Michael O'Sullivan reviews The Galtee Boy: a Fenian prison narrative by John Sarsfield Casey, Mairead Maume, Patrick Maume, Mary Casey (eds), UCD Classics of Irish History, ISBN 1-904558-22-4, £134.95 €18 pbk
JOHN SARSFIELD Casey (1846-1896) is now a little-known figure in Irish history, though in his lifetime he was at the centre of events in the ongoing struggle to break the connection with England and return the land to the Irish people.
Born in Mitchelstown in north Cork into a family of shopkeepers, Casey was well-educated and articulate. Involvement with the recently formed Irish Republican Brotherhood or Fenians turned him into a political agitator and he became a regular contributor to its newspaper The Irish People, hence the pseudonym 'The Galtee Boy'.
This previously unpublished account of Casey's memoirs begins in September 1865 with the arrest of the Cork Fenians and their subsequent trial and incarceration in Irish and English prisons. Casey himself was sentenced to 5 years penal servitude for treasonous felony. His account finishes in late 1867 when he became one of the final group of prisoners to be transferred to prisons in Australia. Released there in 1870, he returned to Mitchelstown and continued to agitate and organise on behalf of the IRB and Michael Davitt's Land League'until his death from Bright's disease in 1896.
This is not a diary, Casey is writing from recollection. The descriptions nevertheless of prison life are immediate and vivid. The filth and degradation of the cells, the brutality of the warders and the invidious nature of the whole system make compelling reading. What sustains him throughout is unshakeable faith in the rightness of his cause, solidarity with his comrades and a withering contempt for his captors.
Casey was obviously well read in political literature and deeply conscious of the wider significance of the struggle, making continuous reference to European revolutionary figures and texts. His narrative compares favourably with O'Donovan Rossa's Prison Life, (they were in Portland at the same time) and is a welcome addition to the existing corpus of prison literature.
Credit is due to the editors for a lucid text. There are extracts from the newspaper reports of the time and useful pen-portraits of Casey's prison comrades.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2006 Michael O'Sullivan