The Myth of Roger Casement

Roger Casement

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

Roger Casement
Roger Casement; drawing by David Levine

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.