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The book "Broken Archangel" by Roland Philipps is a review of Roger Casement's haunting legacy.

The book “Broken Archangel” by Roland Philipps is a review of Roger Casement’s haunting legacy.


The Arabian champion never had the opportunity to publish the book, but bestowed a title upon Roland Phillips for his own valuable but imperfect investigation of a figure whose deeds and destiny still reverberate in British-Irish connections even 100 years after his death in 1916.

Casement gazes from a cover that splices two portraits into a discomfiting whole, preparing the reader for immersion in a life that crossed sexual, geographic and ideological boundaries, and a journey that made him a martyr for some, a traitor for others.

As Casement’s responsibilities changed – from imperialist consul to humanitarian trailblazer, British knight, and Irish rebel – the perspective through which he is perceived has continuously shifted. Phillips has been able to capture and interpret numerous versions of Casement.

In the introduction, the writer establishes his argument by stating that Casement, although a champion for positive change, was limited by the oppressive beliefs of his time and his own feelings. He channeled his emotions into various causes, which deviated from his own hidden inner self. According to Phillips, Casement’s actions were motivated by his determination to do what is right, his love for his country, and his strong drive, but ultimately led to his downfall due to his secretive nature, lack of understanding of the world, and betrayal.

The bare facts of Casement’s life are remarkable. Born in Dublin in 1864, he was part of the Protestant gentry but his parents were dysfunctional, possibly alcoholic and died young, leaving 13-year-old Roger to be raised by relatives in County Antrim. He clerked at a Liverpool shipping company before sailing to Africa where he became a roving consul for the Foreign Office.

His exposé of atrocities in the Congo, which Belgium’s King Leopold II had turned into a vast slave labour camp, disgraced the monarch and prompted sweeping reforms. He repeated the feat in South America where he revealed the rubber industry’s horrific abuse of Indigenous people. Casement was knighted in 1911, an Edwardian hero and one-man precursor to Amnesty International.

After leaving his role at the Foreign Office, he devoted himself to the Irish independence movement. The latter part of the book focuses on these critical years. At the start of WWI, he journeyed to Berlin in hopes of gaining support for a rebellion. Shortly after his return to Ireland, he arrived by U-boat just three days before the 1916 Easter Rising. He was captured, put on trial in London, and ultimately found guilty of high treason.

The attempt to obtain mercy through a petition was thwarted by the government releasing portions of Casement’s private journals from 1903 and 1910-11, which detailed his promiscuous and unlawful sexual encounters with sailors, male prostitutes, and young adults. As he was executed at Pentonville prison on August 3, 1916, the gathered crowd celebrated his downfall as that of a corrupt betrayer.

Phillips shows compassion towards his subject and is attentive in recording the behind-the-scenes dealings of diplomacy and intelligence. As a previous publisher and editor, he has received praise for his books on Donald Maclean and Mathilde Carré, a spy during World War II. Utilizing the research of previous biographers like BL Reid, Angus Mitchell, and Jeffrey Dudgeon, he presents a convincing argument that Casement was a fractured individual who sought out causes to fill an emotional void. He supports the authenticity of the “black diaries” – a theory of forgery has already been disproven – yet he absolves Casement of any accusations of manipulation.

Unfortunately, the psychological examination has been hindered by superficial and, at times, confusing handling of political aspects. Phillips incorrectly labels Eoin MacNeill as the leader of the secretive Irish Republican Brotherhood, when in reality he was in charge of the Irish Volunteers army and was influenced by the IRB. There are also other mistakes, such as the misunderstanding that nationalist writer Darrell Figgis sided with the opposition. He did not.

Unfortunately, not enough attention is given to Casement’s conflicting involvement in the rise of armed republicanism and the division of Ireland. This is unfortunate as both the northern and southern regions of Ireland are still struggling to come to grips with this historical legacy.

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Casement, being a hero in the LGBTQ+ community, has become a popular topic in various forms of literature such as seminars, plays, and novels like Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt (2010). In 2021, a three-meter bronze sculpture was revealed near where he was born. Additionally, a Casement summer school holds events like debates, essay contests, and an annual wreath-laying ceremony.

Due to his reputation with the Northern Irish unionists, he was unable to be buried at his cherished Murlough Bay in Antrim. Despite his upbringing as an Ulster Protestant and later conversion to Catholicism just before his execution, he rests in Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery, serving as a haunting reminder of a divided island.

Source: theguardian.com