Rebel, Hero, Martyr

The Dream of the Celt

by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 358 pp., $27.00
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Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Roger Casement, circa 1904

Roger Casement was not only one of the greatest Irishmen who ever lived but also a considerable figure on the world stage. An Anglo-Irishman who flew the nets of his class and upbringing to devote himself to the cause of Irish independence from British rule, he was also, in his time, internationally recognized, indeed revered, as a champion of the oppressed indigenous peoples of West Africa and the Putumayo region of Peru, and as a tireless fighter for human rights in general. Why then is he largely forgotten, or ignored, in Ireland and elsewhere?

This is not an easy question to answer, for it has numerous strands. After the 1916 Rising in Dublin, which was to crack the foundations of the British Empire at the very time when Britain was mired in the horrors of World War I, Casement was stripped of his knighthood—although he had already renounced it—tried for treason, convicted, and hanged, despite the fact that he had come to Ireland from Germany on the eve of the Rising not to lead it, as the British believed, but, on the contrary, to try to persuade the rebel leaders to call it off, as he was convinced it could not succeed.

The Rising at first got little popular support—legend has it that at the start of the fighting on Easter Monday, Republican soldiers forcing their way into the General Post Office were set upon by respectable Dublin ladies who beat them with their umbrellas. But after the hasty court-martial and execution of fifteen of those leaders, public sentiment turned in favor of the seemingly failed rebellion. It was imperative, therefore, that Casement’s conviction and judicial execution be seen to have been entirely justified.

In pursuit of this goal, the contents of secret diaries he had kept in the Congo and in Peru, detailing promiscuous sexual activity with young native men, which had been discovered in Casement’s London flat after his arrest, were circulated widely among the clubs and pubs of London, causing general shock and outrage. For many years Irish republicans and others regarded the so-called Black Diaries as forgeries concocted by British intelligence to destroy Casement’s reputation and ensure there would be no commutation of the death sentence that had been passed on him. It has since been shown that the diaries were not forged, although that is not to say that what is contained in them is entirely factual.1 These sordid matters, even when they were considered the result of mischief-making by perfidious Albion, cast a shadow over Casement’s memory among Irish nationalists and made them wary of admitting him into what the historian Tim Pat Coogan used drily to refer to as the “pantechnicon of Irish heroes,” while in the wider world, understandably, a man who had been hanged for treason by his own government in the midst of a world war seemed not the likeliest of paragons.

In …

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  1. 1

    Mario Vargas Llosa seems to regard the sexual adventures recorded in the diaries as for the most part fantastical, as romantic daydreams to aid in masturbation, or as wishful attempts at self-consolation. There is little doubt, however, that Casement was an active homosexual; whether he was criminally culpable in his exploitation of the boys and young man whom he paid to engage in sex with him is for the reader, and the historian, to decide.