By Shane Daly
“Dress suitably in short skirts and strong boots, leave your jewels in the bank, and buy a revolver.” – Countess Markievicz
Since his execution at Pentonville prison, London, 101 years ago, Roger Casement has been at the centre of a historical controversy involving spies, treason and homosexuality.
The story of the Irish rebel Sir Roger Casement remains controversial due to the Black Diaries, either a genuine chronicle of his sexual history or a forgery by British officials to discredit him. Two biographers have set out to settle Casement’s case once and for all.
Casement, the last man to be executed, was perhaps the greatest traitor in the eyes of British officials. Many knew of Casement, an Irish Protestant born outside of Dublin, for his years of work as a Foreign Office official in Africa and South America. This was the Casement who had held a memorial service in a mission church in the Congo Free State in 1901 to commemorate the passing of Queen Victoria; the Casement who was knighted by Victoria’s grandson King George V in 1911 for his humanitarian campaigns on behalf of indigenous peoples on two continents; the Casement who retired from the Foreign Office in 1913 on a comfortable pension. It was this pension that financed his activities to secure an Irish rebellion.
Just over half a century ago, in 1965, Casement’s remains were reinterred, following a state funeral, in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin. This traitor to the British crown and martyr for the Republic of Ireland remains a memory in motion, stirred by an unforeseen combination of circumstances. The achievement of legal equality for gays in Ireland in 2015, together with the United Kingdom’s recent Brexit vote to leave the European Union, may occasion a new life after death for Casement, as the symbol of a united Ireland. It is the role he had hoped to play even as the trapdoor opened beneath his feet.
Since his adolescence, Casement had been an Irish nationalist of the poetic variety. But his politics hardened after his experiences in the Congo Free State persuaded him that the Congolese and Irish peoples had suffered similar injustices, both having lost their lands to imperial conquest. Like many Irish nationalists, Casement turned to militancy in the years before the First World War, angered both by unionists arming themselves and London’s failure to act upon parliamentary legislation for “home rule,” which would have granted the Irish a measure of sovereign autonomy. In 1914, Casement crossed enemy lines into Germany. There, he attempted to recruit Irish prisoners of war to fight against their former British commanders and sought to secure arms from the Kaiser for a revolution in Ireland itself. Two years later, less than a week before the Rising began, the British had intercepted German communications coming from Washington and suspected that there was going to be an attempt to land arms at Ireland, although they were not aware of the precise location. The arms ship named the “Aud”, under Captain Karl Spindler, was apprehended by HMS Bluebell on the late afternoon of Good Friday. About to be escorted into Queenstown, which is now Cobh harbour in Cork on the morning of Saturday the 22nd of April, Captain Spindler scuttled the ship by pre-set explosive charges. It now lies at a depth of 40 metres. Its surviving crew became prisoners of war. Casement was sent to London to be interrogated and tried for treason.
These days, Casement is chiefly known as the alleged author of the so-called Black Diaries, which are at the centre of a long-standing controversy over his sexuality. As Casement awaited execution in London, supporters in the United Kingdom and the United States lobbied the British government to commute his sentence. In response, British officials began to circulate pages from diaries, purportedly written by Casement in 1903, 1910 and 1911, which chronicled in explicit terms his sexual relations with men. Among mundane daily entries are breathless, raunchy notes on Casement’s trysts and, often, the dimensions of his alleged sexual partners.
A Belfast-based writer, discovered a letter, written only days before Casement died on the gallows, which he claims confirms the existence of a mysterious homosexual lover, alluded to in the Black Diaries as “Millar”. The Millar letter was written by an MI5 agent to the Home Office four days before Casement was hanged for treason. It was uncovered in the Public Record Office at Kew in London by Jeffrey Dudgeon, an Ulster gay activist who sued the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights many years ago over discrimination against gays in Northern Ireland.
Dudgeon points out that in the Black Diaries of 1910-11, Casement allegedly makes a number of references to having sex with Millar. On the 8th of August, for instance, Casement is supposed to have written: ‘Leaving for Belfast. To sleep with Millar. In at once.’ Three days earlier Casement supposedly wrote: ‘Letter from Millar. Good on for Tuesday. Hurrah! Expecting!’ The diary entries also include references to the two men spending the night together on the day the Titanic sunk. The agent who wrote the Millar memo, Frank Hall, discovered that Millar was Joseph Millar Gordon, a 26-year-old employee of the Belfast Bank in Donegall Square. Four days after the memo’s postmark, Casement was hanged for his part in enlisting German military support for the 1916 Easter Rising.
At least five members of the British war Cabinet, including Home Secretary Herbert Samuel, had known Casement personally when he worked for the Foreign Office. Casement had investigated allegations of slavery and human rights abuses in the Congo and Peru on behalf of the British Government. Dudgeon points out that the memo, which was only made available to the public at the end of 1998, was secret and would not have been used at the time in the propaganda campaign against the Irish republican icon.
‘Why would the British forge an internal MI5 memo? This letter puts flesh on the bones of the Millar referred to in the diaries. Nobody could have invented him, because he is so well documented. He was a living person from Belfast whom I believe definitely had a relationship with Casement,’ he said. Dudgeon denied that being a gay unionist has coloured his year-long research programme into the Casement diaries. ‘I came to this subject with an open mind. It has to be said that the diaries, as well as being an important part of Irish history, are also a vital part of gay history in the twentieth century. They are the only body of written evidence of intense gay sexual detail from this time.’
However, Angus Mitchell, contradicts Dudgeon’s claim and insists the Black Diaries are forgeries. Mitchell, who published “The Amazon Journal of Roger Casement” in 1997, said: ‘You should remember that the diaries came out of the Home Office, too. The diaries are forgeries, of that I have no doubt. So what if there really was a Millar? There are hundreds of others referred to in the diaries who Casement describes and who can be traced as well. It proves nothing.’
UK law forbade any sexual relations between men, so, the government reasoned, how could any right-thinking person defend a sodomist? The diaries served to weaken support for clemency for Casement. In the aftermath of his execution a decades-long debate over the authenticity of the diaries ensued.
The leading participants in the debate are the aforementioned biographers: Jeffrey Dudgeon, who believes that the diaries are genuine and that Casement was a homosexual, and Angus Mitchell, who thinks that the diaries were forged and that Casement’s sexual orientation remains an open question. The stakes of this debate were once greater than they are today. As the debate over the Black Diaries gathered momentum in the 1950s and reached a crisis point in the run-up to the repatriation of Casement’s remains to Ireland in the 1960s, Ireland was both more Catholic in its culture and less assured of its sovereign authority than it is today. The southern 26 counties of Ireland declared themselves the Republic of Ireland in 1949, but the British government continued to treat the Republic as a subordinate member of the Commonwealth, rather than a full-fledged European state, until 1968.
Casement’s path to political redemption was laid by the Gay Liberation movement. Dudgeon is not just a biographer but a protagonist in one of the movement’s crucial battles. In 1981, he challenged Northern Ireland’s criminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adult men in a case against the United Kingdom brought before the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled that the law at issue violated the European Convention of Human Rights, and this decision prompted the British government in 1982 to issue an Order in Council that decriminalised homosexual acts between adult men in Northern Ireland; England, Wales, and Scotland had already passed similar laws. In 1993 the Irish parliament to the south also decriminalised male homosexuality in order to bring the Republic’s law into compliance with the European Convention of Human Rights. And in 2015, the Republic became the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote. The broader campaign for LGBT rights in Ireland has kept Casement much in the news and proudly represented him as a national son and father.
In their biographies, Dudgeon and Mitchell present two Casements, each with strengths and weaknesses. Dudgeon offers meticulous, well-documented detail, but his book, Roger Casement: The Black Diaries, is for insiders, reading at many points like the notes for a doctoral dissertation, without consistent chronological structure or contextual explanation for those unfamiliar with Irish history in general and Casement in particular. Mitchell likewise offers meticulous documentary evidence in Roger Casement, but within a comparatively fluid and clear narrative history that depends problematically upon his assertion that the British government, from the Cabinet to the National Archive, has pursued an insidious, sweeping policy of individual defamation over the past century. Were the Black Diaries forged? And if so, was it the work of the British government, seeking to destroy Casement for his betrayal and to deny Ireland a heroic martyr?
Moreover, Dudgeon argues, it would have been a monumental, virtually impossible task in 1916 for officials and civil servants to forge diaries so comprehensive in their account of long-past events, when Casement was not under suspicion, that they could convince even Casement’s associates, who found themselves and their own interactions with Casement mentioned in the text. In a fascinating turn, Dudgeon offers the most successful refutation of forgery to date by systematically verifying the diaries’ contents, relentlessly revealing and cross-referencing new sources to pull together loose ends and flesh out identities from cryptic references and last names, such as that of Casement’s alleged boyfriend: “Millar.” Against the historical backdrop of a government marshalling limited resources in wartime, Dudgeon effectively charges that a forgery so verifiably true to life could not have been a forgery.
In the days preceding his execution, Casement asked his family to bury his body near the home of relatives in County Antrim. This was the family that had taken young Roger in after an itinerant childhood and the deaths of his parents. “Take my body back with you and let it lie in the old churchyard in Murlough Bay,” he reportedly stated. Casement’s reinternment at Glasnevin Cemetery was, in fact, a compromise. In 1965 neither the Irish nor the UK governments wished to antagonise Ulster unionists with the burial of a republican martyr in their midst. Among the many tributes laid at Casement’s grave following his burial in Glasnevin was a sod of turf from the high headland over Murlough Bay. The transfer of Casement’s remains from Pentonville to Glasnevin was conceived by the Irish and UK governments as a symbolic gesture of goodwill that would set the political stage for the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement of 1965.
The reader can form their own opinion on Mr. Casement’s sexual orientation. I would offer the assertion that it simply does not matter. Casement’s sexual orientation is irrelevant, his actions and his sacrifice in an attempt to Unify Ireland should stand as an impermeable character reference. The perfect summation to this piece are the very eloquent and goose bump inducing words of Roger Casement himself;
“Ireland that has wronged no man, that has injured no land, that has sought no dominion over others. Ireland is treated today among other nations of the world as if she was a convicted criminal. If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel and shall cling to my rebellion with the last drop of my blood.”