Casement: The What and Why of Commemoration in 2016

Author: Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh (NUI Galway)

It is unlikely that historians will be shocked by the forecast that “many 1916s” will be commemorated during the centenary year of 2016. This forecast does not refer exclusively to the obviously politically sensitive issue (sensitive for Northern Ireland’s stability and for stable north-south relations) of having the Easter Rising of 1916 and the battle of the Somme of July 1916 suitably marked as, in a sense, “foundation sacrifice” dates for the two states in Ireland. The British and Irish governments, it may be assumed, will be anxious to observe a form of mutual acknowledgment and respect with regard to these critical anniversaries, to soften their significance as key references for mutually exclusive and essentialist versions of identity—Irish and British.

However, it is not only the Rising and the Somme as foundation dates that will provide a plurality of “1916s” for commemoration. What needs acknowledgment is a more general characteristic of the commemoration of major historical events—that is, the plurality of perspectives, “meanings” and emphases that mark such commemorations. We will consider further below some of these more general issues pertaining to the commemoration of significant historical figures and events. But it is worth noting at the outset that the question of multiple perspectives’ being focused on such events applies with particular force to the life, work, and legacy of the man with whom this seminar in Tralee is principally concerned—Roger Casement.[1]

It is not necessary to recite here the details of Casement’s life.[2] My observations and remarks on Casement’s life and work will be confined to a few pivotal points in his career, the significance and consequences of which remain the subject of continuing debate. But, first, may I be permitted a brief personal note—a digression—on my own early teenage curiosity in the later 1950s regarding Casement and his reputation. At the Fleadh Cheoil in Dungarvan in 1957, I first heard the ballad of Banna Strand, sung (in the Men’s Senior Ballad Competition) by a member of the Pipers Club from Dublin. It made an immediate impression. Shortly afterwards, as I recall, Dr. Herbert Mackey (a life-long champion of Casement) came to my home city of Limerick to give a public lecture on Casement.

Dr. Mackey’s lecture, delivered, as I recall, at several venues throughout Ireland, was part of the latest flurry of activity in Casement-related public debate that sporadically erupted in Ireland from the 1920s, generally prompted by a new publication on aspects of his life and work. This had been the case in the 1930s following the publication of William Maloney’s controversial The Forged Casement Diaries (1936). The 1950s saw the publication of several works that were either hostile to Casement—as was the case with René MacColl’s Roger Casement: A New Judgement (1956)—or otherwise damaging to his reputation (the continuing interventions, for example, of the Unionist M.P., H. Montgomery Hyde, during the 1950s advocating the decriminalization of homosexual acts, for which he deployed the case of Casement and a commentary on his trial).

A more favorable—not to say adulatory—profile appeared in 1957 in The Accusing Ghost, or Justice for Roger Casement, by Alfred Noyes: he had initially endorsed the infamous diary, then recanted in 1937 and now produced a work steeped in repentance. Herbert Mackey’s firm defense of Casement must be seen in this context of partisan writing. The strong focus on Casement was further facilitated by a renewed burst of anti-Partitionist propaganda by the Dublin government in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the Ulster upbringing of Casement ensuring that his “patriotic” sacrifice would be given consistent prominence.

What needs particular emphasis is the dominant version of Casement—and his legacy—that featured in the rhetoric and official pronouncements of successive Irish governments and, indeed, in the organs of opinion of mainstream nationalist Ireland. This version highlighted the treachery of the British government in resorting to the dark arts of forgery in order to blacken the reputation of an honorable Irish patriot—to secure his execution and to leave his reputation besmirched even after death. The constant refrain—and objective—of Irish nationalist commentary was the need to vindicate Casement’s reputation as a selfless patriot and man of honor. This meant insisting on denouncing the infamous “black diary” as a wicked forgery, composed and disseminated (selectively and surreptitiously) by a ruthless government in order to “bring down” an honorable Irish patriot. To compound the injustice, there was the shameful burial of Casement in a prison yard, a further wrong that demanded remedy: Casement’s remains must be repatriated for burial in Ireland.

Casement’s international humanitarian witness and exertions were dutifully acknowledged by biographers, but the full complexity of his character (including his sexuality) and of the manner in which he was enmeshed in the murky world of British intelligence and counter-insurgency operations in the years preceding and during the First World War was not closely interrogated, not least because access to relevant source material remained very restricted. Significantly, the matter of Casement’s sexuality, per se, was not present in the version of the man to whose memory nationalist Ireland paid official tribute. In private correspondence, some of Casement’s more illustrious defenders (such as Yeats) may have expressed indifference as to the issue of his sexuality, but the public commentary on him in nationalist Ireland simply avoided the issue, engrossed as it was in its denunciation of forged diaries.

The nationalist consensus was expressed with moving clarity on March 1, 1965, when Casement’s remains—finally returned by the British government—were interred in Glasnevin cemetery following a state funeral. On a bitterly cold day, the aging President, Éamon de Valera, gave an oration at the graveside. Saluting the dead patriot, he encapsulated the dominant nationalist case for honoring Casement. It merits extensive, if selective, quotation:

Casement was of Ulster stock and he loved the province of Ulster particularly, although he loved every inch of this country. He loved the province of Ulster because of the part the people of Ulster had played throughout Ireland’s history, and he loved it also because he knew that each one of us, next to his own native province, loves that province best. […]

This grave, like the graves of the other patriots who lie in this cemetery […] will become a place of pilgrimage to which our young people will come and get renewed inspiration and renewed determination that they also will do everything that in them lies so that this nation which has been one in the past will be one again in the future by the cooperation of its people and their loving rivalry to make this land worthy of all the sacrifices that have been made for it in the past.

[…] If there had been no 1916 and there had been no European war of 1914, the man whose bones lie here would deserve to be honoured and revered. He would deserve to be honoured for the noble part he played in exposing the atrocities in the Congo, for his championship of the downtrodden people there and for his championship in the same way of the people who were subject to the atrocities of the vilest type in Putamayo. It required courage to do what Casement did, and his name would be honoured, not merely here, but by oppressed peoples everywhere, even had he done nothing for the freedom of our own country.

[…] I ask, then, each one you, when you pray for the eternal repose of his soul, to pray that you will be true to the end to noble ideals as he was. But every one of us must believe, and I do not think it presumption on our part to believe, that a man who was so unselfish, who worked so hard for the downtrodden and the oppressed and who so died, that that man is in heaven with, I hope, all the other Irishmen who have given their lives for our country.[3]

From the later 1960s, the climate—ideological and moral—in which Casement’s reputation was reassessed was changing, and it continued to change in the decades that followed, into the new millennium. The outbreak and increasing violence of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland unsettled nationalist attitudes (and successive governments) in the Republic, regarding “armed struggle” and the complex legacy of 1916; by 1991, the State could not find an appropriate, safe way in which to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Rising. A conspirator involved in clandestine arms importation for a rebellion didn’t quite provide the exemplar of patriotic service appropriate to the fraught conditions of Ireland in the final quarter of the twentieth century.

However, more promising perspectives on Casement were now becoming available. Changing attitudes towards homosexuality—at least in the Republic—took time to decisively shift the center of public opinion (though in this, as in other areas of social policy, Ireland’s membership of the European Economic Community from 1973 was a vital catalyst of change); but the final decriminalizing in 1993 of homosexual acts between consenting adults had broad support among the general public. Brian Inglis’s biography of 1973 had placed particular emphasis on his sexuality, in exploring Casement’s character. Casement may not have been refurbished as a gay icon for the liberalizing Ireland of these decades, but increasingly his name could be invoked by those seeking recognition for, or countering continuing prejudice against, gays: his sexuality was increasingly accepted as a matter of fact.

Casement, the international humanitarian advocate, also came into sharper focus—in various ways and for a variety of reasons—from the 1960s. Following Ireland’s achieving membership of the United Nations in 1955, the international role pursued most consistently and forcefully by Ireland was that of effective participant in peace-keeping operations and in human rights advocacy. The fact that one of the most prominent Irish peace-keeping operations under U.N. auspices was in the Congo inevitably led to the invocation of Casement’s earlier exposé of injustice and exploitation, as an honorable precedent for the Irish mission. More generally—and even after Ireland’s entry to the EEC began incrementally to restrict its room to maneuver or adopt an independent course in international affairs—Ireland’s consistent and widely-acknowledged championing of human rights has frequently been praised as keeping faith with an honorable tradition in which Casement holds a place of special prominence.

In recent decades, the humanitarian aspect of Casement’s work and reputation has assumed a new relevance, as degradation of the environment, human trafficking, and new models or forms of exploitation of slave labor have emerged, demanding remedy, in a globalized economy characterized by growing inequality in the developed world alongside deep poverty, deprivation, and human suffering in many parts of the “underdeveloped” world. The legacy of colonial rule (not least in the “manufactured” territorial units bequeathed as “states” to the native peoples) continues to generate conflict and to demand attention. The new forms of control exercised by the agents and conglomerates of global transnational capital present new challenges to all who advocate justice—in moral terms or in terms of economic rights. At a deep level, there is a grim topicality to much of Casement’s earlier commentaries on the Congo and the Amazon.

There is a further context of public debate in which Casement’s story has assumed a marked relevance, and to which Angus Mitchell has drawn particular attention. The incremental release by successive British governments from the early 1990s of hitherto closed files on Casement—beginning with lifting restrictions to access to the Black Diaries—greatly assisted the revaluation of many aspects of Casement’s career by a new cohort of researchers. The new material facilitated a fuller reconstruction and examination of episodes and incidents in Casement’s life, not least the circumstances surrounding his final journey to rebellion, arrest, trial, and execution. But some of the released material drew attention to an early twentieth-century version of a phenomenon that has become of increasing concern to constituencies of public opinion in our own time (and not only in Britain)—namely, the close collusion between political leaders, intelligence, and security services and key arteries and various media of information in shaping and manipulating public opinion on sensitive political issues.

It is clear, therefore, as we reach the centenary of the 1916 Rising, that Casement’s life and work can provide—as it has done in recent years—a rich prism through which a range of pressing contemporary issues and anxieties may be usefully considered. It is not surprising, therefore, that interest in Casement has been growing during the past two decades or so, and it is reasonable to assume that his career and legacy will feature prominently in the reassessments this year of the historical significance of 1916 as the “foundation act” of the Irish national state and as a pivotal moment in the wider process of European decolonization that marked the first six decades of the twentieth century.

The question that logically arises from this is what, then, will be the relevance or “meanings” on Casement’s life and work—and, indeed, death—that are likely to feature prominently in the anniversary commemorations in 2016? Before I offer some cautious responses to this question, it may be useful to make a number of observations on general issues that arise in relation to all historical commemorations, and which we, the general public, would be well-advised to keep in mind throughout 2016. These issues arise whatever the commemoration, whether under state auspices or sponsored and conducted by non-state groups, organizations, or communities. But they have particular force where a major historical event is being commemorated with the full benediction, sanction, and support of the state itself.

The first thing that must be stressed is that commemorations are not spontaneous events that happen because individuals or groups are suddenly seized with an urge to remember or call to mind some event in the past to which they attach significance. Even the most modest and familial acts of commemoration—the remembrance notices for deceased relatives that feature copiously in the weekly local newspapers—are deliberate acts, in form and intention. This is a fortiori the case in respect of more public commemorations (of a local hero, event or institution) that mark the calendar of cultural activities—festivals, summer schools, éigsí, tionóil—throughout Ireland each year. Lectures and seminars, religious services, parades and musical recitals, special publications, and the unveiling of plaques: these are but the more familiar forms that mark these various commemorations.[4]

When the state assumes responsibility for (or decides to participate in) commemorations, the participation of members of the defense forces, the formal ceremonies at key sites, with state and government dignitaries in attendance, the occasional issuing of commemorative stamps or coins—all of these confer a particular status and solemnity on the commemoration. This selective list of common features of commemorations—state or non-state/voluntary in character—may serve to remind us just how pervasive is this urge to commemorate in our culture (as it is in many, perhaps all, human societies).

But commemorations—however pervasive—may occasionally prove contentious and controversial, contested and divisive. In seeking to understand why this is so, a number of basic questions need to be posed: Who is doing the commemorating? What is the stated reason for the commemoration, the declared purpose or aim? What exactly is being commemorated? What form is the commemoration to take? The significance or “meaning” that historical events have for later generations will, inevitably, be largely determined by pressing contemporary concerns and preoccupations. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that such “meanings” should be contested, with issues of ownership, motive and form frequently generating debate and disagreement.

What remains the central question in all of this is, why do certain people (or groups of people—including the government) decide to commemorate particular events, episodes, and people from the past. What needs are served by such commemorations? Clearly, these needs are the needs of the living community doing the commemorating. All public commemoration, however modest in scale, whether by state or voluntary initiative, is an act of conscious, deliberate cultural construction. It involves selection and omission, assertion, affirmation, and representation.

These issues pertaining to the culture of commemoration have engaged historians and cultural commentators in many countries for the last fifty years or so. Systematic and scholarly examination of Ireland’s culture of commemoration came relatively late. But, during the past decade there has been a marked increase in research and publications on this theme. In particular, there has been a burgeoning literature on the manner in which the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising was commemorated in 1966.[5] It is reasonable to expect that the centenary anniversary in 2016 will, in its turn, generate a lively debate and a challenging literature. The commemoration of the centenary of the death of Roger Casement will, one may hope, constitute an important element of this debate.

Turning, in conclusion, to what aspects of Casement’s life, work, and legacy may be expected to enjoy prominence during the centenary anniversary, we may cautiously predict that, while historians will very properly insist that Casement be placed in the context of the values, ideas, and conditions of his own time, within the wider public it is the most striking and urgent aspects of his relevance that are to be in the forefront of debate and commemoration. Thus, the final granting during 2015 of state sanction for same-sex marriage (endorsed by a solid majority of the voters in a referendum) would seem to have completed the protracted process of granting full equality before the law to persons of different sexual orientations and choice. It is unlikely, therefore, the Casement will be “recruited” to champion any new issue of sexual equality during 2016. His sexuality will now be seen as unexceptional—though the censorious climate (and, for homosexuals, legally oppressive regime) of his own day will likely be remembered, notably in consideration of the secrecy and concealment that it forced upon Casement and, accordingly, the emergence of the lonely and solitary figure that many contemporaries saw in him in the years before 1914.

Other aspects of his legacy and enduring relevance that may feature strongly include his declared wish to be buried in Antrim, a wish that, no doubt, will prompt fresh demands for his re-interment during 2016. The focus on the Ulster dimension is also likely to lead to renewed efforts to resolve the planning difficulties that have resulted in the stalling of the GAA’s ambitious plans for the development of the now rather dilapidated Casement Park into the showcase venue and headquarters for the GAA in Ulster (a suitable symbol of pride and confidence for nationalist Belfast, to match the recently refurbished Kingspan Stadium, headquarters of Ulster rugby in Ravenhill).

A continuing public interest (and anxiety) regarding the treacherous world of intelligence gathering, espionage, propaganda, and media manipulation—fueled by revelations of internet and related surveillance—will probably ensure that the early episodes of such dark maneuvers that ensnared Casement (and ultimately may have lost him the chance of clemency) in the early twentieth century will merit attention, and not only from historians with a special interest in Casement.

Perhaps the most powerful invocation of Casement during the centenary year will be for his work and legacy in the area of international human rights. Tragically, the multiple forms of exploitation and injustice visited on indigenous peoples throughout the world—in this era of a neo-liberal globalized economy, with the competitive market, massive transnational corporations, and authoritarian states enjoying virtually invincible power—will continue to demand challenge and inspire alternative versions of development, human rights, and welfare. The work of Roger Casement in his own day, and the enduring power of his witness and writings, will undoubtedly be an aspect of his legacy that will resonate strongly, not only in Ireland but in international debates, throughout 2016 and for long after.


[1] This is an abridged version of a lecture delivered at the autumn Casement Seminar in Tralee on September 4, 2015.

[2] Angus Mitchell’s Roger Casement (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 2013) is a concise and sharply interpretative recent biography. This essay also drew on Mary E. Daly, ed., Roger Casement in Irish and World History (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2005); Séamas Ó Síocháin and Michael O’Sullivan, eds., The Eyes of Another Race: Roger Casement’s Congo Report and 1903 diary (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2003); W.J. McCormack, Roger Casement in Death: Or, Haunting the Free State (Dublin: UCD Press, 2002); and Angus Mitchell, ed., Sir Roger Casement’s Heart of Darkness: The 1911 Documents (Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission, 2003).

[3] Maurice Moynihan, ed., Speeches and Statements by Éamon de Valera, 1917-1973 (Dublin and New York: Gill and Macmilllan, 1980), 604-5.

[4] For commemorations in general—and in Ireland—see Ian McBride, ed., History and Memory in Modern Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001); Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995); and John Horne and Edward Madigan, eds., Towards Commemoration: Ireland in War and Revolution 1912-1923 (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2013).

[5] See, for example, Mary E. Daly and Margaret O’Callaghan, eds., 1916 in 1966: Commemorating the Easter Rising (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2007); Roisín Higgins, Transforming 1916: Meaning, Memory and the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Easter Rising (Cork: Cork UP, 2012); and Mark McCarthy, Ireland’s 1916 Rising: Explorations of History-Making, Commemorations & Heritage in Modern Times (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).