Commemoration of historical events often reflects the time period in which the commemoration takes place. How we remember our history is influenced by contemporary politics and social mores.
Research on the men and women who fought for and led Ireland towards independence has been renewed in the last two decades, as the centenary of many of the key early twentieth century dates approached.
How has the State commemorated 1916?
Official state commemoration of 1916 has taken place three times (a well attended 75th anniversary commemoration was organised by ‘Reclaim the Spirit of Easter 1916’), – in 1966 on the fiftieth anniversary – with footage now colourised – (the 25th fell during the Second World War); on the ninetieth anniversary in 2006 and the centenary in 2016.
Each was very different, reflecting both the current political and social environment.
In 1966 a Fianna Fáil government was in power, led by Seán Lemass, who was tasked with a commemoration that would not be seen as a celebration of the party, or a campaign for the re-election of Éamon de Valera as President in the upcoming June Presidential election. Commentators disagree as to whether this was achieved; it was either a triumphalist, nationalist celebration or a measured, educational one which was cognisant of unionist opinions in Northern Ireland.
The 2006 commemoration was different for several reasons. There was a generational remove – family members were now the descendents of 1916 participants, rather than the participants themselves. Another new dimension, as expressed by Gabriel Doherty ‘was the fact that large quantities of original source material relating to the Rising had only recently been made available to academic researchers and the general public.’ (Doherty, 377). This refers in particular to what is commonly now referred to as the ‘witness statements’ – a collection of testimonies given to the Bureau of Military History between 1947 and 1957. Taken from direct participants in the struggle for independence, they cover the background to 1916 up to the end of the War of Independence.
Doherty also points to the economic circumstances in the early 2000s, the Celtic Tiger years, which perhaps caused questions about the economic success of an independent Ireland to be sidelined. (Doherty, 378).[Gabriel Doherty and Dermot Keogh (eds), 1916: the long revolution (Cork, 2007).]
The most recent State commemoration of 1916, the centenary held in 2016 was again unlike both previous State events. The buoyant economic conditions of the previous commemoration were gone, Ireland was still dealing with the recession and the collapse of financial stability.
But while economic conditions had worsened, social conditions in Ireland had improved, and it is this, along with wider public access to records documenting the revolutionary decade, that led to a much more thorough understanding of the personal lives of revolutionary leaders.
Changing attitudes towards homosexuality in Ireland
In 1993 the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform was successful in achieving the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland, ten years after the first Pride parade was held in the country and fourteen years after the Hirschfeld Centre opened in Temple Bar.
The 2010 Civil Partnership gave same-sex couples who registered their relationship some of the same rights as married couples, but without many rights concerning children in that relationship.
A referendum held in Ireland in 2015 allowed for changes to the Irish Constitution and the recognition of same-sex marriages. In total, 62% of voters backed the amendment, while 38% voted against it, meaning that Ireland became the first country in the world to make same-sex marriage legal by popular vote.
How then has additional access to source material and changing attitudes towards homosexuality in Ireland been reflected in how Ireland’s early twentieth century revolutionaries have been assessed?
The first official commemorative event of 1966 took place on Good Friday, 8th April at Banna Strand in Co. Kerry. This was where Roger Casement had arrived on a German submarine in 1916, and where he was arrested for his part in the Rising. Several months later Casement was hanged in an English prison for treason. Central to his trial were his infamous diaries, which purported to give irrefutable evidence of his treason, but also, because of the entries on his homosexual encounters with other gay men, the diaries were used to damage him personally. The authenticity of the diaries has been widely contested – Casement’s role in exposing the horrendous treatment of workers in Belgian’s rubber plantations in the Congo over a decade before he landed on Banna Strand may have marked him out to British authorities as a whistleblower humanitarian.
There were two sets of diaries, ‘Black’ and ‘White’ – the latter were an account of his investigations into abuses by rubber plant companies, and the former were the personal, incriminating diaries.
At a time when homosexuality was still criminalised, that Casement’s landing on Banna Strand was the opening of the State’s jubilee commemorations seems to give an indication of the official view of the authenticity of the diaries – and perhaps by extension, Casement’s homosexuality.
Dr Angus Mitchell has researched and written extensively on Roger Casement’s work as a humanitarian and the hundred year controversy surrounding the authenticity of the diaries used against Casement in his trial. When asked by this author about the State attitude in 1966 towards the the homosexuality detailed in the diaries, Dr Mitchell replied that
Most people in Ireland in 1966 still thought the diaries were forged. Sean Ronan, who was sent by Dev to pick up Casement’s bones told me that the view then in the Department of External Affairs was that the diaries were the work of British propaganda agencies. Therefore the question of his homosexuality in the corridors of Leinster House never really arose, because it was dismissed as an invention. There were a lot of people who were alive who still had first hand memories of Casement – Dev included – and they thought the world of him. (pers comm, June 2020)
In 1966 then, Casement’s public , and official, reputation in Ireland rested predominantly on his nationalist credentials. But as the debate about, and release of extracts from, his diaries continued throughout the century, Dr Mitchell notes *here* that the ‘role assigned to Roger Casement in the various commemorations of the 1916 Rising has varied greatly.’
In 2002 the diaries were officially authenticated in England (see an RTÉ news report here), although discussion still continues about inconsistencies, which hampers unequivocal universal acceptance of the diaries as truly the hand of Casement.
An extract from Professor Michael Laffan’s entry on Roger Casement in the Dictionary of Irish Biography:
The diaries Even before Casement’s trial British officials circulated portions of diaries, supposedly written by him, in which the author described homosexual encounters with young men and adolescents. They contained numerous accounts of partners’ physical details and of payments made. Their circulation to journalists and to influential figures in Ireland, Britain, and the US was designed to blacken his reputation and to undermine any movement for clemency. In the probable event of his execution they would also help to prevent his being viewed as a martyr. The tactic succeeded in the first of these objectives. At a time when homosexual tastes and practices were widely loathed, several among those who were shown the diaries chose not to involve themselves in the appeal for a reprieve.
Over many decades some of Casement’s supporters claimed that the diaries were forged. There were strong arguments in favour of such a view: none of his friends and acquaintances suspected he was a homosexual; accounts of the diaries’ discovery were inconsistent; the ‘black’ or compromising diaries related to the years in which he made his two river journeys, when his movements were uniquely well recorded; and some of the entries for 1911 indicate rash behaviour at a time when Casement was under constant surveillance by his enemies.
On the other hand it was argued that the diaries were preserved carefully by the British government (although access to them was denied until 1959), and that this would have been self-defeating if they were forgeries; F. E. Smith clearly believed they were genuine and offered them to Casement’s counsel for inspection – an offer which was wisely declined; the diaries contained inconsistencies (such as criticism of homosexuality) which seemed to weaken their impact, and which a forger might sensibly have avoided; the sheer volume of material was superfluous, increasing the risk of incriminating errors; and any forgery had to be carried out in a hurry, since there had been no need to produce the diaries until Casement was captured a mere five weeks before his trial.
Dr Rebecca O’Neill recently sought recommendations on Twitter for biographies and research on Roger Casement – the responses and discussion demonstrate the still wide ranging views on the diaries.
By the time of the 2016 commemoration, Casement’s reputation as a patriot and as a gay man were very much to the fore. But increasingly his work as a humanitarian has also re-emerged, helped no doubt by an excellent exhibition in the National Museum (Archaeology).
A 2016 RTÉ Radio 1 Documentary on One also delved into this work.
The case for Casement’s homosexuality currently relies on the authenticity of his diaries, but a repudiation of the diaries does not mean that Roger Casement was not gay; if they are forged it is perhaps because there was knowledge of his homosexuality and it was seen as a credible means of securing his downfall – not only marked as a traitor for seeking German assistance for Irish independence, but an additional slur that would help discredit the exposures he had made long before his ‘treasonous’ collaboration with Germany.
Roger Casement led an extraordinary life, full of contradictions. It has taken a century for all aspects of that life to be recognised and celebrated.
Another welcome advance in the research of revolutionary Ireland has been how much more of it has focused on the role of revolutionary women. These are the women who physically fought in the Rising, women who fundraised, who hid Volunteers and who then suffered physical and sexual abuse for their actions; Prof Linda Connolly in particular has shown that gender based violence in the Irish Revolution was a large area of historiography continually sidelined.
A History Ireland Hedge School in December 2019 discussed the topic of violence against women throughout the Irish Revolution.
Despite their sacrifices, these women then had to fight the new Irish State for recognition of their contribution to Independence.
A new biography of Margaret Skinnider published this year by Dr Mary McAuliffe is a hugely welcome addition to women’s history, the history of revolutionary women – and the history of lesbian women in Ireland.
Margaret was born in Scotland to Irish parents, and joined Cumann na mBan in Scotland. Dr McAullife notes in this Irish Times article that by ‘December 1915, and at the invitation of Countess Markievicz, Skinnider set sail for Dublin with detonators and bomb wires, destined for the Irish Citizen Army, concealed on her person.’
During the Rising she was stationed at the Royal College of Surgeons as a sniper, was wounded and returned to Scotland following recovery. But her activism was far from over, despite being denied a pension for her part in the Rising because the Army Pensions Act was deemed to dictate that soldiers were understood to be men (her pension application can be accessed here).
Dr McAuliffe’s research into Skinnider revealed that for 40 years Margaret shared her life with Nora O’Keeffe, from Tipperary and a fellow Cumann na mBan activist. As Dr McAuliffe notes in her Irish Times piece, the network of lesbian women brought together by their revolutionary activism ‘such as Dr Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine ffrench Mullen, Elizabeth O’Farrell and Julia Grehan, Helena Molony, Kathleen O’Brennan, remain under-researched.’
Dr Kathleen Lynn’s medical work has been receiving more focus and recognition in recent years. She was Chief Medical Officer for the Irish Citizen Army and was stationed at City Hall during the Rising, later imprisoned in Ship Street, Richmond Barracks and both Mountjoy and Kilmainham.
Her long term relationship with Madeleine ffrench Mullen, another ICA member and also imprisoned in Mountjoy and Kilmainham, has usually been referred to as though they were mere housemates. The Letters 1916-23 project has some interesting personal correspondence of Dr Lynn, and Constance Markievicz’s will, made during Easter week was witnessed by ffrench Mullen.
In 2016 Elizabeth O’Farrell position within the Rising has somewhat been restored. It was particularly egregious that the photographic record of perhaps her most important moment in the Rising, delivering the surrender, with Pearse, to General Lowe of the British Army, was doctored, erasing the brief glimpse of her in the picture. Elizabeth is now buried in Glasnevin cemetery, next to what is believed to have been her partner Julia Grenan. In the 1911 census Julia was recorded as a visitor to Elizabeth’s house, but the women lived and worked together in various republican organisations together throughout their lives.
Eva Gore-Booth and Esther Roper, buried together in St John’s churchyard, Hampstead, were another long term revolutionary couple.
Some recent work by Prof Sonja Tiernan in particular, has demonstrated the depth of affection between the women.
The Twitter handle @IrishWomenIn has also been posting on Eva and Esther this month.
This short piece clearly demonstrates how much more research is still to be carried out on those we commemorate as having brought Ireland to independence. It really is only in the last few years that a much more nuanced, and personal image of the participants in 1916 or the War of Independence have started to emerge.
The increasing focus on the role of women has also brought public attention the extent of female opposition to the Treaty, perhaps there is more work to be done on the possibility that this may have been behind the reluctance of the Free State to give these women their proper acknowledgement.
A History Ireland Hedge School held early in March 2020 discussed: Teaching Controversial Issues: History and Commemoration
In this month of Pride we need to be proud of those who fought against so many of the accepted mores of their time.