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Fionnuala Doran

The Trial of Roger Casement

Published by Self Made Hero

In her debut graphic novel, Fionnuala Doran’s The Trial of Roger Casement examines the last 18 months in the life of (the former) Sir Roger Casement, who was hung for treason in 1916 after the failed Irish Easter Rising.

Casement rose to prominence from a civil servant of the British Empire to expose the grotesque human rights abuses committed by the regime of King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo Free State. His 1904 report to Parliament was the first expose published from within an institution of European colonial power to detail the brutality and horror that was being inflicted for profit in the aftermath of Europe’s Scramble for Africa. His first-hand reporting showed the hollowness and hypocrisy of European colonial expansion and capitalist exploitation, the legacy of which still resonates today.

Casement’s work with exploited people in the Congo and Peru radicalised him against imperialism, at home and abroad. He returned to Ireland to join the campaign for Home Rule and, when that became frustrated by political manoeuvering not dissimilar to contemporary British politics, he began to work on what would become the 1916 Easter Rising alongside other seminal figures of Irish and socialist history such as Countess Markievicz and James Connolly. 

Among these Irish revolutionaries, Casement was also an outsider.

He did not believe in pressing ahead with the Easter Rising plans, knowing that the rebels were outnumbered and outgunned compared to the British army. He argued passionately against the loss of lives that action would cause. Casement was also a gay man who had multiple intimate and sexual relationships at a time of public revulsion against homosexuality. His trial for treason and hanging were a direct consequence of his sexual identity. A gay man was not seen as worthy of a military tribunal and execution by firing squad. While the bodies of the other 1916 Rising leaders were returned to their families, Casement’s was thrown into a lime pit outside Pentonville Prison. 

The diaries he kept chronicling his sex-partners and gay cruising were circulated to his former friends and allies, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, who might otherwise have pleaded for clemency. His public outing caused him to be written out of both Irish and British history, and even today he is a problematic figure, refusing to fit into any pre-defined conceptions of masculinity and heroism often applied to early 20th Century narratives. 

Casement’s life touches on issues still relevant today: European exploitation, the inner and outer lives of individuals, the right to demand a society for all, and the quixotic dream of freedom.

It combines fiction and non-fiction in parallel to how Casement recorded his own life in his journals; split between his ‘white’ diaries (intended for publication) and his private, intimate ‘black’ diaries. The Trial of Roger Casement does not simply replay the known facts (as much as they can be known) of his last years. The graphic novel explores our inability to truly know the inner life of another person (or oneself). 

The comic form is apt for exploring the different layers of personhood. At one level, the inner life as perceived by others (such as a biographer); at another, the observable outer life; another, the inner life as perceived by oneself (in a diary); and another again- the actual, lived experience of one’s own life. 

The book explores these dualities through what is drawn and how it is drawn. The same sentence can be said by the same (named) person, but when coming from a figure drawn in two different ways the effect of those words will be different. 

The Trial of Roger Casement is as much about the failure of biography as it is a biography

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