Saturday, April 15, 2006

BOOK: Roger Casement's "Black Diaries" [4/5]

[Continued from parts 1, 2, and 3.]

Peter Singleton-Gates and Maurice Girodias: The Black Diaries: An account of Roger Casement's life and times with a collection of his diaries and public writings. Paris: The Olympia Press, 1959. 626 pp.

The Irish struggle for independence

For me, this was perhaps a less interesting part of the book. The editors describe the Irish efforts to win autonomy or independence from Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century. I know almost nothing about this, and it was sometimes a little difficult to keep track of all the names of the numerous people involved (on both sides of the conflict). Casement's active support of the Irish mostly began after he retired from the diplomatic service in 1913 (pp. 317, 327). (Incidentally, there's a nice paragraph on p. 317 where he complains about the never-ending stream of difficulties that a consul like he had to put up with from the numerous British subjects calling on his help.)

During the first world war, many soldiers from the UK became prisoners of war in Germany; among them there was naturally also a certain proportion of Irishmen. Casement persuaded the Germans to publish a statement of good intentions towards Ireland (p. 371) and to try establishing an ‘Irish brigade’ (p. 381): he went round the POW camps and tried to convince the Irish prisoners to join this brigade, with the understanding that they would be sent to Ireland to fight against the British (pp. 374–6). Germans would provide some equipment, weapons, and a few troops of their own. The resulting uprising in Ireland would weaken Britain and force it to withdraw some of its soldiers from the Western Front (pp. 404–7).

However, these plans were not particularly successful. Most of the Irishmen approached by Casement regarded his proposal as treasonous and refused to join (pp. 374–5). Casement came to be regarded more and more as an ineffective dreamer (p. 383), and was not taken seriously either by the Germans or by the Irish nationalist leaders in Ireland itself (p. 402). He did in fact come up with some quite bizarre proposals, e.g. that the Irish brigade should be sent to fight the British in Egypt (p. 381), or to help the Turks in Syria (p. 402), even though it was clear that the effects of this tiny number of soldiers would be negligible and that most of them didn't want to go anywhere except to Ireland anyway.

The Germans began to feel that the whole enterprise is sufficiently unreliable that they decided to send no soldiers or officers of their own; they'd send only a small quantity of arms (p. 407). Without enough arms an Irish uprising would be impossible, as the British had forbidden the import of arms into Ireland some time before (pp. 331, 337–8). What is worse, “there is no serious doubt that the Germans had been deliberately deceiving the Irish leaders as to their support, and the only man who had seen through their game was Roger Casement.” (Pp. 407–8.) The purpose of this German duplicity was to prevent the Irish from abandoning the armed uprising altogether; a failed uprising might be a disaster for the Irish but would still be good for Germany insofar as it would keep the British busy for a while.

[Interestingly, before the war, some of the Unionists (who opposed the idea of Home Rule for Ireland) also looked to Germany for assistance. Edward Carson wrote in 1913: “ ‘We have the offer of aid from a powerful Continental monarch, who, if Home Rule is forced on the Protestants of Ireland, is prepared to send an army sufficient to release England of any further trouble in Ireland by attaching to his dominion.’ ” (P. 330.)]

The date of the uprising had been set at Easter Sunday, 1916. Casement realized that given the meagre support by the Germans, a rebellion in Ireland is too risky, and he hoped he'd be able to warn the Irish leaders in time to call the whole thing off. But the Germans delayed his letter to Ireland, and also made sure that the submarine they provided to transport him to Ireland would not land there early enough (pp. 410–1). The Irish plans for the uprising are described on p. 412; it is clear to what a considerable extent they depended on German support. (Incidentally, the plans to send weapons from Germany to Ireland were doomed to fail anyway: the British had acquired German naval codes early in the war (p. 363), and were thus able to read German cables and wireless messages, so that such a shipment could not be concealed from them; p. 419.)

The Irish leaders decided to start the rising anyway, even after they realized that no German support would be forthcoming and that Casement had been arrested soon after he landed in Ireland. Even though there was no hope of military success, the rising would at least prove that Ireland seriously wanted independence. “England pretended that her aim in the war was to champion the rights of the small nations to independence and freedom and she was desperately trying to draw the United States into the conflict by appealing to the American ideal of democracy and freedom. With Ireland risen in rebellion, that pretence would lose all consistency, and England would be obliged by her German enemies as well as by her American allies to grant Ireland independence.” (P. 425) Besides, another good reason to proceed with the rebellion was that the British were planning to disarm the Irish Volunteers, the main nationalist organization, and introduce conscription to obtain new recruits for the British army (p. 423). Thus it might be difficult or impossible to carry out a rebellion later.

Anyway, the rising ended up a failure (pp. 419–21), despite much courageous fighting and even heroism on the part of the rebels (pp. 431–2). It seems that this rebellion had some elements of a class-based conflict in addition to a nationalist one; hilariously, “It was James Connolly's Marxist conviction that capitalists will always abstain from destroying the majestic buildings which symbolise their power. He thus chose the General Post Office as headquarters for the rebel leaders, firmly believing that such a fine piece of architecture was the safest place in Dublin.” (P. 432).

The rebellion being suppressed, many of the rebels were executed or imprisoned, and the ruling circles in England were in no mood to negotiate or be lenient. But this provoked a reaction in Ireland: “the Nationalist movement, which had lived in the hearts of but a few patriots until the Easter rising, embraced suddenly all of the Irish nation./ What had appeared to be the idle dream of a few misled poets, became overnight an immediate reality. What had started as a rebellion proved to be in fact a revolution.” (P. 454.)

Casement's trial has a certain bizarre aspect. He was accused of violating an act of king Edward III, published in Norman French in 1351, “which provides a uniform death penalty for treason and such offences as to imagine the King's death; violate the King's wife, or his eldest unmarried daughter, or the wife of the King's eldest son” (p. 467). The same act had been used in 1902 to sentence to death a certain Col. Lynch, for supporting the Boers; but his sentence was changed into imprisonment and he was released soon afterwards (p. 466).

“The charge was one of intention, not of deed. [. . .] Thus a sentence of death could only be obtained from a misinformed jury which would [. . .] draw the conclusion that Casement himself was the responsible agent for the attempted landing of the arms.” (P. 467.) The fact that Casement had actually tried to prevent the rising was ignored. Even Casement himself “refused to fight his adversaries on their ground, choosing to elevate the debate to the sphere of principle. He thus relinquished his only chance to save his life.” (P. 467.) At the end of the trial, he made a speech (pp. 486–98) containing some of the finest sentences ever spoken in praise of national independence. “Self-government is our right, a thing born in us at birth; a thing no more to be doled out to us or withheld from us by another people than the right to life itself—than the right to feel the sun or smell the flowers, or to love our kind.” (P. 498.)

From a legal point of view, much of the defense was based on bickering about the wording and even the punctuation of the 1351 act. The pedantry reached truly absurd heights; one of the judges personally examined the 600-year-old parchments on which the act was originally published: “ ‘My brother Atkin and I took the trouble to look at the Parliamentary Roll and the Statute Roll.’ ” (P. 500.) See pp. 503–7 for a discussion and even facsimiles of the manuscripts. Among other things, the law forbids one to “be adherent to the enemies of our Lord the King in the realm, bringing to them aid and comfort in his realm, or elsewhere” (p. 504). Casement was charged with treason for his activities in Germany; the prosecution claimed that the phrase ‘bringing to them aid and comfort in his realm’ must be understood as if it were in brackets, and the main clause is therefore ‘be adherent to the enemies in the realm or elsewhere’ — thus, treason abroad is forbidden by this act and Casement had broken it. The defence, on the other hand, argued that the concept of brackets or equivalent things was not present in such medieval texts; and besides, the interpretation with brackets would mean that the phrase ‘in his realm’ is unnecessarily (and unexpectedly) duplicated; thus, the act does not really talk about treason committed abroad (pp. 477, 506). I must admit that I don't quite understand the defence's arguments here, and the prosecution's argument certainly appears more credible to me. If the bracket-based interpretation is not accepted, then what does ‘or elsewhere’ refer to? If it refers directly to ‘bringing to them aid and comfort’, then the defence would have to argue that the people to whom Casement had been bringing aid and comfort ‘elsewhere’ (i.e. in Germany) were not ‘enemies of the King in the realm’ (i.e. the Irish) but the Germans, who were enemies outside the realm. It isn't obvious to me from the book that this is what the defence was trying to say. Anyway, it all seems rather convoluted. The editors of the book suggest another interpretation, which sounds much more persuasive, but it seems that it has not occurred to the defence: namely that the French word that is here translated ‘elsewhere’ can also mean ‘otherwise’, and under this interpretation the question of treason abroad would not come under the purview of this act at all. (Some other weaknesses of the defence are discussed on p. 502.)

But anyway, from a common-sense point of view, it's probably difficult to defend Casement's act — surely it doesn't matter whether the enemies that you are supporting are located within the country or elsewhere, or if you are located within the country or elsewhere — it's treason all the same. I personally am very uncomfortable with this whole concept of treason anyway. What right does the government have to compel its citizens to support it rather than the enemy? It doesn't have that right any more than a political party could have the right to compel the people to vote for it rather than for a rival. Imagine that 51% of the country voted for party A, the remaining 49% for party B, and the day after party A forms a government, it declares war on a neighbouring country C. Are the 49% of the people who most emphatically wanted neither party A nor war against C now to be considered traitors unless they blindly support these things, both of which are odious to them?

Thus, the British government should not, in my opinion, have the power to compel even the Britons to support it, much less an Irishman such as Casement. As I see it, he could not commit treason against it because he never owed it his support anyway. As he rightly pointed out, the decent thing for him to do was to support his country, Ireland, and not some foreign occupier such as Britain.

Incidentally, I suggest that the proper thing to do in a situation like this is the following: if an activity is not forbidden by anything more recent than a 600-year-old piece of sheepskin inscribed in Norman French, then it should damned well be considered perfectly legal. And all lawyers who seriously think that the proper way to decide the outcome of a 20th-century trial (and a man's life depending on it, too!) is to wrangle about the phrasing and punctuation of a 600-year-old Norman-French sentence (quite possibly written by some semi-illiterate drunken scribe anyway) should be placed in front of the nearest wall and shot.

Also incidentally, that act of 1351 was not the only Norman-French thing about the trial. “An usher shouting ‘Oyez,’ the Norman-French word for ‘Hear Ye,’ opened the proceedings’ (p. 465). See also p. 499 for a bunch of other ridiculous medieval court rituals.

After Casement had been sentenced, various petitions were sent to the government to pardon him, but were rejected. Many argued that hanging him would just turn him into a martyr: “ ‘Casement had not, up to the time of his trial, any serious hold on the Irish people. His nationalist writings were circulated in America, not in Ireland. [...] if during your recent visit to Ireland you enquired what Casement was driving at you did not receive a single well-informed reply. You certainly did not find him a national hero; [...] It is quite true that if he is spared, the fact that he is not executed will be used against us. But if he is executed, his execution would be an even more formidable weapon.’ ” (G. B. Shaw's petition, pp. 510–1.)

[To be continued in a few days.]


Blogger jin said...

Words so shed could fill a lake!

Sunday, April 23, 2006 11:53:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Then it's a good thing that I split the post into five parts, I guess :)

Incidentally, is your phrase a quote from some well-known source? I couldn't find anything about it on the web. It certainly has a nice and regular metrical structure.

P.S. I see that you posted the comment almost a week ago, but the email that is supposed to send me every time somebody posts a comment here only reached me today. Otherwise I'd have replied sooner.

P.P.S. Since you posted the comment almost at midnight, the obvious question is: was it insomnia that drove you to read my blog, and if yes, did it help? :]

Saturday, April 29, 2006 6:17:00 PM  

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