The Casement Diaries: a suitable case for treatment
Professor Bill Mc Cormack reports on work to reassess Roger Casement’s diaries
The anti-slavery campaigner, Roger Casement (1864-1916), was executed for high treason in 1916. Despite the political circumstances — he was an Irish separatist, the Great War was in full swing — interest in him has focused ever since on five diaries now preserved in the Public Record Office (PRO) at Kew. Excerpts from these were circulated at the time of trial to discourage appeals for clemency. In the hands of Scotland Yard and the Home Office, these showed Casement to have been a promiscuous homosexual with a fondness for very young men.
Were the diaries forged for the purpose? Did Casement lead a double, or even treble, life? Controversy has raged for more than eighty years, while homosexuality and Irish separatism have become matters of far less anxious argument. In particular, it became a matter of literary debate with writers as different as W B Yeats and David Rabkin getting in on the act.
Roy Jenkins repatriated Casement’s remains in 1965, as an act of reconciliation between Britain and Ireland. In 1994, the diaries were made available to the public, and the PRO is vigorously positive in assisting inquirers. The British and Irish governments have tacitly agreed that the diaries should be tested for authenticity, so as to bring the last controversy to an end.
Meanwhile, various editors have made fragments of Casement’s extensive archive available in print. He was a man of many parts — Africanist, Amazonianist, cultural nationalist, human rights activist, and (most recently) the subject of new respect in the gay community. These different aspects of Casement can collude to obscure the individual. Enthusiasts for one of his causes often pay scant attention to the whole picture.
So the Kew diaries remain something of an enigma. My objective is to have all five of these documents reproduced in facsimile and in toto, perhaps on CD-ROMs, together with a forensic account of the forgery/authenticity question. Goldsmiths has taken a lead in this matter since February 1998, when the first of two colloquia on Casement was held here, under the joint auspices of the Anthropology and English departments.
Why should we be interested? The case is a challenge to scholarship and to historical understanding. At one level, it implicates editorial theory, for diaries are highly complex documents to read and interpret. But there are also pressing issues of public concern, as Northern Ireland teeters yet again on its own coat-tails. Suspicions of ancient foul play need to be investigated, to clear the air one way or the other.
But the crisis also affects the institutions we work in. At a time when the academy is under pressure to demonstrate its worth, here is a project in which science, moral reflection, and historical research can unite. The questions confronting us are not easy. But if academic work cannot address the difficult issues, what credibility has it left?
Applications for funding will be pursued later this spring, in an innovative collaboration between the PRO and Goldsmiths.
Professor Bill Mc Cormack, Professor of Literary History
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