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Roger Casement: The Black Diaries

With a study of his background, sexuality, and Irish political life
Jeffrey Dudgeon
Belfast Press


From the Preface

I attended the first Goldsmiths College Casement colloquium in February 1998 after fortuitously noticing a letter in the Irish Times from its organiser, Professor Bill Mc Cormack. I brought with me a small but significant piece of research done in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. It concerned the background of Casement's Belfast boyfriend, Millar Gordon, and had been enabled by the publication the year before of his full name in Roger Sawyer's book of the 1910 Black and White Diaries. I was also alert to the re-igniting of the dispute over authenticity involving a separate publication of the White Diary by Angus Mitchell, his former collaborator, who had come to believe the Black Diaries were forged.

The argument over the authenticity of the diaries which seemed to conclude after Brian Inglis and B.L. Reid published biographies in the 1970s was being rekindled, not by the older hagiographical defenders, but through an attitude apparently favourable to homosexual rights. In the new Ireland, being gay had taken on something of an iconographic status having become if not de rigueur, at least modish, in metropolitan circles. Prompted by Sawyer's 1984 book, nearly fifteen years previously I had written an article on Casement so I was well aware of his significance to Ireland. Similarly I was conscious of his importance in the history of homosexuality, almost as much for the denial of authorship of the Black Diaries as for their uniquely erotic contents. Both mundane and exhilarating, they are nonetheless a rare (and sparse) sexual memoir, while shining a shaft of intense light into one man's mind.

Resigning in June 1998 from my job with a Westminster MP, I was on the point of returning to the Northern Ireland civil service when I realised I was going to have to transcribe all the Black Diaries, especially Casement's never before seen, highly sexual diary of 1911. This consequent book consists therefore of an abridged version of the five Black Diaries in the Public Record Office in London. For the first time they are all published together, beside comprehensive material about Casement's life, especially in Ireland, and his controversial homosexuality.

It became evident, researching Casement and the diary characters, that certain key areas of his life and work were little known, inaccessible, or myth-based. These were his family and early days, his sexual orientation, and his Irish po­litical activity. The authenticity issue also needed a thorough assessment. So a biographical study came into being alongside the diaries. Much time was spent on constructing a necessary Casement family tree which, still lacking the true origins of his mother Annie, tracks his unrecognised Australian con­nections. The project ultimately resulted in the creation of a Casement reader and source book.

The claims and counterclaims about the diaries reveal a story which takes on different aspects by virtue of changing values and events. In other words, there may never be a final settlement of the account. In the retelling, issues will be interpreted according to contemporary codes. While Ireland and ho­mosexuality exist as discrete areas of dispute and conflict, so will studies of Casement. Despite the recent forensics tests, which only confirmed what any sensible reader of the literature already knew, the controversy shows little sign of abating. At the same time the BBC and RTE TV programmes in March 2002 failed to illuminate Casement's real life or his importance.

The actual mystery is how adults and whole nations could have continued to believe for a moment that the Black Diaries, after their emergence in 1959, were forged. Of course the diaries are authentic and genuine. Even the blot-tings are genuine. Some post-modernists may believe they are authentic and fictional. But believing in their authenticity does not mean you do not do the most rigorous checks on provenance and contents. The scholar who recently admitted that his computer analysis of the 578 lines of verse in A Funeral Elegye had erroneously attributed the poem to Shakespeare, rather than John Ford, accepted that "nothing can replace the value of close reading." Another writer added that close reading, "the idea of reading all of the texts and then reading all of the texts about the texts, although old-fashioned, was the winner." I would concur.

To those who would argue that there is little or no eyewitness evidence of Casement's homosexual activities I quote the remark made to me on the steps of the Royal Irish Academy: "When I came out, no one was more surprised than my wife."

No man can be a hero to his biographer. Consequently, the closer one gets to the mind of Casement, the less heroic will his decision-making process ap­pear. All motives are mixed. Stripping a man down, as he famously did in his own diaries, renders an individual human, but it certainly makes it difficult to view them as saintly. That is all to the good. Too much popular history relies on a belief in humans based on perfection. A biographer knows both the hu­manity, and the ordinariness, at times the banality, of their subject. Perhaps I know Casement too well, sharing so many of his attributes and experiences, being someone of Ulster origin and gay, as well as Protestant; someone who, politically, resembled Casement for a time although not latterly.

Reduced to self-interest or the scarring of a disturbed upbringing, most subjects appear in a bad light. That is not to say that individuals do not do significant things, just that the causations may not in themselves be admirable. Most of those called to greatness stand out because of their family and their background. Casement, as I relate here, was no exception. His virtues were nonetheless many and varied: indifference to discomfort and pain, courage in the face of physical violence, persistence, love of humanity, kindness to animals, a refusal to see those of other races as subordinate by definition, and political effectiveness.

Casement can also seem unclear or contradictory. Was he, like so many no­table figures in history, self-invented, governed by not being what he wanted to be, coming from the margins of his ethnicity? Although people have the right to be what they want, or what they believe themselves to be, historians must view them in the context of their choices and deeds. In the matter of Casement's homosexuality, I take the view adopted by Inglis and the under-read B.L. Reid; Casement enjoyed himself sexually, displaying little or no guilt and certainly no shame. He showed himself to be an early exemplar of what is now standard sexual behaviour for most gay men. I am using the word gay, even though it will jar with some who reckon it is historically inappropriate but then the word homosexual was a modern concoction from the 1860s, a word, to my knowledge, that Casement never wrote down. The word in use then, although gay has pre-second world war provenance, was "musical", one spoken between the MPs Tim Healy and Joseph Biggar, but it no longer retains such a double meaning.

Casement had far greater influence on the politics of Ireland than is generally recognised. In particular his organising of arms shipments into Ireland in 1914 and 1916 put him into the category of that handful of individuals without whom there would be no separate Irish state. It was Yeats who presciently said after meeting Casement at William Rothenstein's studio, that his "mood of the mystic victim" personified "something new and terrible for Ireland"1 It did, for within a decade the revolution he prepared had occurred.

To understand why the IRA's first arms were commissioned by someone also involved in the rebirth of northern nationalism is a necessary guide to how they might be decommissioned — alongside the mindsets on both sides of the conflict. The thirty-year war in Northern Ireland also has to have its origins and longevity explained, for few have managed to address those issues effectively. This study of Casement provides a key to unlocking some of them.