The Ghost of Roger Casement

In 1890 Józef Korzeniowski, a Polish sailor, was appointed by a Belgian trading company to travel to King Leopold II’s private African colony, the Congo Free State. The horrors he witnessed on his journey up the Congo river stayed with him long after he left Africa, and would later inspire his famous novella, Heart of Darkness, written under the nom de plume Joseph Conrad.

Yet while Conrad’s masterpiece was inspired by his first-hand experiences in the Congo, he found inspiration in another man, too. When his boat was delayed for fifteen days at Matadi, a port near the mouth of the Congo river, the Pole met an Irishman who would leave a lasting impression on him. Many years later, Conrad would write of this meeting, “I am only a wretched novelist inventing wretched stories, and not even up to that miserable game… He could tell you things! Things I have tried to forget, things I never did know. He had as many years in Africa as I had months — almost”[1].

An Illustration of Casement in the Congo.

The Irishman that Conrad met in Matadi who had witnessed the unspeakable, who Conrad has seen walk into the jungle and return some months later “a little leaner, a little browner […] and quietly serene as though he had been for a stroll in the park” [2] was Roger Casement.

Casement was born in Sandycove, a suburb of Dublin, in 1864, to Captain Roger Casement, a solider in the British army born to a wealthy Belfast Family, and Anne Jephson, a Dublin Anglican. The epitome of the Ango-Irish gentleman, Casement began working in the Congo in 1884 at the age of eighteen, as part of the International African Association led by Henry Morton Stanley (whose immortal words, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’, had been uttered some ten years earlier). The International African Association quickly became recognised as a front for Leopold II’s expansionist, colonialist intentions within the Congo, and it had disintegrated within a year of Casement’s arrival in the country. However, he remained in Africa, joining the Foreign Office as British Consul for the French Congo in 1901. In 1903 the British government commissioned him to undertake an investigation into the rumours of human rights violations in Leopold II’s colony. After an extensive research trip conducted on Leopold II’s rubber plantations, The Casement Report was published in 1904. An explosive 60 page document detailing the horrific abuse and torture of the plantations’ indigenous workers, the report played a central role in the wrestling of the Congo Free State from the hands of Leopold II by the Belgian Parliament, and the formation of the Belgian Congo.

Casement in Putumayo.

Following the publication of The Casement Report, and building upon the issues of the unfettered control of land by corporations, trading companies and private individuals that his work in the Congo had exposed, Casement travelled to South America in 1906. Over the ensuing five years, he worked tirelessly to expose the violations of the Peruvian Amazon Company, which forced the indigenous Putumayo Indians into unpaid labour harvesting rubber plants deep in the Amazon rainforest. In 1911, The Putumayo Report exposed the brutal violence used to enslave the plantation workers, and Casement was knighted for his humanitarian work.

If Sir Roger Casement had been an Englishman, his work in the Congo and Peru would undoubtedly be celebrated today, and he would be heralded as a figurehead of Britain’s genteel interventions in the swirling colonial morass of the early 20th Century. If he had been heterosexual, we might hear his name among the roster of Ireland’s great heroes. Because he was neither, his legacy has become sullied, his name half-forgotten — a hero claimed by no one. It is what happened upon his return from Peru that sealed this fate.

Roger David Casement.

Casement’s first forays into the Irish independence movement began in 1904, upon his return from the Congo to Ireland. He first joined the Conradh na Gaeilge — the Gaelic League — an organisation founded to promote the use of the Irish language which, though ostensibly a cultural rather than political organisation, would see many of its founders play key roles in the formation of the Irish Republic (such as Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of the Irish Volunteers, and Douglas Hyde, who would go on to become the first President of Ireland). Resistant to the growing call for Home Rule in Ireland (self-governance within the United Kingdom), Casement instead became interested in true independence for Ireland, and joined Sinn Féin in 1905. Thus, by the time he returned from Peru in 1911 and received the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George from King George V, his role in British government was already at odds with his allegiance to Ireland.

In 1913 Casement retired from the British Consulate, and founded the Irish Volunteers with his Conradh na Gaeilge compatriot, Eoin MacNeill. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Casement became increasingly involved in securing both weapons and international financing for the growing independence movement, often travelling in disguise. In Germany, he attempted to negotiate the release of Irish prisoners of war on the condition that they fight not for Britain upon their release, but for Ireland. Though this mission was largely unsuccessful, he did secure a supply of 20,000 rifles and ten machine guns. On Friday 21st April 1916, three days before the fateful Easter Rising on 24th April, a German submarine delivered Casement to Banna Strand in Co. Kerry on the west coast of Ireland. However, information of his landing site had been intercepted, and he was promptly arrested, charged with treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown. Casement was transported to England.

In the days following the Easter Rising on 24th April, and the executions of its leaders Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh and Thomas Clarke on 3rd May, Joseph Plunkett, William Pearse, Edward Daly and Michael O’Hanrahan on 4th May, John MacBride on 5th May, Éamonn Ceannt, Michael Mallin, Seán Heuston and Con Colbert on 8th May, and James Connolly and Sean MacDiarmada on 12th May, support began to grow for the Rising, and the Republican sentiment behind it. Connolly’s gruesome execution, in particular, swayed public sentiment: too seriously injured to stand following the failure of the Rising, he was tied to a chair in the yard of Kilmainham Gaol to face his firing squad. It was as a result of this shifting of public support towards the organisers of the Rising, and the independence movement, that lead to early public support for Casement, with calls for clemency ringing out from influential figures, both British and Irish (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Casement’s old friend from the Congo, Joseph Conrad). However, the British government had an ace up their sleeve — one that ultimately sealed Casement’s fate. During his trial, they leaked his personal diaries that revealed a shocking secret in unequivocal and explicit detail: Sir Roger Casement was homosexual. Though the case against him hung on whether he had committed treason or not (the phrase “hanged on a comma” was coined by Casement after the court debated and sought to manipulate the grammatical content of Britain’s ancient anti-treason laws to fit the case against him), and not on his sexuality, the revelation destroyed public support for Casement. On 29th June, 1916, he was sentenced to death. Following his conviction, Casement made an impassioned speech from the dock, which tethered his support for the Irish Republican cause to his earlier human rights work:

In Ireland alone, in this twentieth century, is loyalty held to be a crime. If loyalty be something less than love and more than law, then we have had enough of such loyalty for Ireland and Irishmen. If we are to be indicted as criminals, to be shot as murderers, to be imprisoned as convicts, because our offence is that we love Ireland more than we value our lives, then I do not know what virtue resides in any offer of self-government held out to brave men on such terms. Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth, a thing no more to be doled out to us, or withheld from us, by another people than the right to life itself — than the right to feel the sun, or smell the flowers, or to love our kind. It is only from the convict these things are withheld, for crime committed and proven and Ireland, that has wronged no man, has injured no land, that has sought no dominion over others — Ireland is being treated today among the nations of the world as if she were a convicted criminal. If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel, and shall cling to my “rebellion” with the last drop of my blood. If there be no right of rebellion against the state of things that no savage tribe would endure without resistance, then I am sure that it is better for men to fight and die without right than to live in such a state of right as this. Where all your rights have become only an accumulated wrong, where men must beg with bated breath for leave to subsist in their own land, to think their own thoughts, to sing their own songs, to gather the fruits of their own labours, and, even while they beg, to see things inexorably withdrawn from them — then, surely, it is a braver, a saner and truer thing to be a rebel, in act and in deed, against such circumstances as these, than to tamely accept it, as the natural lot of men. [3]
Casement in the dock.

Having been stripped of his Knighthood, Roger Casement was hanged on 3rd August 1916 at Pentonville Prison, before being buried in quicklime without a coffin, in order to speed up the process of decay. For decades he lay there, rejected by the British, who viewed him as a traitor, and unclaimed by the Irish, whose cult of hero worship amongst Republican martyrs so valued heterosexuality. Indeed, there are many still who will deny that Casement was gay. The Back Diaries have frequently been posited as potential forgeries, with many arguing that they were created to destroy the pubic support for Casement. William Butler Yeats, in his 1937 poem, Roger Casement, wrote that “They turned a trick by forgery / And blackened his good name.” Though Jeffrey Dudgeon’s 2002 book Roger Casement: The Black Diaries, with a study of his background, sexuality and Irish political life not only presents the 1911 Black Diary for the first time (previously unpublished due to its explicit nature), but also presents a detailed case for its authenticity, and highlights other examples of Casement’s writing which reveal him to be a sexually active gay man, an insistence persists, particularly in Ireland, that the suggestion that Roger Casement was gay is slanderous. Indeed, in 2013, The O’Brien Press published a series of books entitled 16 Lives, each a biography of one of the 16 men executed for their role in the Easter Rising. 16 Lives: Roger Casement, begins with a preface from its author, Angus Mitchell, that “[his] own scholarship preceding the publication of this book has argued that the Black Diaries are indeed forgeries and [the book will] build on that over-arching argument” [4]. The 16 Lives series was published as part of the Centenary celebration of the Easter Rising. Ireland has changed beyond all recognition in the last hundred years — she is no longer a subject of British oppression, nor does the church hold her citizens in the vice-like grip it has for much on the 20th Century. In May 2015 Ireland became the first country to introduce marriage equality by popular vote, and in July 2015 introduced one of the most liberal trans laws in the world — allowing people to change their legal gender based purely on self-identifiction. This is not the Ireland that Casement was born into 149 years ago, and yet, for many, celebrating him as an Irish hero comes with the clause of denying his sexuality.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that Casement was gay. Dip into the Black Diaries and you’ll quickly learn that his particular interest was younger, very well-endowed men. Essentially, he was a size queen. The consistency of this readable hunger and desire in a vernacular that would not have been part of wider parlance in 1916 speaks to an authenticity that would not have been necessary if the diaries were forged. Would a forger list the measurement of each cock, or the direction of its curve? Would a forger detail bulges seen in streets and on park benches? Without a doubt, these are the writings of a gay man, transcribed as though the act of doing so were itself part of a kink. If Casement wasn’t gay, then whoever wrote the Black Diaries was.

But even if we must discount the diaries as primary evidence, so much of Casement’s poetry speaks of both his fears and desire. They are full of arousal and shame, and the notion (or perhaps hope) that the sin of homosexuality might be viewed as sacred. One in particular, written in 1899, underlines this theme:

Were it not that the lowliest act can be
Stripped of unworthiness by love, and made
One tiny wave of a heaven reflecting sea… [5]

The voice that emerges from Casement’s poetry is a man who longs to love freely and publicly, without shame or fear of punishment, but who knows such a thing is never possible, and so chooses to live as freely as he can, within the strict confines of Irish society. Painfully, tragically, it is for Ireland’s freedom that he died, despite knowing that Ireland would never offer him his.

It is now one hundred years to the week that Roger Casement was executed. In 1965 what remained of his body was repatriated to Ireland, and now lies in Glasnevin Cemetery. Some interest in Casement as an LGBTQ figure is beginning to build, following events at BFI Flare: London LGBT Film Festival and GAZE International LGBT Film Festival Dublin, as well as The Casement Project, a contemporary dance piece exploring the relationship between Casement’s corpse and the queer national body of Ireland. Plans for a biopic written by John Banville and directed by Neill Jordan were discussed, but never came to fruition. His story remains largely untold. It is time that we celebrate Casement for who he was, and embrace the entirety of his identity: a champion of human rights, a passionate fighter for Irish independence, and a sexually active gay man. In terms of the last of these characteristics, it is time that we celebrate him not in spite of this, but because of it. For too long, Casement has been resigned by generations past to the back benches of Irish history, but for those that know it, the story of is life and death is haunting and unforgettable — he is a spectre of injustice and lost potential.

In 1936 William Butler Yeats, old friend of Casement from the Conradh na Gaeilge, wrote:

Draw round, beloved and bitter men,
Draw round and raise a shout;
The ghost of Roger Casement
Is beating on the door.

It’s time we let him in.

Sir Roger Casement who laid down his life for Ireland August 3, 1916

[1] Colm Tóibín, Love in a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodovar (London: Picador, 2002), 90.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Roger Casement’s Speech from the Dock,” New Statesman.

[4] Angus Mitchell, 16 Lives: Roger Casement (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2013), 18.

[5] Jeffrey Dudgeon, Roger Casement: The Black Diaries, with a study of his background, sexuality and Irish political life (Belfast Press: Belfast, 2002), 598.