I first heard about Roger Casement many years ago and added his name to my mental list of people to find out more about. His role within, and then against, the British Empire made him an extraordinary figure. To be given a knighthood and then executed by the same British establishment is quite something. We know that all powerful empires go on the attack when they are themselves attacked and, in this case, Casement challenged the authority of the British in Ireland.
It is strange that the first book I read about this man was actually a work of fiction but I was given this book by a friend and it hit the mark. However, he was a complex man and, perhaps, fiction is the best way in. At least here we are privy to his thoughts, as given to him by the author Mario Vargas Llosa. In this novel we have the man in prison awaiting his execution and reliving his past, a past that included fighting on the side of the oppressed in Africa and South America. It should be no surprise, then that he stood up for the Irish in their fight for independence from the British. What is more surprising is the choice of timing. To hit at the British when they were engaged in a war with Germany was seen by many as the act of a traitor. To seek the help of the enemy on the basis of my enemy’s enemy is my friend was unforgivable.
So, when a German submarine brought arms to Ireland in the run up to the Easter rising of 1916, it is no surprise that the British saw this as a hostile act. The arms were never landed, Casement was arrested and he found himself in prison.
In this novel, we see Casement as an idealist and also a little naive. He hopes for clemency from the Empire he despises and seeks comfort from the Catholic church despite his homosexuality, something not then endorsed by the Pope, and his youthful Protestantism.
It is this complexity that makes the book an enjoyable read. The outcome is known from the beginning but we still have the tension of the prisoner awaiting news of a stay of execution. The London papers made much of his sexuality and public opinion was less likely to call for clemency once this was known, maybe the leak of his letters and papers was deliberate! Maybe, too, his lover, who betrayed him was also a British plant all along. Whatever the truth, the Empire had been challenged and he paid the price.
‘The Dream of the Celt’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?