The ghost of Roger Casement Is beating on the door. W. B. Yeats, “The Ghost of Roger Casement” What symbol are you in this dance of death? What is your relevance?




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Chapter Three


Specters of Casement in the Imperial Afterlife:

Yeats, Rudkin, and Carson

The ghost of Roger Casement


Is beating on the door.


W.B. Yeats, “The Ghost of Roger Casement”


What symbol are you in this dance of death? What is your relevance?



The spirit of Patrick Pearse speaking to Casement’s bones in David Rudkin’s Cries From Roger Casement as his Bones are Brought to Dublin


Kipling and Doyle’s career-long pattern of representing the ambivalences of Irish agency illuminates the writers’ personal investments in understanding Irish identity and reveals the centrality of “The Irish Question” in British, Irish, and even American culture and politics from the 1880s through the First World War. Their work implements a heuristic that explores the relation between Irish, British, and imperial identities—and the ways in which loyalty circulates among them—and imagines how the special qualities of Irishness can function, for better or for worse, within imperial frameworks. In this chapter, we will move beyond the era of high imperialism to explore the vagaries of Irish identity in the imperial afterlife, as it were, when the Empire begins to recede: first from its place in the British imagination, and then from places on the map. Meanwhile, Ireland, as both Free State and Republic, seems to drift further into the Atlantic; indeed, her isolationism under de Valera politically and metaphorically replicates (and certainly accelerates) the shift away from England and Europe that scientific theories of plate techtonics predict.

Onto this stage steps Roger Casement—that is, after he steps onto the hangman’s platform. Once knight and imperial servant, once intimate friend of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, once Ulster Protestant with a stream of London connections, Casement nevertheless died as an anti-imperial Irish radical, a Catholic, and a traitor to the British state. Clearly, Roger Casement was a living embodiment of the ambivalence of Irish identity within the British imperial milieu that Kipling and Doyle so extensively foreground. In death, this multivalent agent would become a haunting figure to whom biographers, historians, poets, and writers, from W.B. Yeats to Michael Carson, would be ineluctably drawn.

In this chapter, I will trace how the ambiguousness and indeterminacy surrounding the figure of Casement “haunts” Irish national ideology and Anglo-Irish relations throughout mid-twentieth century de Valerian Ireland and beyond. A focal point of analysis will be the works of W.B. Yeats, David Rudkin, and Michael Carson, three generations of Irish-descended writers who represent Casement as a ghost—a kind of Derridian revenant caught in between states whose presencing speaks to the unfinished business of comprehending and mourning his life and death, attending to justice, and most importantly, formulating authentic notions of Irish identity. These writers will engage the specific crises of identity and ideology that the figure of Casement illuminates in each of the three high-water marks of the controversy surrounding him: the late thirties, late-fifties and sixties, and the past decade. I will also suggest the ways in which Casement’s influence continues to hover over representations of Irish secret agency, as his spectral figure seems to offer a paradigm for a host of Irish protagonists involved in covert activity and betrayal, and his fatal and phantasmal Black Diaries seem to recommend a confessional narrative form for which Irish secret agency—and Irish identity itself—is both pro- and con-fessed


The In-Between Thing: Casement’s Spectral Queerness

As we know in part from Chapter Two, Sir Roger Casement, an Ulsterman knighted in 1911 for his exposés of the atrocities against the Putamayo Indians in the South American rubber trade and those of King Leopold’s exploitative regime in the Congo, was captured on Good Friday, April 21, 1916, near Banna Strand, Kerry, where he and two other Irishmen rowed ashore from a German U-boat. Ostensibly, he rose from his sick-bed in Germany and traveled to Ireland to stop the ill-fated Easter Rising scheduled for the following Monday (Doerries 24).1 Accused of conspiring with Germany to raise an Irish brigade among prisoners of war and running guns into Ireland for the purpose of rebellion, Casement was convicted of high treason in the British courts. Despite appeals for his life from several notable figures—among them, W.B. Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, and George Bernard Shaw—he was sentenced to death by hanging.

In an effort to blunt public outcry against the execution and inhibit Irish Nationalists’ easy transfiguration of Casement into a martyr, the British Government privately circulated among people of influence copies of Casement’s private diaries that were seized years earlier from his London rooms. These diaries, later dubbed the “Black Diaries,” contained an explicit record of Casement’s homosexual activities and fantasies. The Government’s strategy quieted many voices, especially those in the Irish-American community, and, on August 3, 1916, Casement was executed and buried at Pentonville Prison, where his quick-lime covered body lay in a mass grave. After decades of appeals, Casement’s bones were finally disinterred and returned to Ireland in late February 1965. Despite his wish to be buried at Murlough Bay, a favorite site in his native Country Antrim, Casement was recommitted to earth in a state funeral on March 1, 1965 at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, the final resting place of many Irish martyr-heroes.2 These are the facts associated with the end of Roger Casement’s life and his eventful death; the meaning of them is still up for debate.

The fact that more biographies have been devoted to Casement than any other figure of 19163 attests to the enduring puzzle he presents to posterity. Other figures, like Erskine Childers, for example, held seemingly contradictory positions and sketched a similarly fantastic arc, from trusted imperial servant, soldier, spy, and novelist to executed Irish rebel. Yet, Childers does not haunt Irish memory and culture. Critic Lucy McDiarmid wonders if Roger Casement may be “over-remembered,” as she recites a litany of Casement remembrances:

He can be found, in one form or another, in poems, plays, orations, memoirs, songs, legends, jokes, allusions, anecdotes, paintings, monuments, documentaries, filmscripts, and—by the thousands—letters-to-the-editor. The sheer quantity of material defies measure. He makes cameo appearances in novels by Eimar O’Duffy, Joyce, Stevie Smith, Terence de Vere White, and in poems by Louis MacNeice, Paul Durcan, and Paul Muldoon. He is the entire subject of at least two ballads, and of poems by Alice Milligan, Eva-Gore-Booth, Maeve Cavanaugh, Liam O’Gogan, one “Baron von Huenefeld,” Yeats, Richard Murphy, and Mebh McGuckian, and of the novel The Flaming Heart (sic) by Michael Carson. At least three . . . documentaries and six plays have been written about him; three monuments in his memory are easily visitable, at Banna Strand, Ballyheigue, and Glasnevin, and a fourth, though well-hidden, is said to exist (at Murlough Bay). Although there appears to be a curse on films about Casement, there is always one underway. (131)


What is equally remarkable is how often Casement is figured as a specter. Even the titles of scholarly works devoted to him, such as Alfred Noyes’s The Accusing Ghost; or, Justice for Roger Casement, W.J. McCormack’s Roger Casement in Death; or, Haunting the Free State, and Lucy McDiarmid’s “The Posthumous Life of Roger Casement” bear out his ghostly stature. Given W.B. Yeats’s towering mytheopoetic capacities and keen intuition, it is reasonably certain that he established this tradition when he figured Casement as an unquiet ghost in 1937. Yet, the endurance of this phenomenon of representation strikingly exhibits Casement’s role in Irish culture as a revenant, an in-between “thing,” as Derrida calls it, that comes back to trouble the living. Why is this the case?

The particular fascination with Casement—and with Casement as a ghost—must begin with his uncertain sexuality, which hangs in the balance between two tantalizing propositions: first, a theory that gained currency in the thirties, that the British Government forged his so-called Black Diaries, garnishing them with homosexual erotica to malign his character; or, second, that he really was that randy diarist (or “size queen,” as he is dubbed in Michael Carson’s 1995 novel, Knight of the Flaming Heart). As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick theorizes by way of Foucault, homo/heterosexual definition and the persistent incoherence surrounding it simultaneously undergird and trouble twentieth-century Western constructs of identity—and, more so, our ways of reading identity. She maintains that the privileging (and crisis) of homo/heterosexual taxonomy emerged in a specific cultural, historical, and scientific moment, a moment that seems to belong to Casement and Oscar Wilde before him:

New, institutionalized taxonomic discourses—medical, legal, literary, psychological—centering on homo/heterosexual definition proliferated and crystallized with exceptional rapidity in the decades around the turn of the century, decades in which so many of the other critical nodes of the culture were being, if less suddenly and newly, nonetheless also definitively reshaped. Both the power relations between the genders and the relations of nationalism and imperialism, for instance, were in highly visible crisis. For this reason, and because the structuring of same-sex bonds can’t, in any historical situation marked by inequality and contest between genders, fail to be the site of intensive regulation that intersects every issue of power and gender, lines can never be drawn to circumscribe within some power domain of sexuality (whatever that might be) the consequences of a shift in sexual discourse. Furthermore, in accord with Foucault’s demonstration, whose results I will take to be axiomatic, that [as] modern Western culture has placed what it calls sexuality in a more and more distinctively privileged relation to our most prized constructs of individual identity, truth, and knowledge, it becomes truer and truer that the language of sexuality not only intersects with but transforms the other languages and relations by which we know. (2-3)


Thus, Casement’s indeterminately queered sexual identity, much like Wilde’s, not only coincides with, but can even name his ambivalent political identity and unreliable agency. And this gets constructed as an Irish thing in the decades Sedgwick names, as the sexually illicit, sensational trials (and tribulations) of Oscar Wilde and Charles Stewart Parnell before Casement imbricate underground sexual alterity with ambivalent and inscrutable Irishness. Indeed, it seems an incredible stroke of fate that Casement was brought to Ireland on a German U-boat named Oskar II, for, in many ways, he is the second coming of Wilde: another fantastic figure entrenched in the British establishment whose Irish queerness and queer Irishness will stand trial.

Casement’s uncertain ontology, derived from the “in-betweeness” of his sexual and political identities, thus lends itself to ghostly figurations, for an apparition is also a liminal, latent, “in-between” thing. Jacques Derrida, drawing on Foucault’s notion of monstrosity as occupying the interstitial spaces between taxonomies,4 sees the ghost as “the becoming-body . . . some ‘thing’ that remains difficult to name: . . . It is something that one does not know, precisely, . . . because this non-object, this non-present present

. . . no longer [belongs] to that which one thinks one knows by the name of knowledge” (6). Likewise, Yeats figures the ghost of Casement as a “thing” that cannot be known. Evoking the opening scene of Hamlet in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears (a scene Derrida analyzes extensively), Yeats begins “The Ghost of Roger Casement” with two questions: “ O what has made that sudden noise? / What on the threshold stands?”(1-2; italics mine). Not only is the ghost identified as a what and later as an it—a “thing” that cannot be named or known—but it stands in the threshold, an interstitial space between the living and dead, and, as we shall see shortly, between Ireland and England, injustice and reparation.

Yeats’s ghost is singularly inarticulate as well. He neither speaks of the wrong he was done nor explains the reason for his return; rather, the ghost only makes a “sudden noise.” Then, too, Yeats’s choice of poetic refrain—“The ghost of Roger Casement / Is beating on the dooris significant, for the ghost’s repeated “beating” at yet another threshold seems to constitute some kind of speech act or unquenchable demand for justice, though this injunction remains unspecific. This paradoxical noisy silence of Yeats’s ghost seems to sound the inchoate nature of Casement’s legacy; indeed, it can also be said that the ghost’s speechlessness recapitulates Casement’s own silence about his sexuality and the authenticity of the Black Diaries. Casement was “outed” by the British Government by the circulation of private, perhaps forged, diaries without ever coming out of the closet,5 and his silence regarding the authenticity of the diaries’ homosexual content further complicates our knowledge of his identity or the justice that his ghost might be owed. Sedgwick inverts Foucault’s notion that silence constitutes a speech act in itself, where ambiguities and multiple meanings can accrue, by suggesting that speech acts for coming out are particularized, sometimes “strangely specific” (3). She notes that acts of coming out engage ontology (I am gay) rather than epistemology, for they often “have nothing to do with the acquisition of new information” (3-4). Thus, Casement’s silence regarding the diaries’ authenticity or his own sexual identity ultimately frustrates attempts to name him as a homosexual, and he remains a free-floating agent between the binary definitional categories of homo/heterosexual definition, troublesome in themselves, from which other ontological statuses and ways of knowing proceed.

Casement also remained persistently “unreadable” because his controversial diaries themselves were literally unreadable: the British Government kept them classified for decades under the Official Secrets Act. As a result, the diaries had a curious “afterlife” as parodoxically disembodied, yet extant texts and problematically absent fetishes, and their dramatic and belated “returns” to the public domain conferred upon Casement in death yet another spectral quality. Indeed, it was not until 1959 that a French press outside the jurisdiction of British law published a contraband version of the diaries, the typescripts for which were handed to the editor by a Special Branch insider back in 1922.6 Bowing to pressure brought on by the 1959 foreign publication, that same year, the Home Secretary initiated a policy to allow historians, biographers, and other approved persons to view the diaries—a kind of selective “witnessing” of ghostly texts made manifest. In the flurry of books on Casement that followed, biographers generally accepted the diaries as wholly the writing of Casement, and only one serious scholarly article appeared that challenged the diaries’ authenticity.7 Yet the debates raged (and continue to rage) over the diaries’ authenticity on from the sixties. Amazingly, Casement’s diaries were not officially released until 1995 in an early—but decidedly belated—relaxation of the 100-year rule for sensitive public records (Sawyer, Roger Casement’s Diaries, 2). Two publications of the diaries subsequently appeared in 1997. Thus, for nearly eight decades, these texts, which perhaps bore the evidence of Casement’s sexuality and Britain’s perfidy, were invisibly present, functioning in the public and scholarly imagination as blank pages on which any number of titillating conspiratorial conjectures and sexual fantasies could be projected. Indeed, historian W. J. McCormack contends that William Joseph Maloney penned his vociferous and influential 1937 forgery theory without ever having seen a copy of the diaries (31-35). Given their insubstantiality and questionable authenticity, the diaries, like their purported author, had a shadowy, interstitial being, existing somewhere between an official British secret and an unofficial Irish rumor. Furthermore, the various belated “returns” of the diaries in the forms of Maloney’s forgery theory, the 1959 French publication, the “witnessing” of scholars from 1959, the 1997 publications, and, most lately, W.J. McCormack’s forensic study, make the diaries themselves a kind of revenant, reappearing periodically to keep the puzzle of Casement alive.

It is important to understand that the running battle over the diaries’ authenticity is part of a larger, unresolved war that troubles notions of Irish identity and Anglo-Irish relations: that of Republican interpretations of history, in whose framework Casement figures as more or less a national martyr and victim of a culpable British state, and revisionist historians, who seem to have indefatigable energy for debunking Nationalist exaggerations, misdirections, and myths, from the minute to monumental. W.J. McCormack, decidedly among the revisionist camp, fired the latest and the most devastating volleys in the Casement dispute. Though Martin Mansergh, special advisor to the Taoiseach, advised in 1999 against a forensic study until pro-forgery theorists Angus Mitchell, Jeffery Dudgeon, and others publish their findings (Mitchell received 30,000 Euros from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund), McCormack, infuriated, forged ahead with an independent team of historians and forensic scientists. Once the Irish Government realized that the study would proceed despite their advice, it belatedly tossed a modest sum into the funding ante. The findings were announced in documentaries produced by RTE and BBC, which aired in March, 2002. As McCormack reported, "By an exhaustive examination of ink, handwriting and indentation in all five suspect documents and referring to a very large independent sample of unchallenged Casement handwriting drawn from two independent archives, Dr. Audrey Giles has proven beyond all reasonable doubt that the so-called Black Diaries are entirely the work of Roger Casement and of him alone” (qtd. in Edwards: par. 5). As if to drive one more nail in Casement’s coffin to keep him buried for good, McCormack followed up this study with the 2003 publication of Roger Casement in Death; or, Haunting the Free State, a text largely and somewhat tediously devoted to “outing” William Joseph Maloney, author of The Forged Casement Diaries (1936), as a faulty and biased historian. However, McCormack’s book also works to capture the mood of Ireland in the 1930s that allowed Maloney’s book to gain such currency.

Why all this strenuous effort and overkill? Commentator Ruth Dudley Edwards wonders the same, asking, “Why did the clever Martin Mansergh . . . get himself and Bertie [Ahern] into the embarrassment they are in . . . over the Sir Roger Casement controversy? What was he doing dragging the Irish Government financially and morally into a controversy about whether a man who was executed 85 years ago was or was not homosexual?” (par. 2, 3). Indeed, for 85 years, both governments managed to evade commissioning a definitive study like McCormack’s. Though calls for an investigative panel periodically ramified through Ireland and England from the 1930s onward, the belatedly-virtuous British Government maintained that such a study might unnecessarily blacken the reputation of a man who was already tried and hanged for his crimes, and de Valera wisely held off the idea, concluding, “Roger Casement’s reputation is safe in the affections of the Irish people” (qtd. in McCormack: 107).

In retrospect, McCormack’s study may seem a ridiculous amount of effort to “out” Casement once and for all. However, the stakes are actually high, and the case on Casement is hardly closed, despite McCormack’s findings.8 Though the question of sexual identity is always political, for Casement in particular, it had (and still has) direct bearing on Ireland’s national ideology: a definitively queered Casement disrupts Nationalist discursive productions of Irish martyrdom, which are entwined with Catholic doctrinal notions of piety and sainthood, as we shall soon see. Furthermore, the vindication of the British Government in regard to doctoring Casement’s diaries has a palpable impact on Irish perceptions of Anglo-Irish relations. While W.J. McCormack acknowledges that the British Government’s “plain blackguardism” in circulating the diaries is still worthy of censure, such new knowledge of the diaries’ authenticity precipitates a paradigm shift for anti-British Irish historiography, which now must reevaluate the role of British culpability in Irish matters as well as contemplate an even more haunting question of Irish blameworthiness: why couldn’t Casement’s supporters rise above the Special Branch’s petty strategy? (qtd. in Ezard: par. 10).

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