Unknown Provenance

Dr. Martin Mansergh, historian, former political advisor & Oireachtas member.


Art experts, musicologists and literary critics are from time to time required to consider the authenticity of works they are engaged with in terms of their attributed authorship, a task that calls for much care and deliberation. Where uncertainty still remains, then that is usually clearly spelt out.

Historians too have to weigh up sources and materials, which do not always tell the truth. The so-called ‘black diaries’ of Roger Casement, a description in itself that is biased in a homophobic direction, are in fact a binary narrative of day-to-day activities of a consular official on a special mission mixed with an unverifiable account of hyperactive erotic adventures. Despite the degree of duplication involved, the first category of narrative is supposed to have co-existed with totally credible and far more extensive official reports in journal form written and sent home at the same time, many of which have been edited and published.

The one area of agreement is that what purported to be printed extracts of diaries alleged to have been found amongst Casement’s possessions, left behind when he went to Germany, were shown selectively to influential opinion-formers in order to prevent any campaign for Casement’s death sentence on a charge of treason to be commuted. There is a consensus that this was contemptible behaviour on the part of the British security authorities.

The problem is that the same authorities are the sole source of the diaries released to the archives over 40 years after Casement’s execution on 3 August 1916. They gave several conflicting accounts as to how and when the diaries came into their possession. There is no record that what was deposited in the archives was ever shown in its original form to any outside person, or that the extracts shown corresponded exactly to anything that was later released. Casement was never confronted with them, and there is no evidence to give plausibility to the idea that he was troubled, intimidated, or influenced by fears of having given hostages to fortune to his enemies.

The British authorities had two problems to solve. They had to explain how Casement as a British consular official had received a knighthood as recently as 1912 for his exemplary humanitarian investigations into the abuse of peoples indigenous to the Congo and the upper Amazon border regions of South America, but yet had turned traitor to Britain and in terms of personal morality behaved in ways that were by the standards of the day beneath contempt. The evidence, however, had to be authenticated. A diary that was purely erotic would not have done, but, happily according to them, it was interspersed with daily accounts that could be linked to Casement.

No one has explained why Casement would have wanted to write up two competing daily accounts, one extensive, idealistic and eloquent in tone, the other mean, cynical, and summary, or, having made many enemies amongst those he was exposing, he would have left around compromising material, where there was a high risk that his possessions would be rifled through in his absence. Less than five years later, he appears to have led an entirely celibate existence in Germany in 1914-6, where he also had suspicious and watchful enemies. Apart from handwriting examinations, there have been no independent forensic tests on ink and paper.

The official British explanation of these documents has never been uncontested, but for a long time also rarely without its champions. The foremost Casement scholar of any time Angus Mitchell has published hundreds of pages of his voluminous daily reports, and rejects the authenticity of the so-called ‘black diaries’. More recently, Paul Hyde has revealed a later admission by an ‘insider’ that the diaries were forged in an intelligence operation. He has also pulled apart the case made by well-known proponents of authenticity such as Brian Inglis and has exposed the undercover role of retired journalist Frank MacDermot, (barrister and one time Oireachtas member) in the 1957 publication of a forged poem in the Sunday Times.

The Labour Government in 1965 earned great credit in permitting Casement’s remains to be repatriated to Ireland. The British authorities could gain similar credit, if they officially acknowledged, however belatedly, that there are persistent, serious and legitimate question marks over the provenance and authenticity of the so-called ‘black diaries’ and warned readers in the archives of this. This would be done as a matter of course in a public art gallery.

While Casement had advance doubts about the 1916 Rising, the prospect of some German material assistance, in addition to the weapons that he helped to finance and procure through Germany for the Irish Volunteers in 1914, gave it just sufficient credibility to enable it to go ahead on a reduced scale. Ironically, Casement, who saw the operation of imperialism in far-flung continents and recognized in it its previous application to Ireland, was a symbol and an instrument in its impending retreat and unraveling.