostered by the Ulster Volunteer Force. Several hundred people listened to him denounce that movement, stating that "the enemy they are being led against is no enemy at all; in very truth he is their own brother." Like Alice Milligan, Captain Jack White and other contemporaries, he demonstrated clearly that there was another Ulster Protestant tradition in the politics of the time.

Much of the discourse around Casement, both within academia and in a broader sense, has centred on the so-called 'Black Diaries', copies of which were circulated during his trial to show "sexual degeneracy" on his part. The contested authenticity of these documents has dominated Casement studies.

Yet beyond this, he is also studied as an important critic of Western imperialism. As Colm Tóibín has noted, "While his bones were laid to rest in Glasnevin in 1965… it is likely that his legacy will remain turbulent and open to debate."

Donal Fallon is an author and historian, currently researching republican commemoration and memory at UCD School of History

Irish Independent

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