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Berlin diary explains logic of Casement's ‘treason'

Sir Roger Casement, Irish revolutionary and British diplomat, was arrested on a Co Kerry beach 100 years ago today – just three days before the Easter Rising began, after an extraordinary submarine journey from Germany. Angus Mitchell, author of a new book on Casement, outlines how his Berlin diary sheds light on his activities and thinking

IF the facts of Roger Casement’s life are quite straightforward to establish, his interpretation remains deeply contested.

Part of the reason is that Casement does not belong to any one tradition of history. He may rest for some in the pantheon of great Irish leaders along with Hugh O’Neill or Wolfe Tone. But Casement’s working life was dedicated to serving the British Crown with distinction. Understanding his divided loyalties only make his ‘treason’ more enthralling.

Born in Dublin in 1864, Casement’s ancestral home was located, and the formative part of his schooling happened, in Co Antrim. It was Ulster and the Glens of Antrim that he thought of as home.

In 1884, while still a teenager, Casement arrived into sub-Saharan Africa to begin his life as a colonial official. Initially, he found work variously as a trader, civil missionary, a surveyor of railways and recruiter of African labour. But after serving and surviving for eight years, he was recruited into the British Foreign Office and became an able man-on-the-spot undertaking derring-do work under the broad remit of ‘intelligence-gathering’.

His years in Africa ended in 1904 following the publication of his official report revealing the disgraceful outrages committed by King Leopold II of Belgium’s Congo Free State regime.

Eight years later, Casement produced a second report detailing British participation in similar crimes against humanity meted out upon the communities living in the north-west Amazon. This time he pointed the finger of blame at unregulated venture capital.

The two investigations together reveal an appalling slaughter of innocents that sparked cycles of devastation throughout the tropical regions bordering the Atlantic.

As the tragedy of frontier life in the early 20th century was revealed to Casement, so his own understanding of Ireland’s colonial history started to mutate. In 1913 he resigned from the Foreign Office and his hopes of retiring to South Africa to write his memoirs were dashed by the escalating tensions in Ireland and the home rule crisis.

If he had been secretly funding advanced nationalist initiatives for at least a decade, his loyalties now were nailed to the mast. He became a key strategist in the founding of the Irish Volunteers, the Howth gun-running and the building up of a revolutionary network.

The hub of that network was focused as much on Belfast as it was on Dublin. On June 28 1914, the day of the assassination of the archduke Franz Ferdinand, after delivering an oration at the cairn above Cushendun, Casement left Ireland for America.

Much of what we know about Casement over the next two years is thanks to the diary he kept detailing his openly confessed treason. After spending almost four months conspiring with Clan na Gael chiefs in the US, notably John Devoy and Joe McGarrity, Casement left New York on a perilous voyage heading for Berlin.

His mission was to broker talks with the German government for the recognition of Irish independence in any eventual peace negotiation. His short volume of essays, The Crime against Europe, set out his controversial views on the war and Ireland’s painful historic relationship with England. Casement believed that Ireland was the Achilles heel of the British Empire.

After arriving into Berlin, Casement met with the senior figures in the German government, including the German chancellor. In November 1914 he signed a Declaration of Goodwill, promising fair treatment of the Irish people by Germany, if Britain was defeated. At the end of that year, he agreed a Treaty setting out terms for the Irish Brigade.

His hopes, however, to raise a fighting unit of Irishmen from the captured POWs proved a hopeless mission. Casement grew utterly dejected by both the war and plans for a brigade. Increasingly isolated, he retreated to a small town in Bavaria to write highly revealing articles about the secret workings of the Empire.

The diary of his last days in Berlin describe the engine room of the German government as Casement drew to a head the plans for running guns into Ireland on the eve of the Rising. His extraordinary return to Ireland by German submarine is the stuff of science fiction.

The importance of Casement’s wartime diary is how it explains the logic of his treason. He lays his heart bare in terms of his objections to the war. It is a candid confession revealing why a young, idealistic man exposed to colonialism in Africa grew to doubt his values as a privileged white man and spoke out against the racial hierarchies sustaining British power.

It reveals, too, how Casement considered Ireland’s future as part of Europe and not as part of the empire.

Casement was captured on lonely Banna Strand on April 21 1916 and spirited off to London. After intense interrogations he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, given a state trial and executed on August 3.

:: Angus Mitchell is the author of One Bold Deed Of Open Treason – The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement 1914-1916 published by Merrion Press (www.merrionpress.ie).

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