Later this year – pandemic permitting – a statue of Roger Casement is to be unveiled in Dún Laoghaire, as part of a planned upgrade of the old Baths site. Professor of Modern History at UCD, Diarmuid Ferriter joined Seán O’Rourke on Wednesday to talk about the complicated legacy of the 1916 leader and he started by telling Seán that Casement’s homecoming – he was born in Sandycove, up the road from the Baths – has been a long time coming.
“It seems an awful long time, you know, 104 years after his death, he’s finally coming home, it seems.”
Casement’s father was a soldier in the British army and seemed to have led quite a restless life, something that may have contributed to Roger’s own sense of restlessness. The young Casement became a teenage shipping clerk, a job which brought him all the way to the Congo. While living and working there, he gradually became enmeshed in the British consular service and ended up going back to the Congo in an official capacity. Seán wanted to know what sort of character traits Casement’s work with the British consular service reveals to us. It’s a question that carries a loaded answer as far as Diarmuid Ferriter is concerned:
“His character has really perplexed historians. He was a very complex character, with a very complex psychology. I think we would describe him in the modern era as being bipolar.”
The portrait history paints of Casement is of an enigmatic, charismatic, very intelligent, tall, handsome man, who wrote beautifully and worked extremely efficiently.
“But there’s a constant restlessness to Casement, as well as, I suppose, a life of permanent contradiction, according to some.”
One of the most striking contradictions the Diarmuid brought up during his conversation with Seán was the fact that Casement wasn’t always a republican – in fact, far from it:
“Originally, Casement was an Imperialist. He did believe in the enlightening power of British Imperial civilisation when he’s dealing with these native indigenous people.”
This belief wavered gradually and Casement, working for the British Foreign Office, became fiercely critical of colonial powers. While in the Congo, Casement saw how the Belgian colonists treated the native people in the most appalling ways imaginable and wrote about it in a report that eventually led to changes being made by the Belgian government. Perhaps less well-known today is the fact that Casement repeated his investigation of colonial abuse in the Amazon and his efforts there were recognised internationally and he was rewarded with a knighthood, something he was distinctly uncomfortable with.
And what about Ireland? Despite working for the British Foreign Office, and initially supporting Home Rule, Casement gradually came to the conclusion that Ireland would be better off being entirely independent from Britain. And that meant he endured a very uncomfortable existence until he resigned from the British Consular Services in 1913.
“That uncomfortable existence as a pillar of the British establishment, somebody who’s associated with exposing obviously grave human rights abuses, but also he’s being more and more of a fervent Irish nationalist.”
As always when Diarmuid appears on the Today programme, there’s a lot of very interesting detail to be gleaned and this instance is no exception: there’s lots more on Roger Casement and his exploits in Germany, his involvement in the Howth gun-running adventure in 1914 , his trial and the so-called Black Diaries, in the full conversation, which you can listen to by clicking here.
Niall Ó Sioradáin
Share this Post