Book review: One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diaries of Roger Casement

EVER since Roger Casement was hanged in 1916, controversy had surrounded his diaries, but there was no controversy about a diary that he began while in Germany during the early months of World War I.

Book review: One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diaries of Roger Casement

That diary was freely acknowledged and first published in Germany shortly after the Irish Free State was set up in 1922.

The diary provides interesting insights into Casement’s reasons for going to Germany and his initial reaction to what was happening there. “Germany is fighting the battle of European civilization at its best against European civilization at its worst,” Casement wrote in August 1914 before setting out for Berlin.

The British Empire was “a monstrosity”, Casement noted in his diary during his first week in Berlin in November 1914. “The world will be the better, the more sincere, the less hypocritical for a British defeat, for a German victory.” He did not share American disillusionment with Germany over the so-called ‘rape’ of tiny Belgium by the Germans. Of course, he saw the Belgians in a different light.

“There may be in this awful lesson to the Belgian people a repayment,” he wrote. What the Germans did in Belgium did not compare with the suffering that Casement witnessed the Belgians inflict on the natives of the Congo.

“All they now suffer and far more, they, or their king, his government and his officers wreaked on the well-nigh defenceless people of the Congo basin,” he wrote. It was for his humanitarian contribution in reporting this Belgian brutality in the Congo that Casement first came to fame, so he had a very different perspective on the events in Belgium.

He went to Germany with the aim of organising help for an Irish rebellion. “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,” Casement noted.

He realised that the English would consider his behaviour treason. He was not trying to hurt the British but, rather, to help Ireland. “I should be a traitor did I not act as I am doing.”

He negotiated a treaty with the Germans and persuaded them to permit an Irish Brigade to be recruited from among the 2,400 Irish prisoners-of-war being held in Germany. The Germans authorised this brigade and moved Irish prisoners to Limburg to facilitate recruiting, but Casement quickly became disillusioned with the calibre of those Irish prisoners.

Most of them wanted nothing to do with the Irish Brigade, and Casement viewed them as mere mercenaries. “No spark of patriotism,” he wrote. They were “demoralised”.

“The more I see of these alleged Irishmen — the less I think of them as being Irish,” he wrote on December 10, 1914. “They are the black blot of our claim to nationality.”

He was so disillusioned that he essentially became ashamed of being Irish. “I regret I am not a German,” he wrote. “I used to be proud to be Irish. Since I saw the ‘Irish’ soldiers and read Redmond’s speeches, I feel ashamed to belong to so contemptible a race.” But then he quickly began to look on the German leadership in a similar jaundiced way. Indeed, he concluded, they were even worse than the English.

“The more I see of the ‘governing classes’ in Germany the less highly I estimate their intelligence,” he wrote next day. “They are ‘not in it’ with the English — that is for certain.”

A few Irish prisoners stood out in Casement’s view. Bryan A Kelly of Dublin was interned as a student in Germany at the start of the war. He was particularly critical of the Irish prisoners. They “were a contemptible cowardly lot of brutes,” he told Casement, who concurred with this assessment.

The two other prisoners that impressed Casement were 17-year-old Paul O’Brien, the son of a Corkman who had been cap

tured as an apprentice on an English steamer, and Timothy Quinlisk from Wexford. After some initial reservations about Quinlisk, Casement came to admire the 18-year-old who had enlisted in the British Army in Waterford. “He is a fine type — brave and fearless,” Casement wrote.

On returning to Ireland after the war Quinlisk exploited his contacts with Casement to ingratiate himself with Michael Collins and the Republicans, but then in late 1919 he offered to betray Collins, who was furnished with documentary proof of the treachery.

Misled into believing that Collins had fled to Cork, Quinlisk was lured there in February 1920 and shot dead in Ballyphehane. If he was one of the better members of the Irish Brigade, this was a particularly sad reflection on the others. Of course, Casement never had much time for them anyway. “I think it may be best to break up the ‘Irish camp’ at Limburg altogether,” Casement concluded on January 8, 1915. “There is no reason for it now. All hope of getting these men to strike a blow for Ireland is at an end — and so far as I can see my mission to Germany too.”

He suspended his diary around this time. “I was being played with, fooled and used by a most selfish and unscrupulous government for its own petty interests,” he explained. In the following months he festered in his disillusionment.

When Joseph Mary Plunkett came to Germany in April 1915 to further plans for the rebellion, Casement warned him that the rising could not possibly succeed without significant international help. To attempt a rebellion on the street of Dublin in the prevailing circumstances “was worse than folly,” Casement warned; “it was criminal stupidity.” “If you are bent on this act of idiocy I will come and join you (if the Germans will send me over),” Casement added. “Only I deprecate it wholly and regard it as the wildest form of boyish folly.”

He wished for Plunkett “to see for himself the dead wall of obstinate stupidity one was up against.” The Germans agreed to provide 20,000 captured Russian rifles for the rebellion, but this was only one-fifth of the total requested. Casement was therefore anxious to get home in a desperate effort to have the rebellion called off. He restarted his Berlin diary in March 1916, recounting his efforts, his disillusionment, and his frustrations.

The Germans wished to send to Ireland the 55 Irish prisoners recruited for the Irish Brigade, but Casement would not hear of it. With some difficulty, he managed to persuade Berlin to send him home on a submarine with Robert Monteith and one of the prisoners.

“I told Monteith all my fears,” Casement noted. “I explained to him that my only hope in going is to arrive in time to dissuade the leaders at home from the attempt. That if I can only get ashore a little head of the rifles I may be able to stop the ‘rising’.” Monteith agreed.

Although Casement was supposed to join the arms ship and direct the landing at Fenit, no effort was made to contact the Aud, anchored in Tralee Bay. Instead, Casement and his colleagues headed for the shore in a futile attempt to call off the Rebellion.

One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diaries of Roger Casement, 1914-1916

Edited by Angus Mitchell

Merrion Press, €19.99

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