The Myth of Roger Casement

Roger Casement

by Brian Inglis
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 488 pp., $8.95

The troubles in Ulster during the past five years have produced a crop of books about Ireland and her struggle to obtain independence from England. Many of these books have owed much to those historians, some of the most talented of them working in Dublin, who have been demythologizing the past. The great revolt against British rule which ended in Irish independence was both heroic and successful. But it was also tragic in its incompetence and self-destructiveness, and resembled much more the operations of a small and indomitable guerrilla group than the spontaneous rising of a nation in arms throwing off the yoke of a tyrant.

The Irish had a greater talent for political than for revolutionary action. But for the First World War they would have gained their independence that way—though at the cost of the partition of Ulster. The Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin was a tale of disasters and errors of judgment. The majority of Irishmen—like humble people all over the world—wanted to be left alone and were curiously mixed in their loyalties. They volunteered in their thousands to fight in the British army in the war against Germany: few of them wanted a republic. There was no puppet regime or alien apparatus of government, not even a language barrier always present to remind people that a foreign tyrant was on their necks.

The police force was Irish, the executive was Irish, and the Victorian abuse of an absentee landlord class exploiting a starving peasantry had been mitigated. It was precisely the absence of that sense of acute, grinding repression, which galvanizes a campaign for independence, that was so awkward for the new Sinn Fein which formed after 1916. As late as May, 1919, Michael Collins wrote: “We have too many of the bargaining type already…. It seems to me that official SF is inclined to be ever less militant and ever more political and theoretical….”

Collins was a leader of genius. He recognized that the revolutionary movement would have to offer itself as a rival government and that it could operate only through terror. The early killings evoked horror everywhere: for terror meant not only the systematic killing of policemen, soldiers, and officials but the intimidation of the population itself. Collins was determined that apathetic creatures or decent men sickened by violence should at the least help the Republicans and at the worst be shot if they hindered them.

There was nothing new about Collins’s methods: summary execution, assassination, mutilation, boycott, threatening letters, and firing into houses had been used off and on for two centuries in the Irish countryside. But Collins’s efficiency and organizing ability was new. In spite of the lamentations of the Catholic Church and the revulsion from the campaign of killing, it gradually became difficult for people to trade or buy the necessities of life if they did not go along with Sinn Fein. After two years of executions of so-called spies and traitors by Sinn …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.

Letters

No Acquittal June 27, 1974