Casement: Letters from the TLS

In one of my first posts, I discussed Roy Foster’s review of Séamus Ó Síocháin’s biography of Roger Casement, and what it might have told us about modern Ireland’s relationship to Easter 1916 and sexuality. One of the most disreputable parts of the whole Casement issue has been the need many have felt to deny that he was a homosexual, resulting in the denial that the Black Diaries are genuine (some years back, scientific tests as part of a project direct by Professor W.J. McCormack proved beyond reasonable doubt that they were). We should not be surprised, therefore, that Foster’s review has provoked an exchange of letters in the Times Literary Supplement (here and here).

The first, and more serious response, came from Dr Angus Mitchell of the University of Limerick, who has published extensively on Casement, and who has been the most sophisticated modern exponent of the theory that the Black Diaries are forgeries. Mitchell argues that Casement’s real legacy comes from his exposition of the nature of imperialism, and that this discomforts the self-image of the British Establishment, as it did in Casement’s day. “To this day, Casement’s name works mnemonically: a perpetual reminder of imperial criminality, disrupting the sanctity of the national archive, the repository of the nation’s historical identity.” This seems to me to perhaps inflate Casement’s importance somewhat, but to be a reasonable point.

Mitchell rejects Foster’s suggestion that he now accepts the diaries as genuine, instead saying that he accepts “that the diaries are required sources for analysing Casement’s official investigations of 1903, 1910 and 1911.” It is unclear to me precisely what this means, but I take it to mean that no historian should ignore them in future, but instead should compare them to what is indisputably Casement’s work, and then come to a judgment on where interpolations may have been imposed, in order to get a fuller picture of how Casement saw the places and people in which the diaries were written.

Mitchell then broadens the context of the discussion to the debate over revisionism in Irish history, and Foster’s role within it.

In Ireland’s troubled history wars, those who camp with Foster use the Black Diaries for the very same purposes that sexual rumours were circulated at the time of Casement’s trial. They are of interest as instruments of propaganda and as symbols to devalue his humanity to a level of tabloid history and triviality. Foster understands and engages with this controversy not on the level of a detached scholar, but as a polemicist and a gatekeeper.

This seems to me to be very tendentious. Are those who accept the Black Diaries as genuine really only interested in them as a way of devaluing the separatist project for which Casement gave his life? I don’t believe so. Certainly there may be some who wish to smear his character with insinuations of child abuse or sexual imperialism and by extension his politics. But it seems to me that those who take the diaries to be genuine are overwhelmingly trying to treat Casement as a human being rather than as a demi-god in a pantheon of infalliable heroes as was the case among nationalists for so long. Foster is certainly a polemicist, but it seems to me his judgment on the diaries is on empirical grounds. While I would disagree with Mitchell on this issue, I would agree with his concluding argument that the Black Diaries should not be the prism through which all of Casement’s actions are judged. Especially when some of those so harsh on Casement, or Pearse or Connolly are so understanding of men like O’Duffy and other Blueshirts and fascists, and keen to make excuses for them.

If Mitchell offers a nuanced and balanced argument, that of Tim O’Sullivan’s letter is much less convincing. He argues that Casement had made enemies among those oppressing Amerindians in Peru, and that they would have had him under surveillance, and would have used the rampant and blatant homosexuality detailed in the Black Diaries against him at a time and place when homosexuality was illegal. That they did not do so, he insinuates, means that the diaries are forged. He also argues that for Casement to have behaved the way the diaries suggest in such circumstances would have meant he was insane, and that there is plenty of evidence for his sanity, so therefore the diaries cannot be true. “An explanation for the contradiction is that the character who indulged in the wild sexual behaviour was fictitious; compromising sexual material was interpolated into the real diaries which Casement had kept.” This type of argument strikes me as stretching logic well beyond breaking point.

So too it seems Roy Foster, who opens his letter in response with a characteristically witty and biting putdown: “No pleasing some people, especially Casementalists.” Foster says that Mitchell’s own review of Ó Síocháin’s book in History Ireland did not dispute the authenticity of the diaries, says he gave due attention to Casement’s anti-imperialism which he says emerged late in his life, and professes to be at a loss at the references to polemics and gatekeeping. Whereas I regard Mitchell’s letter as nuanced, Foster sees it as “muddled”. His parting shot is worth quoting.

But if he intends to insinuate lack of detachment and tendentiousness, he might look closer to home.

He responds to O’Sullivan’s letter by pointing out that risky sexual behaviour is common in those in prominent positions, and so his argument leaves him unconvinced.

Pleasingly both Mitchell and Foster make clear that homophobia has no part to play in the debate on Casement. But I am still left with the feeling that the refusal to accept the authenticity of the Black Diaries is rooted ultimately in irrationality, and a feeling that their being genuine would be a slur on the character of a national hero, and possibly on the character of the nation itself. It leaves me slightly uneasy.

Advertisements

Tags: ,

10 Responses to “Casement: Letters from the TLS”

  1. Dunne and Crescendo Says:

    I once attended a symposium on Casement at which MItchell and other Casementalists spoke. Mitchell reacted to criticism very defensively buy clearly was not concerned with Casement’s sexuality per se. However many of the audience were; one literally foaming at the mouth shouted that there was no evidence ‘that Casement was a pervert!’

  2. Garibaldy Says:

    Thanks for that story D&C – it’s great. At one level, I find it quite comforting to see some of the old verities hold true for some people in a changing world.

  3. Starkadder Says:

    Garibaldy,

    The Roger Casement Foundation seems to be run by conservative Roman Catholics who object to Casement being gay. They are on record as calling for the diaries to be destroyed after they are “disproved”.

    http://archives.tcm.ie/breakingnews/2006/08/03/story270587.asp

    This strikes me as very insecure-surely if they were confident they were fakes, they wouldn’t need to be destroyed.
    Aslo, Sinn Fein uncritically accepts the RCF thesis, judging by the number of columns in An Phoblacht they give the RCF,with no space for the
    pro-diaries side.

  4. Garibaldy Says:

    Hi Starkadder,

    Thanks for that information. I agree that the calls for the diaries to be destroyed are utterly ridiculous. I am surprised that the Provos give this argument space in their newspaper in this day and age, but I guess it shows the extent to which their supporters remain locked in the traditional narrow and sectarian nationalism, whatever about the liberal language of the upper echelons. I remember that they did not campaign much on the divorce referendum.

  5. Dunne and Crescendo Says:

    To be fair to SF, their gay and lesbian group did run a Roger Casement school during the 1990s and AP/RN did seem to suggest that Casement was a ‘gay republican icon’. I would think the space given to RCF might be because some of the same people are involved with the Aubane society and Irish Political Review who are a bit of an uncritical Provo ginger group now and a lot of their stuff on revisionism gets published in AP/RN. But again I think Eoin O’Broin and others would not only accept, but actually positively promote the idea of Casement as a gay republican.

  6. Garibaldy Says:

    Thanks for that info too D&C. Fair point. I was suprised that they would give the RCF space given that they make much of their pro-gay credentials. Sometimes this gets silly – I don’t read AP much, but one time I did read it I saw an article by O Broin blaming the British for introducing homophobia into Ireland. Which struck me as just bonkers. On the Aubane people in AP, the struggle against revisionism does make for some strange bedfellows. If that isn’t a poor choice of words.

  7. Dunne and Crescendo Says:

    Have you seen the big biography of Casement by Seamus O Siochain (sic possibly)? It seems to be a substantial effort to understand the man in all his complexity, though I’ve only skimmed through it in the shops.

  8. Garibaldy Says:

    I haven’t seen it yet myself D&C to be honest. I am looking forward to doing so. It seems to be really good from what I’ve heard. You seem impressed yourself.

  9. Kevin Mannerings Says:

    Hi Garibaldi,

    Casement seems to be a figure to loathe for some people. They are happy to describe him as a compulsived pederast, as the Unionist gay rights supporter Montgomery Hyde did. Mary Kenny described Casement as a paedophile in the Irish Catholic, and Vincent Browne did the same in Village.

    Back in the 1980’s I went in search of the gay Casement to be proud of, and found a portrait of Casement which does not fit my idea of Gay Pride.
    It turns out Casement’s boyfriend Adler Christiansen was beaten and abused by Casement, who has been described as a sexual predator and a sexual pariah (Daily Telegraph & The Guardian).

    While I was looking for, and not finding, the gay Casement to be proud of, I noticed a funny thing: There are thousands of documents about Casement scattered around the world, and all those suggesting he was a paedophile into sexual exploitation had passed through the hands of
    MI5.

    That made me suspicious, so I started to look at the diaries more closely.
    Would you like some photos of the diaries to put up on your site?

    I went to see them in Kew in 2002. I was very surprised to find some pages have been coated with polyvinyl acetate, which would cover up evidence of bleaching and interpolation.

    My view is that there are forensic tests which could be done which would throw more light on this.

    The idea of a 44 year old man grooming 10 year-olds for sex is not my idea of sexual liberation. Given the track record of Irish Catholicism in this area, I can understand why some are disgusted.

    Apart from his sex life, there is a lot about Casement to be proud of. He was campaigning against rape in the Putumayo, he discusses the sexual politics of rape explicitly in his diaries. Once, he happened on a scene of devastation in the Amazon forests, where the rubber barons had arrived and raped and murdered all before them. The orphaned children were left sick and terrified in the forest, he organised help for them.

    He was much against religious sectarianism: he wanted both Catholic and Protestant involvement in the Putumayo, and it seems he took his Presbyterian girlfriends to mass in Gortahork!

    He went out of his way to meet political opponents from all sides of the Irish conflict, meeting John Redmond and seeking a meeting with Edward Carson.

    All the best

    Kevin Mannerings, Pforzheim
    kevin.manneringsatvr-web.de

  10. Garibaldy Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for this. Good to hear from someone who has actually seen the documents. Certainly Casement was as you say opposed to sectarianism, and the exploitation of indigenous peoples in all ways. I’m interested in what you say about the covering of the pages. I had forgotten about this. Are those pages that refer to his sexual behaviour or other ones? If you email me some photos, I’d be very grateful, and will put them up.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: