Book Review: Monteith: The Making of a Rebel, by Catherine C. Smyth (2017)

Monteith_bookRoger Casement was a sick man. Amidst all the uncertainties facing the tiny band of Irish revolutionaries on board the cramped German U-boat, that much was all too clear. Fearful that his companion might collapse under the twin strains of ill health and worry, Robert Monteith suggested that he catch some sleep. Casement tried to but, after half an hour, he was back to fretting.

At the mouth of the Shannon, they had looked out from the conning tower, straining their eyes in the gloom for signs of the Aud, the ship due to deliver the much-needed weapons for the planned uprising. Despite an earlier sighting of the Aud – or what they thought it was – they found nothing. After cruising for an hour and a half, the captain announced they could wait no longer, and directed his submarine towards Tralee Bay.

Before disembarking on the Kerry coast, Monteith took out their firearms and asked his companion: “Do you understand the loading of these Mauser pistols?”

“No, I have never loaded one,” Casement replied. “I have never killed anything in my life.”

“Well, Sir Roger, you may have to start very soon,” Monteith said. “It is quite possible that we may either kill or be killed.”

Monteith tried to teach Casement the basics of handling their pistols, but the other man decided that such skills were not for him and handed the weapons back with a shake of his head.

At least Casement had retained some sense of the occasion. As Monteith bemoaned the incongruity of trying to liberate their country under such woebegotten circumstances, Casement hushed him.

“It will be a much greater adventure going ashore in this cockle shell,” he said, in reference to the small boat they were lowering themselves into.

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Robert Monteith (second from the left) besides Roger Casement, on board the U-Boat for Ireland

For Monteith, it was but the latest adventure in what had already been an eventful life. Born in 1878 in Co. Wicklow, he had enrolled in the British Army and was posted to India, during which he was shot in the mouth, dislocated his hip when a horse threw him, and learned to speak a local dialect. Later he volunteered to serve in South Africa, where the ‘scorched earth’ policy he helped inflict during the Boer War gave him a different perspective on the cause he was serving:

In the smoke and red flames of the first Boar [sic] farmhouse I saw burned, there appeared to me the grisly head and naked ribs of the imperialist monster. I realised why the women and children knelt in the shower of sparks to curse us.

Still, in a way, Monteith thought the Indians and the Boers had it easy compared to the people of his own homeland:

I have been in the villages of Bengal and the Punjab in India, and in the kraals of the so-called savages of Africa, with whom it is a crime to beat a child; I have eaten with the Zulu, Basuto, Swazi and the Matabele, and can say without fear of contradiction that the conditions under which these ‘benighted heathens’ live are far above those of the Christian workers of Dublin.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that after all this, not to mention a bout of malaria, a photograph of a uniformed Monteith (below), as he neared his Army discharge after eight years of service, shows a thin, serious-looking man, still only twenty-five.rha-1903

Back in Ireland, where he owned a small Dublin-based printing press, Monteith’s feelings of discontent crystallised into open outrage upon seeing the beating to death of a man by police (and his own battering when he intervened) during the Dublin Lock-out of 1913, as well as the clubbing of his stepdaughter.

Monteith decided to enlist in the Irish Citizen Army but was persuaded by Tom Clarke, an acquaintance of his, to instead channel his military know-how into the nascent Irish Volunteers. Sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) by Clarke, Monteith was sufficiently trusted to be offered the chance to assist Casement in Germany, where he was attempting to form an ‘Irish Brigade’ from the inmates of POW camps there.

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Roger Casement

Monteith agreed and met Casement in Munich, October 1915. Casement made an instant impression on Monteith, who was to wax lyrically about his new colleague: “I have known no eyes more beautiful than Casement’s…Blazing when he spoke of man’s inhumanity to man; soft and wistful when pleading the cause so dear to his heart; mournful when telling the story of Ireland’s century old martyrdom.”

Casement’s story was almost as much Monteith’s as well, so entwined were their lives at this point. Not for nothing was Monteith’s memoir – quoted liberally by Smyth in her book – entitled Casement’s Last Adventure.

The reality of the situation, however, proved to be…challenging. Even then, Casement was visibly ill and nervous. As for the Irish POWs, they were not always a receptive audience. A not-untypical entry in Monteith’s diary read:

3 November 1915: Commenced recruiting campaign at 9 a.m. and continue till noon. Started at 2 p.m. and worked till 5 p.m. These hours were chosen so as not to interfere with meal hours of men. Men seem indifferent. A lot of them are absolutely impossible.

Much to Montheith’s bewilderment, the prisoners seemed too content with their situation for anything as bothersome as reenlistment. “All of them are loud in their statement that when the war is over they will be prepared to fight for Ireland. God help us!” Monteith wrote, and more in a similar vein.Irish_Brigade_members

At least a proposal by the IRB Military Council to have a boat loaded with armaments sent to Ireland gave Casement a new lease of life. As Monteith remembered: “He was so happy at the news I brought, that he immediately slipped out of bed, and started to work on plans or suggestions, to help the German General Staff and Admiralty, on the work in hand.”

As it turned out, neither the German Command nor the IRB had much further use or interest in him. When Casement, realising this harsh truth, insisted on going on board the same ship, Monteith tried vainly to talk him out of it. Their German point-men, in contrast, made no such effort. At least Casement and Monteith still had each other, the latter loyally refusing to allow the other to risk himself alone.

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Robert Monteith

Smyth’s book reads like a novel, fast-paced and by turns exciting and depressing. Poor Casement! Monteith at least managed to avoid capture in Kerry. He left Casement, too sickly to carry on, in an ancient ring-fort that would provide some shelter. By the time Monteith reached Tralee and alerted the local Irish Volunteers, Casement had already been found and arrested by a police patrol.

Hiding out in Tralee, Monteith could still hope that the Aud would finally arrive with its catchment, but even that was not to be. With orders, countermanding orders and general confusion marking the Rising-that-was-not-to-be in Kerry, Monteith wisely turned down the offer to command the Irish Volunteers gathering in Tralee.

Instead, he went on the run, managing to stay one step ahead of his police pursuers, and eventually made it to the safety of New York. He was by then suffering from nervous exhaustion, something which the readers will relate to by the time they come to the end of this gripping book.

While awaiting the hangman’s noose, an imprisoned Casement wrote to his sister to say: “The only person alive, if he is alive, who knows the whole of my coming and why I came, with what aim and hope, is Monteith. I hope he is still alive and you may see him and he will tell you everything.”

Monteith told a lot more people via his memoirs, and it is fitting that the same tragi-comic story should continue to be told here. What a tale! And what an adventure, as Casement observed, albeit not a very happy one.

Originally published on The Irish Story (12/09/2017)

Book Review: One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement 1914-1916, edited by Angus Mitchell (2016)

Mitchell-Cover-300x450In February 1916, Roger Casement was recovering near Munich from an unpleasant combination of tropical fever and nervous exhaustion when he replied to a letter from the Countess Blücher, asking for help with writing tips for her diary. Eager to help, Casement expounded at length on the delights – and dangers – of keeping a journal:

You know the charm of a diary is its simplicity. Its reality and the sense of daily life it conveys to the reader depends not on style, but on truth and sincerity. It should tell things but still more of the writer and his (or her) outlook on those things.

Sometimes a diary could tell too much. Casement confessed to the Countess that he had given up on the one he had been writing while in Germany as he found himself recording things that were best left in the dark.

As indicated, keeping a diary was no simple matter but then, there was little in Casement’s life, not least his time in Germany, that was simple. As he confessed at the start of another diary of his, recently reprinted here: “It is not every day that even an Irishman commits High Treason especially one who has been in the service of the Sovereign he discards.”

Quite.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a man already famous – for his exposé of human rights abuses, first in the Congo and later Peru – Casement was conscious of his role in history, taking meticulous care that his personal papers be suitably prepared and leaving behind detailed instructions for their dispersal and eventual publication. With an eye to posterity – and a trace of grandiosity – he explained the value of his documents to his friends: “they are historic & I leave them to Ireland.”

This forward thinking and the wealth of information it ensured are in no small part the reason why Casement has been one of the better remembered figures of 1916, despite his role being a sideshow to the Rising and not a terribly successful one by anyone’s yardstick: his mission to raise a regiment amongst Irish prisoners in German POW camps resulted in only a handful of recruits and the withdrawal of interest on the part of the German authorities.

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The disillusionment was mutual. “My last day in Berlin!” he wrote in this diary’s last entry for the 11th April 1916 as he departed for Ireland and the fate he was at least half-expecting to find: “Thank God – tomorrow my last day in Germany – again thank God, an English jail, or scaffold, would be better than to dwell with these people longer. All deception – all self-interest.”

This book is well served by its editor. Historian Angus Mitchell adroitly guides the reader through the literary and historical context in which Casement composed this diary, and his introduction should be highly informative to those who know only of Casement’s diaries of the Black sort (Mitchell leaves his thoughts on the authenticity of that divisive matter unstated).

But the star of the show is undoubtedly Casement, always an engaging writer keen to leave an impression on his reader as evidenced by the artful descriptions – the Irish-American liftboys in New York had “the brogue still lingering round the shores of that broad estuary of smiles that takes the place of a mouth in the true Milesian face” – or his crisp accounts of his increasingly acrimonious relationships with various German officials.

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Roger Casement at leisure

Much of the later book makes for painful reading as Casement slowly realises the lack of concern his allies truly had for Ireland except as a convenient second front against Britain. Which should have been obvious from the start – after all, nations have no friends, only interests, and Casement was too experienced a diplomat not to know this – but the picture that emerges from these pages is of a rather fey individual, intelligent enough to recognise the scale of his plight but not self-aware enough to see how he got there in the first place. But at least he had the comfort of knowing that it was all someone else’s fault anyway.

Still, regardless of one’s thoughts about Casement – and he will continue to be debated – those wanting to learn more about one of the most iconic and controversial figures in 20th century Irish history would be well advised to start here with the subject’s own thoughts and feelings.

 

Publisher’s Website: Merrion Press

Originally posted on The Irish Story (08/06/2016)