Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Highwayman – a little postscript

There’s a line in Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman that goes “Two of them knelt at her casement/ With muskets at their side”. It’s not a great line. In fact it was one of the lines that Phil deemed surplus to requirements. Nevertheless, by pure coincidence, it contains a word that would loom large in Noyes’ later life.

Roger Casement walks to the gallows

Roger Casement walks to the gallows

Roger Casement was Knighted in 1911 for his role in revealing to the world horrendous human right abuses by British companies in South America and Africa. Casement would die on the gallows, stripped of his Knighthood, with his reputation in tatters. It is quite a story, and Alfred Noyes played his part.

By 1916 Casement had become involved in Irish revolutionary politics, specifically in organising what became known as The Easter Rising. On Easter Sunday, April 23rd 1916 simultaneous attacks on British forces were planned, culminating in the taking of Dublin. Casement, who argued that such a move would be folly, found his own folly by travelling to Germany, then at war with Britain, to enlist support. No such support arrived and Casement was arrested, attempting to return to Ireland to stall The Rising.

The Rising itself was a disaster. David Reed in his book “Ireland; the key to the British revolution” lists 500 killed (250 civilians), 3000 injured, 179 buildings in Dublin destroyed and 100,000 citizens of Dublin requiring relief. In the weeks that followed some 3,000 men and 70 women were arrested for their part in the Rising. 1,800 men and 5 women were deported and held in prisons in England, most without trial. All the leaders were arrested and sentenced to death. By the middle of May some 18 of the leaders were shot, in secret. Once news of these executions leaked out the (somewhat valid) consternation that the news caused saw all the other executions were stopped and given instead life imprisonments. All except one. Roger Casement.

During Casement’s trial at the Old Bailey in London, portions of what was purported to be Casement’s diary were leaked. What became known as The Black Diaries revealed Casement to be a promiscuous homosexual. No great shakes now, but then such revelations saw support for Casement dwindle to such an extent that unlike his comrades, Casement hanged in Pentonville Prison in August 1916. His executioner, Albert Ellis, was reported to have said of Casement that “he appeared to me the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute”.

By 1916 Alfred Noyes was working for the News Department of The British Foreign Office. He was one of the few who saw The Black Diaries writing that “I have seen them and they touch the lowest depths that human degradation has ever touched. Page after page of his diary would be an insult to a pig’s trough to let the foul record touch it”. For his part in Wartime propaganda, the treatment of Roger Casement included, Noyes was awarded the OBE in 1918. Allegations that the Black Diaries were forgeries abounded.

Some twenty years later Noyes faced the ire of W.B. Yeats (much more about him later of course) whose poem in support of Casement, named simply Roger Casement, contained this missive –

 “Come Alfred Noyes, come all the troop

That cried it far and wide,

Come from the forger and his desk,

Desert the perjurer’s side”

Forgery or not (Yeats for one was convinced that is was) his guilt over his role in the execution of Casement sat heavily on Noyes’ shoulders. In 1957 Noyes sought to assuage his guilt by writing “The Accusing Ghost” admitting that he may have been misled. Later versions of Yeats’ protest poem saw Noyes’ name replaced by “Tom and Dick”.

More recent investigations into The Black Diaries suggest that in all probability they were not forged. To which the modern observer may add “So what?” As Lou Reed once sang “those were different times“.  Yeats said of Casement that he was “a most gallant gentleman”. That perhaps, is testimony enough.