While being one of the most compelling and interesting figures around the events of the 1916 Easter Rising, Roger Casement has not always dined at the top table of Irish rebels.
His homosexuality and his work for the British Empire while at the Foreign Office have meant that he has sat uneasily among some nationalists.
This entertaining, well-produced and timely graphic novel is symptomatic of recent moves to rehabilitate him.
The book seeks to give Casement’s trial historical context, by describing his work in Africa and South America, work which earned him a knighthood while simultaneously turning him into a committed anti-imperialist.
The injustices and abuses he witnessed and exposed won him widespread praise for being a great humanitarian, but also turned him into a campaigner against injustice closer to home, in Ireland — campaigns which didn’t go down so well with the British government.
This led to him becoming involved with trying to procure both arms and soldiers from Germany to join the fight for Irish independence. As he organised this during the First World War, once discovered and captured, he was accused of treason.
Much of this book uses transcripts of the moving, articulate and passionate speech he delivered to the court: “I assert from this dock that I am being tried here, not because it is just, but because it is unjust. If it be treason to fight against such an unnatural fate as this, then I am proud to be a rebel.”
Of course this speech fell on deaf ears, and Casement was duly executed. To help nullify the groundswell of rebellious support he received from Ireland, his remains were buried in quicklime in Pentonville Prison and were only repatriated in the 1960s.
The British government also used the so-called Black Diaries to try to smear his name. These were journals, whose authenticity is still debated, which described his secret gay lifestyle, a lifestyle which was of course heavily disapproved of by the Catholic church (among others!).
This graphic novel does a fine job of describing the main parts of Casement’s career and tragic end. The evocative black and white drawings set the mood thoughtfully, while the chronology at the back of the book helps clarify any confusion caused by the way the narrative deliberately skips around.
If you want a book to argue about the (missing) links between events in Ireland in 1916 and what was happening at the same time across Europe, with masses of workers involved in revolutionary activity, then this isn’t the book for you.
However, if you want an entertaining way of bringing to life one of the 20th century’s most unlikely but principled rebels, a flawed hero but “a pioneer in the fight against colonialism, racism and prejudice” (to quote Mario Vargas Llosa), then this is it.
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