Roger Casement, 1916 and Modern Ireland

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.


7 Responses to “Roger Casement, 1916 and Modern Ireland”

  1. Turgon Says:

    Firstly congratulations on an excellent blog.
    The issue of 1916 is difficult for unionists. At one level clearly it is the stab in the back etc. However, I suspect a lot of us can see (even if we rarely admit) that decent non terrorist supporting Irish people celebrate it: just as some unionists celebrate the ideals of 1798 and other (such as my self) have a sneaking quiet regard for “There is none King save Christ alone.”

    I guess the problem is that for all the undeniably honourable ideals of some leaders of the ’98 as well as 1916 many of the foot soldiers were probably a bit close to yabba dabba do any Prod/Brit will do. I also wonder which sentiments were used to motivate many of the foot soldiers. Just as had we had war in 1912 I suspect many in the UVF would not have been rallied by explanations about protecting the very beginnings of a pluralist society.

    I think distance from the event allows us to be more analytical but I think also allows people to forget the horror of violent death.

    Anyhow excellent and thought provoking article.


  2. garibaldy Says:


    Thanks for the good wishes. Unionism is rather noticeable by its absence from this article isn’t it? I hadn’t even thought about including unionism in this post until you commented. I do think it’s cheeky of a lot of unionists to complain about 1916 when – as you note – they had threatened war themselves in 1912, and given the fact that the overwhelming majority of Irish votes had gone in favour of Home Rule for decades. But I can understand why they think the way they do. To describe 1916 as terrorism though is something I simply cannot fathom. It was an open uprising by people in uniform. Not even guerilla warfare. If we see it as terrorism, why not the various uprisings against European governments in the 19th century, especially in 1848? It doesn’t hold water for me.

    As to the politics of the 1916 participants, I would be more inclined to see the average person involved as politically conscious rather than baser instincts. I don’t think it can be plausible to view the Irish Citizens’ Army (about 20% of those who turned out) as anything other than socialist. The rest of the Volunteers had a long political apprenticeship over the previous two decades or so in things like the 1898 United Irish Centenary commemorations, the Gaelic League etc. I think they probably were more politically-aware than the average person during the Tan War, and certainly the various terrorists during the Troubles. On a personal note, I’ve always been a 1798 rather than a 1916 person, but a lot of nonsense has been talked about 1916 that needs challenged.

    Finally, had I thought about unionism, I might have brought up Paul Berry. The allegations over his sexuality killed his career stone dead (and I was not sorry to see him go), but then again you have Steven King, though he was never elected. The near total absence of openly gay politicians in NI does suggest that homophobia remains a problem across the political spectrum.

  3. Turgon Says:

    Yes sorry I did go a bit off topic.

    Casement seems to have bee a rather interesting and complex character.

    In terms of Berry, I wonder if his gay episode was used by the DUP to get rid of him in light of his utter uselessness and stupidity (I met him once and was singularly unimpressed).

    Sorry we should stay off unionism: your post on Casement and the rising and the changes in it and Casement’s commemoration is much too good to be dragged down into an orange / green row.

  4. garibaldy Says:

    Not at all Turgon. Debate should go where people want to take it rather than stay within narrow limits, and I was at fault for not considering NI and unionism in a piece of the understanding of Casement and 1916 in Modern Ireland.

    I agree Casement was a fascinating man, and character. There were quite a few people from his class background who got involved in Irish separatism and left politics, but they have been understudied in the overconcentration on Yeats and his circle (most of whom would have benefitted from a good slap). If he’s looked at that way, he might seem less unusual.

    As for Berry. Did they really see him as useless? He was on the media a hell of a lot, and I think they felt he had a good rapport with some of the more extreme elements of their electorate in his neck of the woods. The fact for a while he was the great young hope says a lot. I think I prefer Simon Hamilton.

    Oh, and as the colour of the header is intended to convey, this is a red blog, not a green one. 🙂

  5. Omar Little Says:

    Theres a lot to ponder there Garibaldy. But even say, the Citizen’s Army, are not the 100% socialist, radical force people might imagine. Have you seen Commandant Michael Mallin’s last testament? He explicitly cites Catholicism as part of his reason for fighting and Ireland for him, is expressly Catholic. Connolly implored his wife Lily to convert before his execution.
    As for Turgon, the UVF and ‘pluralism’ there was nothing in the rhetoric of the Ulster Volunteers to suggest that they beleived that they were defending a more equal social order. In fact, backed by the money and power of the Tories, they were the sharp end of an attempt to destroy the Liberal’s first faltering steps towards a welfare state. To use possibly hackneyed language, they were counter-revolutionaries.

  6. garibaldy Says:

    I understand what you’re saying Omar, and agree that Catholicism remained an important part of the personal identity of a lot of ICA people. But I guess the difference I would draw is in what role the majority of them (and the organisation as a body) saw for the Catholic Church and religion generally in political life, and this separates them from much of what came later. I think this also holds true of people like Pearse. After all, IRB men were excommunicated.

  7. Casement: Letters from the TLS « Garibaldy Blog Says:

    […] Letters from the TLS In one of my first posts, I discussed Roy Foster’s review of Séamus Ó Síocháin’s biography of Roger […]

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