Roger Casement’s Bones Aug09


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Roger Casement’s Bones

It was one of those coincidences that happens to me every so often I think because I like to read. I picked up a copy of The Irish Times (Wednesday August 3rd 2016) and saw an article by Eileen Battersby: “Casement: romantic defender of the oppressed.” I knew a little about the man. He was a colourful figure, although that phrase “colourful figure” troubles me a little now as I write it. I always liked his face for some reason; it was the visage, I liked to imagine, of a man with compassion, a misunderstood man, maybe even a tormented soul. There was his involvement with the Rising of 1916, his gun-running, his subsequent arrest and execution. Hadn’t he delivered one of those masterful speeches while in the maw of destructive justice, akin to Robert Emmet? He’d served, I knew, as some kind of investigative civil servant in areas of the world still considered to be God-forsaken backwaters like Congo. His story read like a Hollywood script: a man going from being one of the Empire’s own to a wretched, traitorous homosexual with a complicated story.

Battersby tells us that it’s been a hundred years since his death, “a horrible death.” He was hanged at Pentonville Prison in London at the age of 51 despite several very famous figures intervening on his behalf such as W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. Battersby predictably enough argues that his homosexuality probably didn’t help his case, being what she calls “a Victorian homosexual.” It’s hard to imagine she’s wrong. One thinks of Oscar Wilde and others who were treated shamefully because of their sexuality. Perhaps it didn’t matter that Casement was a humanitarian who exposed injustices in parts of the world most people at the time as well as now wouldn’t dream of visiting. Perhaps it meant little that he was for a time consular general and lobbied for the welfare of the Putamayo Tribe in Peru. Who are they? you ask. Well, quite.

In 1911 he received a knighthood. “Irony undercuts Casement’s life,” Battersby tells us: “he was clever, impatient and unsettled. His restlessness made him subject to boredom and depression. He had an obvious talent: a fearless curiosity which made him a natural investigator and a good reporter.” Like George Orwell, writer of Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four, who served as a policeman in Burma and saw the worst excesses of Empire, Casement, it might well be assumed, had a similar experience in Congo and elsewhere. He, like many other Irish Republican activists such as Tom Barry, worked in the British Empire, first as an office clerk in Liverpool at the age of fifteen. He had an interesting and adventurous life from then on even meeting and befriending the novelist Joseph Conrad, writer of Heart of Darkness which inspired the movie Apocalypse Now. In the novel, Marlow looks through his binoculars at a sight the like of which may well have been familiar to Casement: “…and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids, – a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.”

I imagine that Casement overreached himself insofar as many could never understand or relate to many of the injustices of which he wrote since such wrongs were perpetrated in far-flung regions of the world, in cultural zones most white, British people would never encounter. Perhaps his homosexuality (some argue he was asexual) was just such an exotic imponderable? It was easier at the time I can well imagine to condemn him than to make common cause, he of course not being the “only gay in the village” to quote Little Britain. Once his sexuality – established through publication of his possibly forged Black Diaries – was entered into evidence, the rest of the case might well have fallen in with it and made it easier to condemn a man for treason who was also a pervert.

I happened, by coincidence, to pick a book out of a rotating bookcase (both items were secondhand) called Great Irish Reportage (Horgan, John, Ed., Penguin Ireland, 2014) which contains an account by Sean Ronan of the exhumation of Casement’s remains in 1965 on the orders of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The job was cumbersome because of water from a damaged culvert flooding the ground and, one might assume, the almost fifty years since the burial. The account is extremely detailed and Ronan, an official with The Department of External Affairs, sounds more like a crime scene investigator than a civil servant. The operation began at 4.50 p.m. but it wasn’t until 10.20 p.m. that it was decided they’d extracted everything they could from the grave. There was a graveside controversy about whether or not quicklime had been used on Casement’s remains. Quicklime, also known as calcium oxide, derives from limestone and was once involved in the production of limelight as in “being in the limelight.” Two men argued that quicklime’s use on bodies was discontinued before Casement’s death and was substituted with charcoal. Despite this, “it was quite apparent that a layer of lime had been reached covering the entire area of the grave.”

The first glimpse of Roger Casement in almost fifty years was “two small black objects […] floating in the water” that turned out to be bones from his hand. Next, a rib “encased with lime” was found. Then as more and more of his remains were removed from the grave they were arranged piece by piece in a coffin, his skeleton being slowly reconstructed as best they could manage.

Ronan spends time outlining Casement’s teeth: “The four teeth (the incisors) were missing but there were four teeth on the right-hand side from us (i.e. the lower left canine, the two pre-molars and the first molar teeth) and two on the left (i.e. the lower right canine and first pre-molar.)” It seemed to be an attempt to put Casement back together again, like “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men” had done.

The grave was flooded by now and “Mr McKay, up to his knees in water and mud, made a special effort with great care at the head of the grave and with his hands explored in the mud until he located the skull and managed to bring it out not only intact but covered still in some of the shroud which had in some way or other protected it so that there was an element of scalp and hair remaining.” As I write this, I’m looking at the picture in The Irish Times of Casement being led to the gallows from the courthouse, his hands shackled, his eyes turned downwards, a tall, well-dressed man.

Having found most of him, it was noticed that they didn’t have either of his tibias and so they searched the grave some more and found them. One of the men said that one of the tibias had been broken and reset.

The interior of the coffin was extraordinarily sensitively furnished: “The floor of the coffin was padded and was lined with soft white wool material. There was a white satin pillow at the head of the coffin and the undertaker had supplied all the necessary accessories, including green rubber sheets, a bag of charcoal and a large white plastic covering which we left over the entire coffin…” Everything was then covered in the charcoal, “necessary to keep the bones in position and to absorb moisture and gases.”

What must Casement have been thinking when that photo of him in the newspaper was taken in August of 1916? From the dock he said, “I saw no reason why Ireland should shed her blood in any cause but her own, and if that be treason beyond the seas I am not ashamed to avow to it or to answer for it here with my life […] The difference between us was that the unionist champions chose a path they felt would lead to the Woolsack; while I went a road I knew must lead to the dock. And the event proves we were both right. The difference between us was that my ‘treason’ was based on a ruthless sincerity that forced me to attempt in time and season to carry out in action what I said in word—whereas their treason lay in verbal incitements that they knew need never be made good in their bodies. And so, I am prouder to stand here today in the traitor’s dock to answer this impeachment than to fill the place of my right honourable accusers.” (The Irish Times, Friday, August 5th 2016.)

That phrase, “need never be made good in their bodies” is powerfully affecting, given the account of his exhumation. It is surely reminiscent of the scene in Hamlet where the Prince holds Yorick’s skull and asks, “Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?” The contrast, thankfully, between how the clown treats Yorick and how Casement’s bones were handled is great. Hamlet upbraids the gravedigger for being so disrespectful:

Hamlet: “Hath this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?”

Horatio: “Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.”

Hamlet: “‘T is e’en so: the hand of little employment hath the daintier sense…Did these bones cost no more the breeding, but to play at loggats with ’em? mine ache to think on’t.”

That phrase, “the hand of little employment” is apt given our present-day malaise. If one thinks of the contrast between Casement’s life and death and our days spent waiting for the guy from Sky to come and install our box so we can watch more TV or trying to decide which kind of smartphone is the best or how we get excited when a new Lidl or Aldi opens in our town or how we’re incensed by another story of government ineptitude, our response to the financial crises, the damning inconsistency of those masters-of-men who, on the one hand argue for the capitalistic Eden of the free market and the adoption of the tenets of neoliberalism while at the same time demanding help from taxpayers when their gambling proves disastrous, it is then we see “the hand of little employment;” it is then we realise, if we are honest and thoughtful, that we are no longer willing, if we ever were (which is doubtful) to “to carry out in action what [we] said in word.” What, after all, did we ever say? Our treason can be found “in verbal incitements that [we know] need never be made good in [our] bodies.”

If Casement’s life is to mean something to the present generation it is that talk is cheap.