Review of Angus Mitchell, One Bold Deed of Open Treason by Jennifer Redmond

One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement 1914-1916 by Angus Mitchell

Dublin: Irish Academic Press, Paperback ISBN 978-1-78537-056-4

Mitchell-Cover-300x450.jpgThis book is a new investigation into the mindset of Roger Casement, one of the most intriguing revolutionaries of Ireland’s struggle for political independence. Casement has been the figure of much controversy and interest due to his unionist, loyal family background, his service in the British colonial administration and his knighthood. However recent writings have rightly highlighted his importance as a humanitarian. Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times has referred to him as ‘a romantic defender of the oppressed‘ for example, and his record in highlighting the outrageous human rights abuses he saw in Africa and South America sets him apart from the dominant imperial and racist discourses that permeated the society in which he lived and worked. His identity as a gay man, in an era that criminialised both public and private homosexual acts was controversial on both sides of the political divide. The British government used this aspect of his identity to discredit him, while Irish nationalist denied the veracity of the claims, it being impossible to conceive of a revolutionary as a homosexual. Casement is thus fascinating as a figure that shines a light on social, gender and sexual norms in revolutionary Ireland.

Angus Mitchell’s new book focuses on the Berlin diaries spanning 1914-1916, the period in which Casement recorded his increasing commitment to physical force nationalism, but also his experience of travelling to Germany via New York and Norway, entering Berlin under a false identity and engaging with Irish soldiers in an attempt to muster forces against the British government back in Ireland. Here we see Casement’s passion emerge, such as in this phrase from which the book has taken its title: ‘… even if all my hopes are doomed by rank failure abroad, at least I shall have given more to Ireland by one bold deed of open treason than Redmond and Co. after years of talk and spouting treason have gained from England’ (page 43).

Interestingly, the term “homosexual” or “gay” do not appear in the Index to this book, indicating to the reader that the focus is strictly on his political role, so this is not a study in itself of the sexual politics of his era. It does, however, allow the reader to explore Casement in his own words, without the filter of historians, without the judgements and analysis of others. Those words, are, at times, haunting, prescient and beautiful and demonstrate that Casement is still in need of further research to fully tease out his contribution and personality.

This book is a practical one. There are editor’s notes giving greater detail on Casement’s activities and publications as well as detailed biographical entries at the back on the individuals mentioned. The appendices also include transcripts of original primary sources, bringing historical documents into the hands of the reader. This makes it a thoroughly helpful read for the general reader as it is not made dense with footnotes, but allows a fluid reading of his life at this time.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw all tried to intervene to save Casement from execution, highlighting the fact that he was a figure who had gained much respect in his own time, and that there were those who did not condemn him for his revolutionary activities or, more bravely, for the allegations of homosexual activities. As Mitchell notes, ‘Independent Ireland has found it complicated to incorporate the narrative of this decorated imperial official into its foundational history’ (page 7) not least because of the scandal of the ‘Black Diaries’ but also because of his attempt to stop the Rising itself. He is a complex figure but an important one, and it is pleasing to see him re-emerge as a figure of interest in this Decade of Commemorations.

Jennifer Redmond

Department of History

Maynooth University