Sir Roger Casement
Published: 16 August, 2012
The remarkable odyssey of a heroic revolutionary who fought to protect Africa from exploitation ended in a cemetery next to Dr Crippen, writes Illtyd Harrington
"IF you die for Ireland you are made for life.”
Motto in a Dublin bar.
Few men in Irish history have managed to achieve as much international acclaim and a heap of public contempt as Sir Roger Casement.
The history of this rare revolutionary began in Dublin on September 1, 1864, in a middle-class suburb; ending with his execution in the yard of Pentonville Prison on August 3, 1916, for high treason – disgraced and humiliated, but loved on many parts of the planet.
Think about the state of some of our developing and under-developed countries, and how in the 20th century we comfort our conscience by subscribing to big organisations: Oxfam, Christian Aid and the Red Cross.
Judge that against the monumental insight and vision of Casement, one man who demanded that people realise and redeem the rape and unlimited larceny in mid-Africa – the Congo – and on the Amazonian people.
Both were robbed of their natural resources.
Quickly he realised that the crucifix preceded the way to slavery, terrible acts of torture and amputation.
Mario Vargas Llosa has brought the great humanitarian Casement back to life. His text not only admits you to the mind, but also the imagination and ear.
The language is almost voluptuous.
Only such a genius can recreate the burning humanity and unquenchable fire for suppressed people and isolated individuals.
He challenged the mighty on their behalf.
Then as now, the big mega-corporations set about their piracy.
Then there was the appalling King of the Belgians, Leopold II, a man seized with a greed frenzy, tearing the Congo apart, ignoring the 495 chieftans who existed there.
On the other side of the Atlantic, an equally sinister organisation, the Peru Rubber Company, led by a sinister Peruvian, Julian Arona.
He lied and defied world opinion, even when the most dreadful things had been revealed; he just increased his demands and his extermination of those who would not yield to him.
Casement, a junior foreign office official, had a growing reputation.
Even the President of the United States, William Taft, extended a half-hour conversation to three hours, and acted on some of Casement’s fears.
Irish politics has always been a rats’ nest of conflict.
He tried to anticipate rather than react.
To him, the Easter Rising of 1916 was doomed, but he understood the impatience and misjudgement of the four main bands of rebels.
His idea was to go to Germany and persuade the Kaiser to send the Irish arms.
Illogically he came to the conclusion that the Germans were more civilised than the English establishments.
He was shaken when he went to a camp for 2,000 Irish prisoners of war in Limburgh.
Not all Irishmen, he found out, had his romantic dream.
He was disillusioned, and recruited only 50 Irishmen.
Disaster followed after a German submarine delivered him and two others on the coast of Connemara. The ship carrying the weapons, the Ord, was stopped.
The inevitable unfolded.
Admiral Hill, head of British Naval Intelligence, and Basil Thompson, CID chief, prepared the way for his appearance at the Old Bailey.
His flimsy plea of being Irish rather than British failed. But a rising tide of powerful voices urged clemency, based upon his almost unique condemnation of colonialism and cruelty. Suddenly the tide receded – facts revealed of his sexuality leaked and spread.
Casement kept a personal diary which contained vivid descriptions of the beauty of native men, and his rare successful sexual encounters.
His naivety startled others when he had, for six years, a very big handsome young man – a Viking – for a friend.
This man, some scholars believe, was a British agent, a honeypot situation.
His enemies pursued him like mad dogs, ripping at him and his reputation.
Llosa’s knowledge of the locales of this story is almost overwhelming.
There is this hero riddled with arthritis, in a cold, bare cell. He draws comfort from Thomas Kempis.
The Ireland he was fighting for was partly successful in 1921-22, de Valera’s nation based on the assumption of country cottages and cabins, with smoke from turf fires, spinning wheels, celibacy, and the unchallenged authority of the Pope.
After Casement’s execution he lay for 65 years next to Dr Crippen, in Pentonville prison cemetery.
In February 1965, Harold Wilson authorised that his remains be returned to Ireland, where he was treated with military honours and civic respect.
Herbert Morrison, deputy prime minister from 1945-50, gave me his unsigned copy of the notorious diaries which were banned from publication in the UK, and were smuggled in from France, where they were published by Olympia Press.
Frankly, there is no salacious content.
It is more a version of the noble savage, rather than Man Meets Man.
However, this new book is a tribute to the genius of Mario Vargas Llosa, the courage of a fine Irishman, and the persistence of African and South American indigenous people to get their rights.
• The Dream of the Celt. By Mario Vargas Llosa. Faber, £18