Review: The tragic life of Roger Casement

Review: The tragic life of Roger Casement

Scottish lawyer Robert Shiels reviews a book on the life of Roger Casement.

How do you present a biography of a person in a different age who travelled the world and attained great fame? Any such subject would test even an experienced writer and Sir Roger Casement more so.

All due deference ought to be shown to this study of the life of Roger Casement, not least because, on the blurb, the author “was a leading publisher for many years”.

Yet, the book begins with a very brief prologue, the denouement to the life of Casement, namely his brief walk on “a nice sunny morning” from a prison cell to the scaffold, without the sedative on offer.

Several chapters then outline the dangerous and pioneering work of Casement as a consul during his travels in what is now the Congo, Mozambique, Angola and West Africa.

This period of Casement’s life is crucial to the narrative because of his damning revelations of the use of slaves and their mistreatment, both in central Africa and later in South America.

Casement was an early human rights investigator and campaigner, albeit as a member of the British diplomatic service. His moderation and understatement in his reports proved to be highly effective.

Strangely then, it is only at Chapter 5, perhaps a quarter of the way into the book, that the complexities of Casement’s early family life, described as “foundations”, are set out.

The chaotic and impoverished background in which Casement grew up is described clearly and it is easy to see how a colleague thought him to be “an odd man out … difficult to classify”.

Casement’s increased immersion into Irish language and culture was “a psychological turning point as well as a geographical detachment from the London establishment”. It is not difficult to understand how enthusiasm for cultural nationalism developed into outright anti-imperialism, not least given the economic conditions of many in Ireland then.

Some knowledge of Casement’s life is likely to be quite common even now. The revelation in this biography may be Casement’s extensive dealings in Germany with the Germans during the Great War.

The attempt, ultimately a failure, to raise an Irish Brigade from amongst the Irish soldiers who had become prisoners of war to fight for Ireland is understandable on Casement’s thinking but it was his undoing.

Also, the return of Casement to Ireland was clearly a threat to the authorities at a difficult time politically and in the war but in the end the event was not what it might have been.

For lawyers, perhaps, an enduring point about the criminal trial in London for treason was the breakdown of senior counsel to Casement. His position was not assisted by instructing senior counsel not to depart from his admission of full responsibility.

On the fourth day of the trial after two hours of advocacy, overwhelmed, senior counsel said simply that he could not go on: “his eloquence deserted him”, notwithstanding his experience.

A rare charge of treason, the evidence all around of a nation at war, the difficulty of presenting what defence there was, the almost certainty of proof of the charge and the imposition of capital punishment had all taken their toll.

This life of Casement does highlight an important point: Casement endured difficult physical and emotional conditions as a child, and for years as a diplomatic consul in undeveloped areas.

His ill-health, including poor diet and unsatisfactory living conditions, are referred to regularly and all appear indeed to have been virtually constant throughout his life.
In considering the possibility of clemency after the death penalty was imposed, a medical report was obtained, and seen by the Cabinet, no less. The report by a psychiatrist concluded that Casement was “abnormal but not certifiably insane”.

The whole social and medical background of Casement, and that conclusion, invites a more intimate study of Casement who appeared to be intent on martyrdom.

For the general reader, this is an excellent introduction to a vexed era in British and Irish history. The odd arrangement of the early parts of the book do not really deflect from its interest.

Broken Archangel: The Tempestuous Lives of Roger Casement by Roland Philipps. Published by The Bodley Head, 382pp, £25.

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