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.