Bootboy: The Casement Diaries, by Roisín McAuley – BBC Radio 4

I’ve been going through my old cassette tapes recently, and copying some of them to my hard drive. Along the way, I came across this recording of a 40-minute documentary on Radio 4 that was broadcast in 1993, the year that homosexuality was decriminalized in Ireland. It was in the days before people had really heard of the Internet. Nowadays, all BBC radio programmes are readily downloadable, in their archives. I have emailed the BBC and the producer to ask if they have any objections to my streaming this programme on my blog – if they ask me to stop, I will do so. But lest anyone be in any doubt: This was broadcast by BBC Radio 4, at the end of September/early October 1993, in their “Document” series. It was made by Roisín McAuley, produced by Nigel Acheson, and the series researcher was Joanne Cayford.

Shortly after, I wrote this piece about it in Hot Press:

Sir Roger Casement

6th October 1993

The conclusive outing of Sir Roger Casement, National Hero, on Róisín McAuley’s groundbreaking (if not a little coy) Radio 4 documentary programme recently, nearly eighty years after his execution for treason in the cause of Irish Freedom, is in pleasant synchronicity with the changes that are happening this year with regard to Irish legal acceptance of sexual difference.

His diaries, “200 pages of depravity,” were used to prevent his reprieve from hanging; it could be said that he died on account of his sexuality. Prominent public figures were shown the diaries to prevent them from signing a petition for clemency. Such was the climate of the time that they were deemed, hysterically, to be British forgeries by the Nationalists, and Casement at the time felt obliged to deny authorship. Technically, they are still held under lock and key in Britain (Ireland never asked for them to be returned), closed for 100 years. Thankfully, McAuley was permitted access, and she brought along with her to the Home Office in London a distinguished handwriting expert, who confirmed that everything that he had time to study of the “Black Diaries” was indeed written in Casement’s hand.

What exactly is in the diaries that was so damning and, ultimately, so fatal to their author? There are five diaries, full of graphic descriptions of encounters with hundreds of young men, their looks, clothes, anatomy and even the length and shape of their cocks. For contemporary gay men, there is probably nothing surprising in that. Our promiscuity is something that even in this decade of AIDS awareness is a reality- whether in short periods when young or as a lifelong pattern of relationship. That Casement was a size queen makes him no different to any gay man I know, despite protestations to the contrary. What is surprising is that he should feel the need to commit to paper his exploits. He must have known that their existence was a blackmailer’s dream- for some time, he wrote two diaries, one of which was “respectable”; in the other he fleshed out the details. It implies a pervasive inner split about the way he lived his life- an experience not unfamiliar, again, to the modern gay man or lesbian.

That he divided his personal life in two in such a manner- going to all the bother of writing the anodyne version as well as the salacious, must indicate that he was aware of the fact that the former would become public at some stage. He was a great public figure, a “humanitarian hero”- perhaps his hubris was in believing that the “black” diaries would somehow never enter the public domain in the same way that he expected his other, sanitised journals would. I doubt if he could have anticipated that they would be used against them in the way they were, but some part of him must have been aware of the possibility of their posthumous publication.

The fact that Ireland has not asked for their repatriation is something that should be remedied immediately. It is time that they were published- it is a sad distortion of history, not to mention a severe indictment of the academic historical establishment, that it has taken nearly eighty years simply to get their authenticity established.

I am not interested however in making Roger Casement out to be a queer icon. He led a classic double life – and until the diaries are published, we will not know how he treated his young men, whether they were part of a journey of celebration or obsessive misery, or how much his sexuality influenced his politics or personality. De Valera thought him too “noble” a man to be homosexual. Thankfully, we are now at a stage where we can accept that nobility and homosexuality, and of course Irishness, are not mutually exclusive. But it is a near probability that for the rest of this decade (at least), no history books will be amended to include the fact that the sex diaries of one of our greatest patriots are genuine, and that he was a promiscuous homosexual. It saddens me, for until that change is made, Irish students will not be made aware of the possible connections between sexuality and the pursuit of goals, humanitarian or otherwise.

I am aware of one other major figure in Irish political life who was bisexual, who was friendly with MacLíammóir and Edwards in the heyday of the Gate Theatre, and who used to go cottaging with them. But it is only hearsay, and of course it would cause immense grief and suffering to his children and grandchildren to name him. There is a side of me that would like to insist, for historical accuracy, on establishing the evidence and going public with it. But he would not have wished it. It would be exploiting his life and his memory for sensationalist effect. The gay community, in Ireland at least, is slowly building up its confidence, and beginning to change attitudes and laws for the better in our society as a whole. It did it without the benefit of a martyred gay hero. Now we can say without a shadow of a doubt that one of the most striking and compassionate men of his generation, who was hanged for the Irish cause, was one of us. He wrote about it in his diary. No doubt he was aware of Oscar Wilde’s denial of his sexuality in court two decades previously, and the fate that awaited him. But a diary, you see, is a girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions. And consequently meant for publication.

Update May 2006: I’ve re-published two more essays of mine on Roger Casement and you can read about them here.