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The man who made modern Ireland Roger Casement's ghost still haunts the nation

George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images

George Rinhart/Corbis/Getty Images


April 9, 2024   7 mins

Roger Casement never saw his third Ireland, the country that he helped to birth. That’s probably for the best. He wouldn’t have liked it much. W.B. Yeats conjured him as a ghost, beating on the door. You can’t read a line of Casement’s work without hearing that insistent knock.

Partition and the Civil War would have devastated him. Even the present day would strike him as a grave disappointment. Pointless referenda, an ill-conceived immigration policy, and the surprise resignations of Leo Varadkar and Jeffrey Donaldson (for very different reasons, of course) would serve as a disappointing reminder that the political scene on the island of Ireland is no saner than Westminster’s parliament of damp towels. Still, as Ireland’s new Prime Minister is sworn in today, Casement’s ghost is more than a carping guest. There is a quiet sense of change in Ireland, and there can be no better guide to shifting winds than a man who spent his life riding them.

Who was Roger Casement? You can read his essays and diaries and the various biographical studies and be left none the wiser. There is a great deal of material to sift through, more than for many historical figures, and yet it never quite satisfies. The danger is that Casement becomes more liquid than man. His story can be poured into a vessel of any given shape. He was many things: a protestant Irish nationalist, a homosexual, a bad poet, a humanitarian campaigner, a Catholic convert, a beneficiary of the British Empire and, eventually, its enemy.

The bald facts are these. Casement was born in Dublin in 1864. Orphaned at 12, he grew up in England and Co. Antrim. At the age of 15, his uncle secured him a job as a shipping line clerk, a position that led to his first visit to Africa. He was soon working under Henry Morton Stanley in the Congo, and subsequently took a position in the British Consular Service. A lengthy investigation into the grotesque treatment of the Congolese peoples by Léopold II, who ran the Congo as a personal demesne, resulted in the transfer of the region to the Belgian government and global fame for Casement. He climbed the consular ladder: Santos, Pará, Rio de Janeiro. This period in South America led to a second investigation into cruelty and murder. The victims were the Putumayo Indians and the profiteering murderer was a Peruvian rubber baron, Julio César Arana. Casement was instrumental to the dissolution of Arana’s homicidal little kingdom.

Casement was knighted in 1911. His story up to this point had been extraordinary enough. The British Empire’s cursus honorum had allowed a young man of limited prospects to achieve fame, favour and a fat pension. More importantly, he had done a lot of good. But there was more to do. In the first years of the new century, Casement found a renewed interest in his birthplace. And then came the Great War, and Germany, and a noose in a London prison.

Casement’s first Ireland was born from books and yearning. In 1904, he joined the Gaelic League and set about learning Irish. He stayed at Ardrigh, the fine Belfast home of Francis Bigger, who hosted every nationalist worth knowing. He helped to organise a festival of traditional culture in the Glens of Antrim and ferried the Irish-speaking population of Rathlin Island across so that they could take part in the competitions of music and dance. He attempted to fill out his cheques in Irish and was outraged when the bank refused them. Casement needed a new cause, and Ireland rushed to meet him.

“There can be no better guide to shifting winds of Ireland than a man who spent his life riding them.”

Casement’s Irish turn came in middle age. Although he had spent much of his childhood near Ballymena and showed a keen interest in Irish history as a boy, the enthusiasms and causes of the nationalist movement do not seem to have engaged him as a young man. Perhaps things would have been different if he had remained in Ireland rather than seeking his fortune in foreign climes. The Second Boer War is a case in point. Dublin was consumed by “pro-Boer fever” in the autumn of 1899. As Donal McCracken has observed, for a time the Vierkleur flag became “the emblem of the Irish nationalist movement”. Matters came to a head in December, when a full-blown riot broke out. James Connolly seized a horse-drawn carriage and raced it around Dublin crying “Up the Boers! Up the Republic!” The day only ended when mounted police charged the crowd with drawn swords.

Yet while the Mayor of Kilkenny proposed that two maxim guns (to be christened “Parnell” and “Wolfe Tone”) be sent to the Transvaal, Casement was in Africa, busy gathering intelligence on Boer arms shipments and concocting impractical schemes to disrupt their supply lines. Later, he had a rather different attitude to the war. In his 1913 essay “The Enemy of Peace”, he argued that England’s relations with Germany showed that “the policy of the Boer war is being tried on a vaster scale against Europe”. A deepening commitment to Ireland required all kinds of intellectual realignments.

An excellent new book charts Casement’s conversion to the nationalist cause. Roland Philipps’s Broken Archangel: The Tempestuous Lives of Roger Casement integrates its subject’s successive passions. Casement’s need for action emerges as the unifying factor. Without an all-consuming project on the grandest of scales, he withered. After Africa, Ireland was the natural next step. He distanced himself from the British Empire even as he continued to serve it. Such distancing ranged from the intense monologues for which he became known in nationalist circles to occasional bouts of adolescent peacocking. Philipps notes that Casement refused to wear the pith helmet and linen of the colonial apparatchik while investigating humanitarian outrages in Peru, instead sporting a suit of brown Irish homespun in the appalling heat.

Philipps takes Casement’s sexuality seriously. As recently as 2013, experts have argued that the journals which record various homosexual assignations — the so-called “Black Diaries” — were faked by British intelligence. The diaries were certainly used to discredit Casement after his death, but Philipps has no time for talk of forgery. The results are interesting precisely because the Black Diaries add little to our understanding of the man. Yes, he desired, and was often able to satisfy that desire. But did homosexuality influence his political activity?

Perhaps. He had no wife or children, and so was arguably willing to go further than other men might and to take risks that other men wouldn’t. In The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald concluded that Casement’s sexuality gave him a unique insight into the suffering of others; the sand-worn trope of the homosexual as a hog snouting for injustice rather than truffles. Such connections are entirely speculative. Philipps, quite rightly, avoids using the Black Diaries to make grand assumptions. Instead, Broken Archangel stresses Casement’s kindness, generosity, and charisma. The people who knew him tended to love him.

Casement inhabited his first Ireland until war blocked the interminable, creeping road to Home Rule yet again. He was among those who felt that the time for waiting was over. Frustrated by political dithering and alarmed by the Ulster Volunteer Force’s competing insurrectionist movement, Casement travelled to Germany in late 1914. As Wolfe Tone had done over a century before, he sought the aid of a foreign nation to overpower Britain. Later he would write of “my contemplated Wolfe Tone descent on the coast of Ireland”.

Two years in Germany forced Casement to encounter another Ireland. If his first Ireland reflected his romantic nature, then this second Ireland threw his naivety into sharp relief. His plan to form a Brigade from Irish prisoners of war was frustrated when it became apparent that the POWs didn’t really care for talk of liberty and old Ireland: “Some of them insulted me — but all showed clearly the utter slothful indifference of that type of debauched Irishman to any appeal but to his greed… in a very despondent mood after the revelation of Irish depravity I had witnessed among these 2,200 so-called ‘Irishmen’.”

Only a tiny number ever enlisted, despite inducements of better food, more comfortable lodgings, and guaranteed passage to America should the venture fail. His bookish and abstract speeches, delivered in a cut-glass English accent, found little favour among tired young men who just wanted to get home in one piece. The Germans also let him down. It is bleakly comical to read of Casement’s shock that German interest in Ireland was of a purely military character, and that no one in Berlin gave a fig for Irish freedom one way or the other. His second Ireland was a barren moor, unpeopled and inanimate. It was a place where daylight rendered all of those impassioned midnight conversations ridiculous.

Casement’s return to Ireland shortly before the Easter Rising is now the stuff of legend: the submarine, the lost rifles, the raw morning on Banna Strand. Capture came swiftly, and the subsequent trial for High Treason could have only one outcome. He used the dock to give a final defiant address, and was able to recapture his first Ireland now that he had left action behind and could rely on words once more: “Judicial assassination today is reserved only for one race of the king’s subjects — for Irishmen, for those who cannot forget their allegiance to the realm of Ireland.” He was executed in Pentonville Prison on 3 August 1916.

Who was Roger Casement? That surname is suggestive. A window, sometimes clouded, swinging on its hinge. He was a creature of change, in some ways well-suited to a world that was shaking off the certainties of the 19th century with alarming speed. Even in his last hours, he was adapting. His conversion to Catholicism the evening before his execution foreshadowed broader shifts in Ireland, where protestant nationalists were soon to become rare birds. He did not live to see that change, or the many others that followed in the decades after his death. He died at the height of the conflict that would lame the British Empire, and before the Civil War that would stain his first Ireland forever. If the records of his life never quite satisfy, it is because he was never still, always hurrying off to impose his awkward, admirable dreams elsewhere.

Two statues of Casement have been erected. The first is in Dún Laoghaire, a short stroll from his birthplace at Sandycove. Casement is perched above the sea baths, back turned to Britain, bronze eyes fixed on Dublin and all that lies beyond. The second is at Ballyheigue, Co. Kerry. This statue faces inland too, though Casement’s wrists are bound together, as if the man is trapped by his own memorial. There the two patriots stand, gazing back at one another across a strange new nation. This is Roger Casement’s third Ireland, a country that would strike him as far more foreign than the Congo ever did, a place of both disappointment and opportunity. Knock, knock, knock.


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Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen
1 month ago

Fidelis in Æternum

David McKee
David McKee
1 month ago

Comparisons are always instructive. The latter part of Casement’s life reminds me of the Ukranian nationalist Stepan Bandera. Like Casement, he thought that collaboration with an aggressive foreign power would help his cause.

Only Casement’s ineffectualness allows Mr Poots to be so forgiving of his treason. Bandera’s hands were stained with blood, so Ukrainians are not so inclined to romanticise him.

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

A fascinating man who I have long held an interest in. His actions in the Red Rubber affair likely saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. It is just a shame he ended his life assisting the Enemy in wartime.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

Roger Casement did not make modern Ireland. The Black Diaries add much to our understanding of the man, in that they tell us that, far from having a unique insight into the suffering of others, he sexually exploited vulnerable boys and young men. So he was a hypocrite as well as a traitor.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Unfortunate yet I imagine pretty common. Revolting.

Martin Dunford
Martin Dunford
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Their veracity is still widely disputed. 2016 University of Notre Dame study found that both sides of the argument have serious problems and are not conclusive.
Vargas Llosa who wrote a novel on the life of Casement (and knows a thing or two about him) thought that much of their content described his erotic fantasies rather than actual sexual experiences.

Mike Rees
Mike Rees
1 month ago

Anglo Irish kiddy- fiddler betrays his country to the enemy in wartime in 1916 and swings for it. Any of the belligerents, at that time, would have hanged such a man. Typical elitist romantic snob for whom real Irish people were a terrible disappointment!

Martin Smith
Martin Smith
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Rees

Harsh, perhaps fair. But for balance do you not consider his efforts in Congo and Peru worthy of a mention?

David McKee
David McKee
1 month ago
Reply to  Mike Rees

Subhas Chandra Bose did the same during the second world war, and the Indians named Kolkata Airport after him! It’s a funny old world…
Rather more seriously, it raises a question about the limits of patriotism, and how we deal with it. William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) was hanged; Melita Norwood died peacefully in her bed. To put it mildly, we are not consistent. Might it be a good idea if we were a little more consistent?

Robin Lievesley
Robin Lievesley
1 month ago
Reply to  David McKee

We would be extremely busy today,if we were.

Robert Jones
Robert Jones
1 month ago

Why do you write protestant with a lower case p, but Catholic with an upper case C? Is that religious bigotry?

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago
Reply to  Robert Jones

Both should be capitalized, as “catholic,” with lower-case “c,” is an adjective meaning universal.
“Protestant” with a lower case P isn’t an adjective, particularly since Episcopalians and Lutherans should have all of their protestations out of their system by now. The rest of us are deeply sorry about Guy Fawkes and promise to not sell any more indulgences, but it’s probably time to move on at this point.

Paul Devlin
Paul Devlin
1 month ago
Reply to  Robert Jones

If Alexander Poots is anything, he’ll be a Protestant. He may even be related to Edwin Poots, speaker of the northern assembly and former leader of the DUP

Neiltoo .
Neiltoo .
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

Because, of course, people or their ancestors never change religion!

Robert Jones
Robert Jones
1 month ago
Reply to  Paul Devlin

Edwin Poots sounds like a character from a Dickens novel.

Neiltoo .
Neiltoo .
1 month ago
Reply to  Robert Jones

With a similar world view!

Paul MacDonnell
Paul MacDonnell
1 month ago

Great. Very enjoyable. And an incentive to know more about him.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 month ago

A brave man who went against class and colonialism. He was an Irish man and not a traitor. Or if he was, then all of us were.

Neiltoo .
Neiltoo .
1 month ago

Us?

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago

Modern Ireland was founded by Michael Collins, Winston Churchill, and Eamon De Valera, not Roger Casement.
The first two men were patriots for their respective countries, and indisputably heroic.
The last two were, to be frank, rather vile, albeit for different reasons.

Ray Ward
Ray Ward
1 month ago

STEPHEN Casement?

Andrew Vanbarner
Andrew Vanbarner
1 month ago
Reply to  Ray Ward

* Roger, fixed it.

Geraldine Kelley
Geraldine Kelley
1 month ago

Casement was an embarrassing eegit.

Jeff Dudgeon
Jeff Dudgeon
1 month ago

Casement was an extremely successful Irish separatist and anglophobe. An ardent Irish nationalist from his teenage years in England he was also a classic advanced liberal aided and promoted by London allies.
His homosexuality fitted seamlessly into those views and was probably a partial cause alongside being alienated from his Ulster Protestant family and background. Being gay and interested in men and boys he did not share the standard racism of the time, finding no fault in those he had sex with in all the Atlantic cities he cruised.
His big problem was he trusted his lads even as they betrayed him.
The Black Diaries available on Amazon explain all.

Dr. G Marzanna
Dr. G Marzanna
1 month ago

I once wrote a paper on Casement for a History seminar. I found it sad and mystifying that he did so much good in Congo and South America but failed to understand the complexity of the Irish situation. An interesting life and looks like a good book.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
1 month ago

Mr Poots read a book it seems

Martin Dunford
Martin Dunford
1 month ago

No mention of “The Dream of the Celt” written by Mario Vargas Llosa (the Peruvian Nobel laureate) which involved several years of research in Peru, Carribean, Africa and Ireland and was widely praised as a masterly account of the life of Casement.
Hard to take this article as from an informed source on Casement given that.