I was intrigued by the mystery of the diaries and his role as an outsider even within the eclectic mix of people that formed the big cheeses of 1916
Fionnuala Doran began her career as a Ninja Turtles fan, but has just published a graphic novel on Roger Casement, writes Don O’Mahony
COMICS always figured in Fionnuala Doran’s life. She recalls being very small and reading the adventures of Asterix the Gaul and the Belgian reporter Tintin. In her teenage years, she gravitated towards the iconic mainstays of the DC and Marvel Comics universe, Superman and Batman, and the X-Men and Spider-Man, but there is one comic that has a special place in her affections, a syndicated comic strip of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that appeared in newspapers.
Generally, three panels in length, her grandfather would cut them out and glue them into a scrapbook so she could read them all in one sitting as one continuous story. A graphic novel, if you will.
The protagonists in Doran’s own comics may also be heroes associated with the colour green, but that’s where any comparison with our wisecracking amphibians ends. Doran’s protagonists are historically real and complex, and, to date, include Countess Markievicz and Roger Casement. Growing up in the 1980s in Lurgan, Co Armagh, Doran says it was hard to avoid such nationalist and revolutionary figures.
“If you grew up in Lurgan, by default you were aware of at least a bit of Irish history, because Lurgan still is quite a centre of unrest,” she points out, alluding to the recent arms find in her hometown.
“So, from there, I was aware of a lot of the contentiousness of Irish history and aware of figures. Even from following the GAA, there’s [Belfast’s] Casement Park. There’s all these different parks and venues named after people from Irish history. When you’re a kid, you hear these names. Then you hear a wee bit more about the people associated with the name and, when you’re a teenager, you go and Google them or you go and look them up in the library, you find out a wee bit more about these events or characters.”
In 2007, Doran graduated with a BA in Fine and Applied Art from the University of Ulster. While working for the Catalyst Arts Gallery in Belfast she began creating comics as part of a British Council-funded project called Multiples. The brief was to create something that could be sold in multiples. Doran’s idea was for a newspaper-sized comic that would deal with different events in Irish history. One of her subjects was the human rights campaigner and Irish patriot Roger Casement.
She explains her fascination with Casement on the fact she was “just kind of intrigued by the mystery of the diaries and his work in Africa and South America and kind of his role as an outsider, even within the eclectic mix of people that formed the big cheeses of 1916”.
The diaries in question were the so-called ‘black’ diaries, the personal journals attributed to Casement (it’s still a matter of debate whether they were his, or even if they were factual) that detailed evidence of his homosexual orientation and were used by the British government to discredit him during his trial for treason.
In Doran’s recently published graphic novel, The Trial of Roger Casement, a compelling account of his final two years, she manages to present a rounded version of this complex individual, a character that is both knowing and self-aware and yet hopelessly adrift in the world — both insider and outsider.
Doran says: “It only came to me recently, actually, but I was just thinking what it would be like to be gay or to have to hide something really fundamental about yourself for your entire life and what kind of effect that would have on a person. And I can’t even conceive what a huge effort it would be to pretend, to basically masquerade in public for the entirety of your life? It’s such a strange thing to think about today, but it must have been very common a hundred years ago.”
Reflecting on her book, Doran concludes: “Casement was a romantic kind of guy, so I figured he probably wouldn’t appreciate a straightforward biography.”