Image: City Safari: Roger Casement, Irish Hero

Sir Roger Casement.

When Roger Casement, born in 1864, and one of the greatest Irish heroes in history, was led to the hangman at Pentonville Prison in London in August of 1916, he was accompanied by two Catholic priests, Father James Carey and Dean Timothy Ring of the East London parish of SS Mary and Michael.

Casement, a former knight of the United Kingdom, had just made his first confession to Fr. Carey after a prison conversion to Catholicism. Eyewitness accounts of the day report that Casement’s confession was tearful and that the aura around him was “saintly.” One eyewitness declared that Casement was a saint and that “instead of praying for him we should be praying to him.” 

When Casement’s body was removed from the gallows it was thrown into a pit in the prison yard next to two other prisoners named Kuhn and Robinson. This was the final insult from British authorities, who ignored Casement’s family requests that the body be interred in his beloved Ireland. 

Casement was arrested in Kerry on Good Friday, 1916, for attempting to smuggle weapons from Germany for the famous Easter Rising in April of the same year. Northern Irish Protestant by birth (but secretly baptized Roman Catholic by his mother), he spent many years working for the British Foreign Office (BFO) in Africa and South America where he became known worldwide as a great humanitarian activist and civil rights champion for indigenous peoples.   

Casement’s field work as a freedom fighter brought him to the realization that Ireland was not free, and that as an Irishman he had a duty to advocate for Irish independence. He came to realize, almost by default, that one cannot serve two masters. When he was knighted by the Crown and became Sir Roger Casement, he accepted the honor with embarrassment and hid the medals and regalia of his new status. He later said that he did not quit his salaried position with the BFO because there were people in his life dependent on his financial support.

Casement was a gay man and was sexually promiscuous, a dangerous thing in post- Victorian England. He kept two diaries, the White Diary, which detailed his activist and political exploits on the world stage, and the notorious Black Diaries, which described (in code) his (paid) sexual encounters with young men all over the globe. Needless to say, after his arrest in Kerry on Good Friday, 1916, news of the Black Diary spread and helped to seal his fate. In those dark days, people could not understand how an Irish patriot could also be homosexual.

Jonathan Coleman in his book Rent: Same-Sex Prostitution in Modern Britain, 1885-1957, writes: 

 “When the British disseminated Casement’s “black diaries”—a chronicle of his sexual activity— they successfully dismantled attempts to transform Casement into an Irish martyr. However, the British used Casement’s sexuality not only to label him personally as a pervert, but also to exemplify what Irish independence would look like. Because Casement’s partners were poor, often non-white, and paid, the British were able to construct Casement as especially vicious, one who took advantage of his wealth and position to corrupt and abuse those in his charge. If Ireland’s best and brightest, such as Casement, failed to govern and restrain even their own bodies, how could the Irish expect to govern a just and legitimate independent state? The English successfully utilized Casement’s predilection for same-sex prostitution to further criticize Irish aspirations of  self-governance, and, as had been done in the Dublin Castle Scandal, transformed the sex acts of an individual into a condemnation of an entire national movement.”

In an article on Casement in 2016, The Socialist Review states that “Lord Byron had to flee England in the early 19th century in part because of his homosexual activity, while many wealthy men left Europe to enjoy places with a more liberal and relaxed attitude to sex. For example, the explorer Sir Richard Burton described and enjoyed the many different sexual practices in Africa and the Middle East (his wife back in England was so horrified by his diaries that she burnt them at his death in 1890).

“At the same time the missionaries out in the empire were discovering shocking traditions. Anthropologists estimate that same-sex marriage, usually between a man and a boy, was traditionally practiced in about a third of societies in west and central Africa.”

Image: City Safari: Roger Casement, Irish Hero 2

Book cover of a recent book about Casement, Luminous Traitor: The Just and Daring Life of Roger Casement, by New York writer Martin Duberman.

A recent book about Casement, Luminous Traitor: The Just and Daring Life of Roger Casement, by New York writer Martin Duberman, explores Casement’s activist life in the Congo that won him international recognition for his human rights work.

As the British Consul in Congo, Casement exposed the genocidal exploitation of the peoples of that region in pursuit of rubber and ivory.

Mincing no words, Casement in his damning report said: ‘It is the commonest thing to hear on the Upper Amazon a trader speak of “my Indians” or of “my river”...An Indian tribe once “conquered” becomes the exclusive property of the successful assailant, and this lawless claim is recognised as a right over a widely extended region...Needless to say, it has no sanction in law, whether in Peru or any other of the Republics sharing the sovereignty of the remote forests in which it prevails.’

Casement believed that the best way to secure Irish independence was by getting Germany to assist Ireland in securing its freedom. He spent eighteen months in Germany to gain the support of the German military in the fight for Irish independence.

Ironically, although Casement helped plan the infamous Easter Uprising, he returned to Ireland in an attempt to stop it because getting German military support proved impossible. But it was too late. Casement was charged with treason. His celebrity trial, called The Trial of the Century, attracted worldwide attention.

Throughout his life, Casement had little tolerance for anti-Catholic sentiment. Duberman quotes Casement as he observes an anti-Catholic parade in Ulster: “The Church parade has begun past my windows—heavens, how appalling they look, with their grim Ulster-Hall faces all going down to curse the Pope and damn Home Rule in Kirk and Meeting House and let their God out for one day in the week—[one] poor old man with his teeth broken with the cursing.”

Duberman adds: “Within a few short years, as Ulster’s fierce determination to remain part of Protestant Britain deepens, the more Roger will move away from the Protestantism that typifies the county—and edge toward the  Catholicism that predominates in the ‘disloyal’ rest of Ireland.” 

When I spoke to the author of over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, he told me that he doesn’t expect his Casement biography to sell.

 “I have a feeling the book is not going to get a lot of notice,” Duberman said, “because when I was working on it people were asking me what I was working on, and not a single person knew who Casement was. Americans are notoriously ahistorical, even about American history….You bring up an Irishman and they seem proud of the fact that they’ve never heard of him.” 

Duberman’s work has traditionally focused on world visionaries and human rights leaders, from Paul Robeson, Charles Francis Adams to Howard Zinn (whose book, “A People’s History of the United States” is unfortunately being taught as propaganda in U.S. schools), so it’s no surprise that he hit upon Casement as a worthy object of study.  

 “Casement has always been in the back of my mind as a possible subject for a book but it never got to the forefront of my consciousness until I learned that all of Casement’s diaries were in print,” he said. “That was the nail in the chest because I had long assumed that if any primary source material existed, they would be located in Ireland.”

“Casement,” Duberman emphasizes, “was a true hero. He rescued the indigenous population in two separate parts of the world at the risk of real personal danger. I sometimes wonder why he was never killed.”

Luminous Traitor reaches its dramatic zenith around the time of Casement’s arrest and trial. That’s when world figures came to Casement’s defense: W.E. B. DuBois, George Bernard Shaw, William Butler Yeats, Joseph Conrad, G.K. Chesterton and Beatrice Webb.“Even the Catholic primate Cardinal Michael Logue, an implacable opponent of the {Irish] nationalists, places himself prominently on the side of ‘mercy and charity,’” Duberman writes.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London, Casement had “no visitors, no lawyers, no change of clothing from the sand-caked and filthy garments he was arrested in….His shoelaces and suspenders are removed as a precaution against suicide. The lightbulb burns above his head day and night…”

 “Ireland,” Casement told the judge at his sentencing, “has seen her sons—aye, and her daughters too—suffer from generation to generation always from the same cause, meeting always the same fate, and always at the hands of the same power; and always a fresh generation has passed on to withstand the same oppression…”

Casement’s legacy, however, was overturned in 1965 when his remains were repatriated to the Republic of Ireland. His reburial in Dublin was a highly ceremonial event attracting thousands. In 1965 the UK Cabinet also restored Casement’s knighthood when they referred to him, once again, as Sir Roger Casement.

 “A hanged man was never more popular,” The Guardian newspaper reported in 2016. “One hundred years ago, the British government executed Roger Casement for his participation in a rebellion in Ireland, the Easter Rising of 1916. This year, schoolchildren and tourists by the thousands have visited Casement’s gravesite in Dublin.” 

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