A Review of Angus Mitchell's Roger Casement: 16 Lives

Author: Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh (NUI Galway)

Angus Mitchell. Roger Casement: 16 Lives. Dublin: The O’Brien Press Dublin, 2013. 414pp.

On March 1, 1965, the bones of Roger Casement, buried in quicklime in the grounds of Pentonville prison after he was hanged for treason in August 1916, were returned to Ireland for reinterment in Glasnevin cemetery. The President of Ireland, Éamon de Valera, rose from his sickbed to welcome home the remains. In a moving graveside address, he called to mind his own brief incarceration in Pentonville in 1917, awaiting release with other republican prisoners:

[…] we were held for a couple of days in Pentonville, and whilst there some of us were able to find our way to the grave of Casement, and I remember well seeing Eoin Mac Néill, as we knelt on the sod, pick up a few blades of grass to keep in memory.[1]

It was a poignant remembrance, not least for the detail on Mac Néill. Casement’s memory had been cherished in a somewhat strange way by mainstream nationalist Ireland in the decades between his execution and the repatriation of his remains. Indeed, even in the remarkably individualist gallery of 1916 leaders and martyrs, Roger Casement had always been something of an outlier. He wasn’t a signatory of the Proclamation and his image did not appear on the borders of the Proclamation as it hung in nationalist schoolrooms. During the fateful week of the Rising, he had not been a participant. He had not been executed in the immediate aftermath of the Rising, like the other leaders. Indeed, in popular memory, his role in the Rising, when acknowledged, concentrated on the sad finale to his attempts to secure significant German aid and arms for the rebels, as he came ashore on “lonely Banna strand”—the popular accounts generally omitting to record that he had journeyed to Ireland with the intention of trying to prevent the Rising.

This is not to say, of course, that Casement was ignored or forgotten after his death: as various scholars (including Angus Mitchell) have pointed out, Casement was more written about in the decades after his death than any of the other leaders or architects of the Rising—in biographies, poems, plays, and journalistic writings.[2] Yet, one can understand Mitchell’s view that he was neglected, if by neglected is meant the absence of a sustained engagement with the full range of his writings and political activity, with the deeper significance or “meaning” of his life and legacy. There was a disproportionate concentration on his sexuality, the controversy over the Black Diaries, and the tragic last chapter of his life as an Irish rebel. The wider significance of his critique of European colonial rivalries and global strategies of control in the pre-1914 years remained under-examined. The past twenty years have seen such “neglect”—if indeed it can be so described—largely remedied; and Angus Mitchell has been in the forefront in the emerging new historiography of Casement and in the reassessment of his historical importance.

For Mitchell, Casement’s fateful epiphanies, as it were, came from 1903 to 1904. In 1903—with almost twenty years behind him of service in commercial, consular, and intelligence-gathering roles in Africa—Casement conducted his investigation and wrote his searing report on the exploitation of natives by the inhumane regime of King Leopold’s mining company in the Congo. But, as he emphasized, “I do not accuse an individual: I accuse a system.” The “system,” as Mitchell describes it,

was really an umbrella-term for the political economy of colonial administration. It included the violent exploitation of the people and the complete disregard for their rights; the appropriation of the land by concessionaire companies who had a semi-official role in the running of the country, the corrupt economic model which allowed for vast amounts of natural resources to hemorrhage from sub-Saharan Africa in exchange for guns and liquor. Above all [Casement’s Report] indicted a system that failed to protect the most basic rights and freedoms of the people (108-9).

It is from 1904 also that Mitchell dates Casement’s intense support of Irish cultural nationalism (notably the centrality of the Irish language to Irish national identity), with the Feis of the Glens in Antrim in June 1904 providing an inspiring vision of what the future might be: a cross-community synergy of enlightened Protestant and Catholic middle-class cultural activism. While this vision would soon be engulfed by divisive sectarian politics in the Home Rule crisis, the Antrim Feis bonded Casement for the next decade with a Belfast circle of cultural and civic activists.

Mitchell’s sympathetic and well-structured study pivots on his presentation of the ideological coherence of Casement’s career and on the essential integrity of, on the one hand, Casement’s humanitarian critique of colonialism in the Congo, the Amazon, and globally, and, on the other, his “reading” of the Irish historical experience since the sixteenth-century conquest and his ultimate arrival at the point of rebellion in the cause of Irish independence. Indeed, Mitchell is in no doubt that Casement came to the conclusion that, to paraphrase Connolly, the cause of Ireland was of a piece with the cause of peoples struggling for their rights against colonial masters throughout the world.

The development of Casement’s understanding of colonial power structures and the crystallizing of his ideas on global human rights and Irish national independence is the spine of Mitchell’s biography. He is not attracted to an exercise in psycho-history. But it is impossible—nor does Mitchell seek—to avoid consideration of his subject’s complex character and personality. Historians—and the reading public—have long identified the many paradoxes of Casement’s life and career. In particular, from his earliest days in Africa to his ill-fated mission to Germany in 1914, Casement’s story is one of secrecy and concealment, punctuated by episodes of dramatic public intervention and advocacy.

Though an effective networker in his serial humanitarian crusades and political causes, there is something ineluctably solitary about him. Family circumstances are relevant here: the youngest of four children, both of whose parents died before Roger was thirteen, resulting in the children being moved from Dublin to be reared by their Antrim cousins from his late teens (and his first employment in Liverpool), Casement led a peripatetic life. His sexuality needing concealment, he formed no stable attachments.

His Antrim circle of friends was warmly supportive, and he was especially close to his Bannister cousins in Liverpool. Casement was fortunate in the unshakable political and personal bonds forged with a small group of peace and humanitarian activists, mainly women, principal among whom was the formidable and utterly loyal Alice Stopford Green. He worked closely with allies in the anti-colonial Congo Reform Association and later in the “democratic control” lobby that opposed the Great War; and his pen (often anonymously) and his purse (always discreetly) were at the disposal of numerous advanced Irish nationalist societies and ventures—newspapers, Irish-language colleges, philanthropic and socially ameliorative initiatives—which would eventually be distilled into the cadre that planned and executed the 1916 Rising.

The solitary and secretive aspect of his personality cannot all be attributed to what, in the moral and legal climate of the day, must have been a pressing need for concealing his homosexuality. He understood how the system of press leaks and briefings worked, and when necessary he was ruthless in practicing the dark arts of those who nowadays would be pejoratively described as “securocrats.” As Mitchell observes, he was “a master of dissimulation” (319). Indeed, his entire career had been spent “operating […] in the shadowy intersection between diplomacy, intelligence-gathering and discreet advocacy […]” (147). Darrell Figgis captured something of this deep solitariness in recounting his observing of Casement, at a meeting in Alice Stopford Green’s London house in mid-1914, looking out on the Thames barges on a grey afternoon: “‘Against this picture, looking outward before the window curtains, stood Roger Casement, a figure of perplexity, and the apparent dejection which he always wore so proudly, as though he had assumed the sorrows of the world’” (198).

Recent scholarship—by, for example, Margaret O’Callaghan and Séamus Ó Síocháin, as well as by Mitchell himself[3]—has plausibly claimed that Casement’s involvement in aggressive Irish nationalist politics after 1913—in the final, accelerating phase of ceaseless political activism from Home Ruler to conspiratorial Irish rebel—was not an abrupt ideological démarche, as his adversaries claimed in 1916 at his trial. His understanding of Irish history, from an early stage, identified Ireland as a “victim” of colonial conquest, with a particular focus on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The sympathy with the underdog that came to inform his view of Ireland’s subjection to the British imperial project (treatment of natives, confiscation, and so on) probably crystallized through his experience and analysis of the oppressive colonial character of European exploitation of the Congo and the Amazon.

Casement’s deepening involvement in projects of Irish cultural nationalism in the decade before 1914 may not have carried any inviolable political logic—after all, he accepted a knighthood as late as 1911. But his political estrangement from the British government’s position on Ireland was becoming increasingly acute. From 1913, with his resignation from the British foreign service, Casement moved decisively  towards more advanced nationalist politics—from crucial involvement in the founding of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913, to the gunrunning of summer 1914, and (via clandestine negotiations in the USA with Irish-American Fenians and German diplomats) to the final, ill-fated mission to Germany to secure support for an Irish rebellion and to raise a volunteer force for such a rebellion from among Irish prisoners of war.

Of this final phase of clandestine plotting for a rebellion, a number of points merit brief notice. Remarkably, given their common Antrim background, Casement shared Eoin Mac Néill’s somewhat naïve admiration for the earnestness shown by the Ulster unionists in establishing the UVF, and the even more naïve appeals to these same earnest Ulstermen to join with the rest of their fellow Irishmen in establishing a Home Rule parliament in which the rights of all Irishmen would be respected. Mac Néill rejoiced that, in terms of militarization, “the North began.” Casement, as late as October 1913 was urging Ulster to take the lead in forging a Home Rule Ireland: “Take over not only the provisional government of a province, but the provisional government of all Ireland, to hold not only Ulster but all Ireland for the Empire.”[4]  This kind of idealism showed little appreciation of the visceral ethno-religious fear of Home Rule that animated the unionists in Ulster. Naïveté also marked the final German odyssey. Casement’s ultimate disillusion with the clearly opportunist and minimal character of the support offered by imperial Germany to the Irish rebels was probably accentuated by the fact that he had long been impressed by Germany’s power and capacity: an admiration that had emerged as far back as his early African years.

On the vexed question of the Black Diaries, Mitchell remains convinced that they were forged, perhaps a minority view among contemporary historians. Whether it matters much, and if so why, remains open to question. On the one hand, in the current climate regarding sexuality and individual freedom, Casement’s sexuality per se is unlikely to affect assessment of his historical significance. But the particular circumstances (the power relationships) in which he chose to satisfy his sexual needs cannot be ignored, not least because of the degree to which Casement’s reputation rests on his fearless championing of human rights.

Mitchell’s final verdict is that, “In his life Casement held a mirror up to western hegemony and asked extremely unsettling questions about power and how both the past and present interact” (372). In the light of the evidence and analysis presented in this admirable contribution to a timely series of studies of the sixteen men executed for their part in the rebellion of 1916, it is difficult to disagree with this assessment.


[1] Maurice Moynihan, ed., Speeches and Statements by Éamon de Valera,1917-1973 (Dublin and New York: St. Martin’s, 1980), 604.

[2] See Lucy McDiarmid, “The Afterlife of Roger Casement,” in Roger Casement in Irish and World History, ed. Mary Daly (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2005), 178-188.

[3] See essays by these scholars in Mary Daly, ed., op. cit. above.

[4] Text of speech delivered 24 October 1913 in Ballymoney (featured during the Roger Casement in Irish and World History symposium, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, May 2000), 41.