Ian McKeane reviews Roger Casement in Death or the Haunting of the Free State by W J Mc Cormack, UCD Press, £15.95 pbk
AFTER HIS conviction and death sentence in a British court in June 1916, Sir Roger Casement’s only hope lay in the activities of his supporters who worked to have his sentence commuted.
At the same time, the British establishment worked to ensure that he would hang by blackening his character in any way possible. This included revealing to many influential people, from the King downwards, certain parts of the content of Casement’s diaries.
These were alleged to prove that he was a practising homosexual and had abused young men while engaged in his humanitarian work when a British diplomat in Africa and South America.
Even as Irish independence was being granted in 1922 sections of the diaries were shown to leaders on the Irish side. Since then, many have come to believe that the diaries were forged by British agents while others hold that they are genuine.
Casement’s remains were returned to Ireland in 1965 but the controversy about the diaries was re-ignited in the 1990s and is still raging with such as Angus Mitchell and Roger Sawyer on opposing sides.
Professor McCormack has waded into the centre of this controversy with a book that is not recommended reading for nationalists of the old school who have a propensity to apoplexy. As the French historian Ernest Renan put it in his Paris lecture of 11 March 1882 entitled What is a Nation? “Forgetfulness or even historical error are essential factors in the creation of a nation, and so the progress of historical study is often a danger for nationality.”
All nations massage their history to some degree of course but Renan gives us early warning of the phenomenon of revisionism and this is a revisionist text.
Professor McCormack traces the origin of the forgery theory to William Maloney’s book The Forged Casement Diaries published in 1936 and takes the argument therein to pieces. He disposes of Maloney then seems to run out of steam and the book shudders to a halt in various appendices which include a useful Casement bibliography.
Evidently there is not a clear conclusion. Perhaps this is because the veracity of the diaries actually does not have any bearing on Casement’s credentials as an Irishman and a nationalist and Professor McCormack, to be fair, does not question these.
Just as the diaries (or the forgeries) were not used in evidence at Casement’s trial -- after all, he was on trial for treason not for homosexuality -- so the controversy does not affect Casement’s place in Irish history.
So, what we are left with here is the demolition of Maloney, the probability that the diaries are genuine for the most part and that they remain the Turin shroud of modern Irish history. Just as forensic examination of that relic fails to explain the phenomenon of Christianity so this book seems not to advance historical understanding very far. Despite Renan’s warning, Irish ‘nationality’ is in little danger from it.
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Copyright © 2002 I. McKeane