My interest in Roger Casement, who denounced the exploitation of indigenous people in Africa and the Amazon, has taken me to Northern Ireland. There, politics is now replacing the old internecine armed struggle.
Galgorm Castle, Ballymena, in County Antrim (Northern Ireland) was built in the first half of the seventeenth century by Doctor Alexander Colville, not a medical doctor but a doctor of “divinity”, or rather, theology. Suspicious of a large fortune he had made overnight, his contemporaries suspected him of making a pact with the devil and of practicing black magic. A portrait of him still adorns the castle’s entrance and the current proprietor, Christopher Brooke, maintains that no one has had the courage to remove it, due to the deep-rooted superstition that whoever dares to do so will die in the act.
Seen from the surrounding arboretum, the cubic-shaped castle is built of robust black stones and is an imposing symphony of turrets, grandiose windows, chimneys, escutcheons and a cathedral-like façade. Inside it is a ruin, falling to pieces. Christopher and his family, who take refuge in a few rooms on the first floor, hope that as the walls crumble, they will spew out the great nuggets of gold that, according to a legend in Ballymena, the diabolic Reverend Colville buried before he died. They would thereby raise the money to convert Galgorm Castle into a luxury residence of fourteen apartments restored to their former glory. Work has already been undertaken outside, where the good taste and historical rigour of the renovated courtyard and outbuildings could not be improved.
Like any respectable Irish castle, Galgorm has its ghost. It is not the spectre of Colville but that of a young girl from his era whom the BBC tried to film a few years back when making a documentary there. In order to do this, a famous Greek psychic was hired but, to everyone’s disappointment, she only managed to make contact with the girl once the cameras had stopped rolling and the production crew were asleep. However, according to Christopher, the spectre is not in the least bit inhospitable and frequently materialises before the many psychics, spiritualists, Satanists, black magicians and ghost busters who make the pilgrimage to Galgorm to invoke her spirit and discuss the afterlife. Without elaborating, one morning she appeared to Christopher’s wife and they had an enjoyable chat.
Galgorm Castle has been in Christopher’s family, the Youngs, since the mid-nineteenth century. One of the most illustrious ancestors of the current proprietor was Rose Maud Young who, in spite of belonging to a solid Protestant, unionist and pro-British family, was one of a handful of Antrim ladies who at the end of the nineteenth century were actively involved in the revival of Irish language and culture, an endeavour which brought them close to their traditional adversary, Irish nationalists. In addition to keeping a very detailed diary, Rose Young published three volumes of traditional Irish oral poems, legends and songs collected from Antrim fishermen and country folk. Besides being beautiful, educated and liberal, Rose Maud Young – at whose parties Presbyterians, Anglicans and Catholics mingled – was a friend and patron of Roger Casement (1864-1916), the fascinating character, whose footsteps I am attempting to follow through these lands.
As a teenager, at the end of the nineteenth century, Casement studied three years in Ballymena School and spent many weekends at Galgorm Castle, which are recorded in the meticulous diaries of Rose Maud Young. It was here, perhaps, that he read the memoirs of the great English explorers, like Livingstone and Stanley, who whetted his appetite for travelling and Africa. Although he was born in Sandycove, Dublin (very close to the Martello Tower where Joyce’s Ulysses begins) his family were from Antrim and he spent a great part of his childhood and adolescence there, and returned throughout his adulthood whenever he needed to appease his nostalgia and rest his spirit from the great turmoil that assailed him throughout his intense life of adventure and danger akin to the paladin of an epic novel. A great part of his life was devoted to the denunciation of the exploitation and mistreatment of the indigenous communities of Africa and the Amazon, which extended, especially in his final years, to the fight for Irish independence.
On the night before Casement’s execution, as Pentonville Prison’s clinical executioner, Mr John Ellis (who in his spare time was also a hairdresser) proceeded with the macabre ceremony of taking the weight and measurements to ensure that the rope to be used to hang him had the appropriate tension and length, the condemned man requested for his remains to be buried not far from here, in Murlough Bay, which he referred to as “Paradise Bay” in his correspondence. But the British authorities did not grant him the pleasure: they buried him in the prison yard were he was hanged as a traitor (for having conspired with Germany in the First World War and for smuggling arms for the 1916 Easter Rising), in an anonymous grave beside an infamous wife-murderer, Dr. Crippen, executed a few years earlier. It was only in 1965 that Casement’s remains were returned to Ireland, where they now rest in Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, under a sombre gravestone with an Irish inscription (a language, which in spite of his efforts, he never learnt) that reads “Died for Ireland”.
Roger Casement was right in wanting to be buried in Murlough Bay, for it is the most beautiful spot in Ireland, in Europe, and perhaps the world. Here culminates one of the most astonishing glens in Antrim, a river valley or gorge that meanders between mountains tinted with every shade of green, beneath canopies of trees hiding streams, waterfalls and sheer cliffs, before descending to meet the rampaging sea smashing against sculptural rocky headlands. Flocks of seagulls migrate up and down the coast, and when the days are as bright and clear as the ones that the Celtic gods have granted me, both the tiny island of Rathlin (where Rose Maud Young collected many of the poems and stories of ancient Ireland) and the Scottish coastline of the Mull of Kintyre, can be discerned. The landscape seems to be uninhabited by people, nature unspoiled, a paradise on earth.
Of course, it is all mere appearance. This land of castles, glens, ghosts, poets and famous travelling storytellers (seanchaithe) has also been one of the most violent in Europe, where ethnic and religious wars have inflamed people and sown blood, hatred and resentment everywhere. Both the centuries of British occupation and the partition years, which have kept the six Northern Ireland counties as part of the United Kingdom, have been marked by killings and iniquitous outrages. Some signs of these still prevail in the height of Murlough Bay, where some years ago Sinn Fein erected a monument to commemorate Roger Casement. Soon afterwards this was blown up by an Ulster terrorist paramilitary unit and has not yet been restored. The scattered pieces that remain in the solitary hillock constitute a disturbing reminder of the other face of this dream-like place.
What will happen now in Northern Ireland? After the agreements reached during Tony Blair’s government between unionists and republicans, will there finally be peace in these six counties and will Antrim’s ghosts and the living be able to sleep peacefully and fraternise? Those who travel through pugnacious Belfast and its agitated nights, the prosperous countryside around it and the inland cities and places that seem to have found the miraculous secret to make tradition and modernity coexist in perfect harmony, do not have the slightest doubt that there could be a reversal in the peace process and that those paramilitary groups of intransigent extremists that continue to place bombs and kill, will achieve their pledge to undermine peace and return to confrontations of yesteryear. Most of those with whom I spoke are optimistic and believe that the future will reinforce the process initiated with the decommissioning of both sides and that politics will definitely replace the old internecine feud. One of those optimists is Christopher Brooke, the kind owner of Galgrom. He is convinced that the accords and power-sharing between old adversaries, European integration, the mechanics of globalisation and economic interdependence will reinforce cooperation and peace. May Cuchulain and the other gods from the Irish pantheon listen to him and grant him such a fair wish.
We part at the feet of the portrait of the sinister Doctor Colville. He has a slightly sarcastic, if beatific look. His frowning, little fair eyes appear saddened to see us go. It seems that in this country even theologians who make pacts and ghosts rigorously practice the vice of hospitality.
Mario Vargas Llosa
In October 2010, Mario Vargas Lllosa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm, Sweden.
1. El País, 4 October 2009. With kind permission from El País and Mario Vargas Llosa.