Roger Casement was brought up as an Ulster Protestant, and began his career as a loyal(ist) servant of the British Crown. Commissioned in 1903 by the Foreign Office, he investigated atrocities against native workers on Belgian rubber company plantations in the Congo; again, in 1910, he conducted a similar investigation into abuses on Portuguese rubber plantations in the Putamayo region of the Upper Amazon. But Belgium and Portugal were long-standing allies of Britain, and for reasons of Realpolitik both his reports were withheld, and when eventually they appeared, they had been toned down. He was knighted for his services, but long wrangles with the Foreign Office bureaucracy had alienated him from the Imperialist ethos, and he came more and more to identify with the Irish separatist cause. During World War I, he attempted to recruit an insurrectionist unit from Irish prisoners-of-war in Germany. He almost totally failed in this; but returned secretly to Ireland intending to involve himself personally in the 1916 Easter Rising. Soon arrested, he was brought to London and, after a rancorous and controversial trial, he was sentenced to be hanged for treason. The British authorities then came under domestic and international pressure to be mindful of Casement’s earlier humanitarian work and of the great reputation this had earned him in the world, and to commute his sentence. Britain’s response was to circulate photographed pages from Casement’s confiscated diaries: these featured graphic accounts of covert homosexual activity, and support for Casement soon melted away. He was hanged in Pentonville Gaol, London, in May 1916. In 1964, after nearly half-a-century of refusing all requests to do so, the British released his remains for burial in Ireland.
His story does not end there. Two issues remain unresolved, and for the foreseeable future shall continue so. Casement’s express wish was to be buried in his boyhood home country, county Antrim. But, honoured with a State funeral in the independent Ireland he had died for, he was buried in Dublin. He could not be buried where he wished, for Antrim is not in that independent Ireland, but north of the Border in a territory still part of the Union. Whatever one’s feelings about the 1922 partition of Ireland, there is no denying that even in his grave this troubled man exerts a poignant significance. The other issue is Casement’s sexuality: are those fatal passages in the diaries authentic? It’s a question that very much matters to those who cannot countenance a national hero who led so transgressive a secret sexual life. It matters also for reasons of truth.
I use the word ‘transgressive’ here as Casement himself would have felt it. We are talking of a century ago, the Late Victorian and the Edwardian age. (The counsel who led the prosecution at Casement’s trial had 20 years previously prosecuted and convicted Oscar Wilde. This same counsel had been active in Ulster’s violent resistance to Home Rule for Ireland. Irony on irony, hypocrisy on hypocrisy.) In 1972, through the good offices of BBC who had commissioned this play from me, I was given Home Office permission to examine the original diaries themselves. I found in them many Casements in one man, and in him I could see at work a disobedient sexuality not only consistent with his separatist politics but actually catalyzing them. I saw in these homosexual encounters a character who - in passive role and invariably with men of other nation, race or colour - was dramatizing a burning-out of his British self. It would have taken a Casement himself to forge so authoritative an account of this inner journey - or someone else of exactly his cultural background, impressionable politics, and particular sexual persuasion. This radical sexual interpretation, and the historical resonances of Casement’s uncompleted burial, furnish the two main polemical systems of the play.
‘Orthodox’ Casement studies at the time were either simplistically partisan, or diligent but in the homosexual area timid and under-informed. Casement scholarship has advanced in the past 30 years, but, as a recent BBC TV documentary suggests, an holistic Casement is still beyond the experts’ grasp.The play’s production, by John Tydeman, and with Norman Rodway as Casement, was definitive. It ran into some invisible brick wall within Broadcasting House, because of (I quote a letter from them) BBC’s ‘particular difficulties in the matter of Ireland’. In the early 70s, things were very dangerous across the water. Broadcast was delayed for some 18 months. I hope the recording has been preserved: it merits release as a ‘radio classic’. (See bibliography.)