Roger Casement gathering in Tralee, 2011 part 1

Here is a picture of a parrot.

Unfortunately, I never got around to finishing this rambling review, and I have so much to do now that I may not do so in the future.

Nora Connolly, in The Unbroken Tradition (New York, 1918), recalled that Captain Jack White seethed with rage when a column of the Irish Citizen Army that he was training misinterpreted his signal. James Connolly reminded him that they were only volunteers, and Captain White ‘turned in a flash.  “Yes”, he said, “And aren’t they great? And he forgot his rage in admiration of the men of a few weeks’ training.”‘ Many years later, White would criticise Roger Casement’s decision to ally himself with Germany – “He loved his native land better than he loved humanity” – and James Connolly’s rebellion was similarly denounced by some of his contemporaries as an abandonment of socialism for the enemy, nationalism.

Lorcan Collins started the evening session on the second day by giving a talk on the topic of ‘James Connolly and the Easter Rising’. Collins’s biography of Connolly has recently been published as part of the 16 Lives series, and along with stories of Connolly’s socialist activism and personal life he talked about some of the myths that have grown up about Connolly’s involvement with the 1916 Rising. One of these is the conceit that Connolly firmly believed that Dublin city would not be bombarded, which Collins believes arose from Desmond Ryan’s supposition that Connolly probably didn’t expect attacks on capitalist targets. This is what Connolly wrote in May 1915 on the Moscow Insurrection of 1905, from which he evidently drew lessons about urban warfare:

Connolly maintained the use of field guns and artillery by
government troops in street fighting “was against all the teaching
of military science”; further, a regular bombardment of the city
would only have been possible had that section of the population
loyal to the government been outside the insurgent lines. But that
would have meant an abandonment of business and property,
and, as Connolly concludes, “the moral effect of such a desertion
of Moscow would have been of immense military value in
strengthening the hands of the insurgents and bringing recruits to
their ranks.” Connolly concludes that “even under modern conditions, the professional soldier is badly handicapped in fighting
inside a city against really determined civilian revolutionists.” [1]

Collins also contended that, contrary to the perception that the failure to seize Dublin Castle was a major flaw in the plan for the Rising, it was actually militarily unimportant.

Like Jack White, whom he later converted to socialism, Connolly was powerfully affected by the Boer War, but Connolly’s hatred of colonialism first emerged when he was a soldier in the British Army and posted to Ireland. He first came to the notice of the R.I.C. in 1898, when Maud Gonne gave him £25 to publish a pamphlet on famine conditions in Kerry. Lorcan Collins also brought Connolly’s interest in Na Fianna Éireann, a group also patronised by Roger Casement. Nora and Ina Connolly ensured, via Countess Markievicz, that  the only girl’s branch, the Betsy Gray Sluagh in Belfast, continued to be represented at the Fianna’s annual Ard Fheis in spite of repeated attempts by some in the Fianna executive to alienate the branch from the organisation at large. Nora Connolly was dispatched by the IRB executive to ensure the safe return of Liam Mellows, who had been deported to England in March 1916, and subsequently engaged in a futile attempt to mobilise the northern units to fight with Dublin.

Angus Mitchell’s paper dealt with Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, whose novel on Casement has recently been released in its English translation.  An essayist and political commentator, Vargas Llosa is an advocate of the free market, a stance as unpopular in South American literary circles as it was approved of by the US media. Many elements of his journalistic work and novelistic preoccupations provoked his interest in Casement. Vargas Llosa investigated the massacre of eight journalists in the Peruvian Andes in 1983, though the response to his report was decidedly mixed. His novels often have themes of Messianism, revolutionary change and the relationship between fiction and history. An advocate for human rights in spite of his unpopularity with the left in Latin America, Vargas Llosa criticised the Israeli operations in Gaza in 2006. Vargas Llosa seems to be placed in an ideal position to examine the contradictions of Casement’s life, such as his supplication to imperial Germany to support an anti-imperial revolution. However, one of the many charges laid against the novel is that Casement’s rationale in linking the state/capitalist atrocities in the Congo and Amazon region with British imperialism in Ireland is not really explored in its political context, oddly enough given the nuanced understanding of the issues surrounding Casement’s life, including the Black Diaries, that he displayed in this 2009 interview.

Perhaps an explanation lies in his ideological preoccupation with nationalism.

Llosa: I have always had a horror of this form of fanaticism. Nationalism seems to me man’s worst invention. And the most extreme form of nationalism is cultural nationalism. And yet in some circumstances it can represent liberating values …

Seisdedos: Is there a good nationalism?

Llosa: In the case of certain peoples crushed by colonisers, which aspire to free themselves of the occupier, nationalism has a positive value. But the danger is when it becomes an ideology. Nationalism means violence, prejudice, distortion of values. Casement represented the more idealistic side, which is the struggle against the oppressor…” [2]

Vargas Llosa is clearly hostile to nationalism, and at the same time ambivalent – some reviewers (including Laura Izarra and David Barnwell, who are quoted below) have noted his benevolent treatment of Casement’s cultural nationalism. Vargas Llosa’s novel, The Storyteller, deals with the theme of importance of storytelling to the Machiguengans of the Peruvian Amazon, comparing the role of the storyteller to that of the novelist. Casement’s political nationalism is dealt with crudely. According to Angus Mitchell, Vargas Llosa takes his cue from previous biographers of Casement by giving the Black Diaries credence by placing them into the centre of the narrative and situating them within his life. Casement’s state of mind is seen to take a turn for the worse as he involves himself with cultural nationalism in Ireland and, subsequently, the IRB and revolutionary nationalism. Vargas Llosa’s postmodernism in this instance, rather than producing new meaning, reproduces the old.

There seems to be a general consensus El Sueño del Celta/The Dream of the Celt is not Vargs Llosa’s best novel. One reviewer writes

Although it is written in the third person, El Sueño del Celta resembles a fictional autobiography. There is no point of view save that of the protagonist. Casement dominates every page. There is no scene depicted or dialogue created in which Casement is not present. We only know what Casement knows. [3]

In spite of Vargas Llosa’s preoccupation with Casement’s psychological state, the personality and political development of “his” Casement remain a mystery, the questions of identity which so preoccupies historians remaining obscure. Situating the novel within its literary context, Laura Izarra suggests that “Vargas Llosa’s narrative can be placed in the liminal space between literary journalism and fiction” [4]. Angus Mitchell suggested that, ultimately, Vargas Llosa has ensured that Casement has become a subject of interest in South America, and that his revolutionary legacy is now linked there. The massive publicity with which the Spanish and English editions have been greeted would seem to bear this out. Perhaps, then, the book succeeds slightly more as journalistic investigation than as historical fiction.

Following this talk the only known filmed footage of Roger Casement was screened. This same footage is below. [5]

A History Ireland Hedge school was held earlier this year with the title: The War of Independence: ‘four glorious years’ or squalid sectarian conflict? The narrowness of such a frame of reference tends to restrict debate along predictable lines, and yet books dealing specifically with the War of Independence period, or with revolutionary nationalism in general have, broadly speaking, tended to fall on either side of this ideological divide during the last fifteen years or so. Of course there have been honorable exceptions such as Brian Murphy, Fergus Campbell and John M. Regan. It was very refreshing to listen to two talks at the Casement gathering that brought either a specific theoretical approach or looked at an issue within a broader context. It is the type of practice that, utilised more widely, will start to free the subject from political agendas. I will deal with Alan Drumm’s talk in the next post. Andrew McGrath’s talk, the last of all on the second day (Monday evening), dealt with Casement’s application of just war theory to the First World War, and put into context Casement’s decision to support and, finally, to arm the Irish Volunteers. McGrath gave a very detailed and indepth argument that Casement applied just war theory in a very systematic manner. Applying his expertise in just war theory and Irish nationalism, he suggested that Casement had devised a method of bridging the traditional divide between the two components of classical just war theory, jus ad bellum and jus in bello, i.e. just cause and just conduct. Thus, while The Crime Against Europe did not overtly set out to address theoretical issues, it did so in a precise and comprehensive manner.

McGrath took from Casement argument in The Crime Against Europe that jus ad bellum and jus in bello were not separate ideas, as is the common wisdom, but could be united. This, if accepted as true, would be a genuine development in just war theory. Employing the criteria of jus ad bellum in turn – right authority, just cause, last resort, reasonable prospect of success and right intent – Casement’s intention, McGrath argued, was clearly to employ the theory and not to invoke it as a polemical tool. In employing the jus in bello criteria, Casement did not seek to justify German atrocities in the First World War, but sought to contextualise them. He states that the definition of unjust warfare is imperial warfare. Such a war fails the test of just cause, and therefore it follows that the conduct of such a war cannot be just. An unjust war cannot be waged in a humanitarian manner. However, Casement does not argue that just cause automatically translates to just conduct, but he neglected to deal with the issue of just conduct in defensive warfare, i.e. one which has just cause.

Casement’s arguments in relation to the arming of the Irish Volunteers employed just war theory no less than his writings about the First World War itself. Casement invoked the criterion of last resort: the Curragh Mutiny demonstrated that no self-determination would be granted, because the Ulster unionists and no less than the ‘Army of Occupation’ would oppose it. Right intent was implied by Casement’s argument that armed resistance was against an unjust war. McGrath termed Casement’s account one of the most original and powerful developments in recent just war thinking. The argument that jus ad bellum and jus in bello were not separate theories but logically interdependent has considerable ramifications for just war thinking. It also provides a pattern for analysis of all imperial wars. Andrew McGrath’s paper should be published in the near future.

The second part of this report is forthcoming. This year, a somewhat recession-hit Casement Autumn Gathering will take place at the end of September (details here).

[1] Priscilla Metscher, James Connolly and the Reconquest of Ireland (Minneapolis, 2002), p. 193. Available online at http://homepages.spa.umn.edu/~marquit/connolly.pdf, accessed on 5 June 2012.

[2] http://www.drb.ie/book_news/12-04-14/Mario_Vargas_Llosa_In_Dublin.aspx, taken from an interview in El Pais.

[3] David Barnwell, ‘Mario Vargas Llosa. El Sueño del Celta,’ Irish Migration Studies in Latin America’, November 2011. http://www.irlandeses.org/imsla2011_7_04_10_David_Barnwell.htm

[4] Laura Izarra, ‘El sueño del celta (2010) Mario Vargas Llosa’, Irish Studies in Spain (2011), http://www.estudiosirlandeses.org/Issue7/Irish_Studies_in_Spain_7/Irish_Studies_in_Spain_7.htm#El_sue%C3%B1o_del_celta

[5] This footage was taken from a Channel 4 documentary, The First World War, Episode 8 – ‘Revolution’. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0426688/.


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About Claire

“Newspapers, you know, are the devil’s chief agency in the modern world.” (Éamon de Valera in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, May 15, 1918.) This blog - http://siulach.wordpress.com - is generally concerned with Irish history but also broadly with the way in which propaganda influences us in our capacity as citizens and sometimes in the most private matters – for example, some posts deal with propaganda levelled against the sick and disabled.

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