An outsider inside the Empire

Since the Irish commemorative cycle known as the Decade of Centenaries started in 2012, no single individual involved in the 1916 Rising and Ireland’s cultural revolution has provoked more interest than Roger Casement. This contrasts with previous commemorative moments when Casement was left on the periphery and dismissed as an outsider and outlier.

So what is the attraction of Roger Casement? Why the enduring appeal?

To capture his essence is in many ways a hard thing to do because there is not one Roger Casement, but many. Towards the end of 2016 in The Irish Times, leading public intellectual Fintan O’Toole described Casement as the ‘most magnetic figure of the Rising’ whose attraction lies partly in his endlessly shifting shape. He incites so many mixed feelings and yet speaks to so many contemporary issues. It is this complexity that draws people into the labyrinth of his life and a legacy that links Ireland, Africa, South America, Australia, New York, Berlin and beyond …

What has driven the interest in Roger Casement over the last century is a controversy over his rightful place in history. He continues to haunt contemporary discourse and disrupt the smooth veneer of national narratives. His gaze has only become more relevant with the passing years. And rare is the month that passes when he doesn’t appear somewhere in the news.

During his short life of fifty-one years, Roger Casement carried out two extraordinary investigations into atrocities and what today would be termed as abuse of human rights on the frontier of empire. In his first campaign, he condemned the regime of the Belgian King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. In June 2020 Leopold II’s image was flashed around the world as various public statues were defaced in a coordinated attack by those sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter campaign. Beneath images of King Leopold’s face covered in blood, his head covered by a sack saying ‘I Can’t Breathe’, Casement was cited in social and formal media as one of those first whistle-blowers who denounced the violent excesses of Europe’s imperial expansion into Africa.

In 2017 President Michael D. Higgins delivered a blistering speech on Roger Casement’s humanitarian vision in the Peruvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Lima. Remembering the joint struggles of the people of Ireland and Latin America, President Higgins spoke of the search for ethical solidarity in the lives and creative work of activists, artists and intellectuals. He reflected how Casement’s investigation into the Amazon demanded that we look deep into the “well of potent memories: memories of joint struggles and aspirations, of hopes shared and dreams waiting to be taken up again – a well for which we can draw as we seek to respond to the challenges of our own times”. In that poetic analysis, Casement’s essence was captured.

In the years after Casement’s trial for treason, his friend the poet, Alice Milligan, believed that long in advance of it happening Casement’s execution had been foretold. She believed too that the eventual revelation of his story would have an immense effect in uniting Ireland within the minds and memories of the people. That work is still in progress.

Back in 2016, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council commissioned a new piece of public sculpture to recognise Casement’s achievement. Few will miss the irony that in a world where statues to great men are being torn down around the world, a statue to Roger Casement is being erected. But Casement is not a great man in the normal sense of the word. His life and legacy symbolize the struggle of people without history, of the marginalised and down-trodden, of those who aspire to act responsibly and with compassion and empathy in defence of those whose rights have been denied.

The Roger Casement Summer School seeks to draw together the many strands of struggle and embedded hop embedded in the life of Roger Casement. We have created a space where informed discussion on Roger Casement and the main themes of his life and legacy can be discussed and debated.

Everyone is welcome.

 

  • See below for a selection of resources about Roger Casement, his life, influence, example and achievements.