Roy Foster’s review of Séamus Ó Síocháin’s new biography of Roger Casement raises interesting issues about modern Ireland’s relationship with Casement’s sexuality and the Easter Rising itself.
Foster comments that:
“Until recently, those ecstatic descriptions of homosexual fondling and penetration in discreet public places throughout the world had to be eliminated from the hagiography of a secular saint. Nowadays, when an about turn in attitudes has made the law on same-sex relations more liberal in Ireland than most European countries (including Britain), Casement’s sainthood can be extended to represent the redemption of a whole new constituency of the once excluded and oppressed. But this approach may be as anachronistic as the most ingenious forgery theories of a half-century ago.”
In these couple of sentences, Foster hits on many of the most important changes that have taken hold in Ireland over the last several decades (and analysed in his Luck and the Irish ). The decline of the Catholic Church, the desacralization of Irish nationalism, and the rapid transition to a secular society in line with the rest of Europe, except on the question of abortion. However, the transformation of Irish nationalism has not meant it has slipped out of existence, as some have assumed as traditional Catholic nationalism waned. The popularity of the government celebrations of the 90th anniversary of the Easter Rising demonstrated that. (I have commented previously on the debates on Irish historical revisionism here .)
So what type of 1916 is being celebrated – and is it an anachronistic view as Foster suggests? The 1916 that people are increasingly thinking about and celebrating today is not the 1916 of blood sacrifice and anti-democratic militarism so beloved of Ruth Dudley Edwards and Eoghan Harris – instead it is presented as a blow for modern, liberal, democratic and secular principles. This was the 1916 described by Mary McAleese in 2006 (even if she couldn’t help emphasising the Catholicism of many of its participants), and it is the 1916 that Foster acknowledges will result in acceptance of Casement’s homosexuality. In fact, it seems not unlikely that far from being a cause of shame and denial among nationalists for much of the twentieth century, Casement’s homosexuality will become a cause for celebration; it will be used as “proof” that the leaders of 1916 were more enlightened than many of their contemporaries and descendants.
This is a view that I have some sympathy with. It is clear that Connolly was easily the most progressive and internationalist political thinker Ireland had seen since the United Irishmen, and that many of the other 1916 leaders also held extremely progressive political views. Pearse’s The Sovereign People represented his final statement on Irish freedom, and is infused with progressive politics, something ignored by those who seek to portray him as a suicidal nutter. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the refusal to face up to Casement’s sexuality spoke volumes about the reactionary nature of extremely significant sections of Irish society.
In modern Ireland then, the acceptance of Casement’s sexuality does speak well of the development of a more secular and liberal society. But at the same time, the tendency in much of Irish society to gloss over, ignore, and bury the nastier and more corrupt elements of politics and society must be resisted. While we celebrate Casement, we must also remember the lessons of Connolly, and seek to replace a social and economic system that abandons those at the bottom to inadequate healthcare, services, and to low paid jobs.