Roger Casement Gathering, Tralee, August 2010 (1 of 2)

Apologies for the length of time it has taken me to write the promised report, which isn’t as coherent as I could have wished, but should be subject to edits later. As I was only at the evening session, I’ll start with that and write up the rest in another post.

Leo Keohane’s talk was entitled ‘Imperialism to Anarchism: Captain J.R. White and the Irish Citizen Army‘. White was from a privileged, military background: educated at Sandhurst Military Academy, he was decorated for his Boer War service, and between 1901 and 1905 he served as aide-de-camp to his father who was Governor of Gibaltar. White resigned his commission in 1907.  As detailed by Keohane, White was a supporter of home rule for Ireland by 1913, when he organised a meeting in Ballymoney, Co Antrim in an attempt to rally Protestants behind Home Rule. The Protestant contribution to Irish nationalism was recalled by the speakers, who included Alice Stopford Green and Roger Casement.

White was then invited to Dublin, where he met James Connolly, which in turn led to his conversion to socialism. According to Keohane, the Dublin slums made a great impression on White, who became involved in trade union activity and activism. When, during the Dublin Lockout,  James Larkin proposed the creation of a workers militia to protect picket lines from the Dublin Metropolitan Police, White undertook to train the force. He also volunteered his services to the Irish Volunteers, but was discouraged  by the sectarianism of the Derry contingent.

Keohane is probably somewhat correct to infer that White’s decision to eschew nationalism is a factor in his lack of recognition by historians, although the ostracisation of several key figures by the post-1916 IRB was also a factor in how history has been written. White was always on the margins of Irish politics after 1916 in any case, often at odds with the majority of Communist opinion in Ireland.  A more interesting question is why he followed Casement’s path of rejecting his imperial past, an issue White himself wrote about later:

… [Casement] felt so acutely the depth of the conflict between Britain and Ireland, because the conflict was not only outside him but inside himself. This is an aspect of Roger Casement’s war-torn life, which I believe I understand because I share it. I too have been reborn not of the flesh but from the potent magic of the Irish spirit, nowhere stronger than on Ulster soil, from an Englishman, or an Ulster planter, into an Irishman, and I know that the rebirth entails no light pangs of labour. (‘Where Casement would have stood today‘, 1936.)

White, like Casement, fought in the Boer War and was convinced of the civilising potential of Empire. He eventually came to believe that the crimes of the Belgians in the Congo were not isolated incidents of human debasement, as he had tried to rationalise them: imperialism itself was at fault, and capitalism the root of imperialist greed. White criticised Casement for his dealings with imperial Germany: “He loved his native land better than he loved humanity.”

If Casement was “reborn” as an Irishman, his involvement in the Irish language movement played an important role. Angus Mitchell’s talk, ‘The Language of the Outlaw: Roger Casement and the Irish Language’ emphasised Casement’s advanced ideas on the politics of language, with which modern thought is only now catching up (Mitchell cited the work of anthropologist Wade Davis), as well as detailing his tireless work on behalf of the Irish language. Casement’s  financial support for Coláiste Ulaid, the school at Tamhain, Co. Galway and Coláiste Mumhan, is often cited, but the extent of his activism is not so widely known, perhaps because Irish language activism is so often associated with bourgeois Catholicism. The attendance the inaugural Feis na nGleann, Co. Antrim, in 1904, which included Horace Plunkett, Eoin MacNeill, Bulmer Hobson, Stephen Gwynn and Agnes O’Farrelly, shows the wide base of support in Ireland, north and south, for the Irish language revival.* Casement gave a lecture on ‘The Irish Language’ at the Feis.

Agnes O’Farrelly visited the Aran Islands in 1898 and wrote of her impressions in Smaointe ar Árann, and Casement followed in 1904. He also visited  Tamhain Island, and wrote to Douglas Hyde:

“I have not anywhere seen or heard of such a brave true spirit as beats in that handful of poverty-striken Irishmen and women. They are Irish to the heart, and it did me more good than all else I have seen in Ireland to find them so fiercely trying, in the face of the utmost difficulty, to keep their own language… Only in Tawin, in all that coast strip, do the parents insist on the children having the language, and they are often being jeered and laughed at by the bigger neighbours around.” (Séamas Ó Síocháin, ‘Teanga agus Tuath: Ruairí MacEasmainn agus Iarthar na hÉireann’ in Bliainiris 2000, eagarthoirí Ruairi Ó hUiginn 7 Liam Mac Coill, l.43)

Casement also corresponded with the Scots Gaelic activist Louisa Farquharson who was in Ireland in the early 1900s and became the head of the Gaelic Society of London in 1908. In 1913, Casement wrote: “The “Scotch-Irishman” and the “Ulster Scot” will go the way of the stage Irishman. They are intended for the same audience…” These were Ulster Protestants who rejected their Irishness and clung on to a Scottish identity (which did not embrace Scots Gaelic). The identity emerged during the Famine, when the starving, Irish-speaking Catholics “could not be held as the fellow-countrymen of the well-to-do Protestant Irish descendants of the founders of the United States.”

In writing on the state of the language and of the people who spoke it, Casement came increasingly to identify with the west of Ireland and its people. It was not purely an emotional connection: Casement surveyed the state of the people and the language with the practised administrator’s eye put to such good effect in the Congo and Putamayo. His Putamayo report dealt, not only with the physical effects of the brutality dealt by the rubber merchants to the native communities, but with the effects on their civilisation,  culture and language. Herbert O. Mackey’s 1958 edition of The Crime Against Europe contains ‘On the prosecution of Irish’ and ‘The Language of the Outlaw’, while Casement’s article Hy-Brassil: Irish origins of Brazil is available online.  Casement’s writings are rooted in Irish tradition. As well as owing something to the politics of Michael Davitt and the histories of Alice Stopford Green, they resemble Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (reprinted with a translation by the Irish Texts Society in 1901) in their indignation and in forming a historical justification for the integrity of a culture under siege.

(Part 2)

* Mitchell noted that the role of northern Protestants in the language revival had been marginalised. While this is certainly true of the mainstream of Irish history writers, the role of northern Protestants in the Gaelic League has been addressed by Pádraig Ó Snodaigh in Hidden Ulster: Protestants and the Irish language and in the work of Risteárd Ó Glaisne, and more generally in biographies of Seán O’Casey, Douglas Hyde and Máire Ní Bhuitléir (Mary E. Butler, a distant cousin of Edward Carson) and the autobiographies of Ernest Blythe.

P.S.: In an article in today’s Irish Times, Alan Titley argues that Roger Casement should have been considered for ‘Ireland’s Greatest‘.


11 thoughts on “Roger Casement Gathering, Tralee, August 2010 (1 of 2)

  1. Thanks for this Claire. These are very valuable reviews of both talks. Casement also connected the Irish language communities with the Quechua-speaking regions of the Andes, which had suffered for centuries under the Spaniards and then the elites who took power after the War of Independence. During his time in the Congo he was also acutely aware of the politics of language, it would be an interesting project for someone to undertake a study of Casement’s comparative analysis of language.

    I look forward to part 2 of your review of the 2010 gathering.

    • Thank you very much for your comments Angus, I appreciate it.

      Thanks also for filling in something that I didn’t take enough notes on during the talk and forgot to look up while writing the post. It would be a fascinating subject to follow up.

      I do intend to finish the second part of the review as soon as I can decipher my sister’s cryptic notes on the talks that I missed.

  2. […] family and neighbours in the process. Her promotion of the Irish language in the north with Roger Casement was extremely successful, but she also helped Thomas MacDonagh found Gaelic League branches in the […]

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