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  • Queering the Poetics of Race and Nationalism:Yeats, Casement, and Paul Muldoon's "A Clear Signal" (1992)
  • Alison Garden

On St. Patrick's Day in 1992, the Irish poet Paul Muldoon published "A Clear Signal" in the New York Times.1 The dense and complicated poem is sixty-two lines long, written across thirty-one sardonic couplets. With its rhyme scheme forming forced and simplistic pairings, it sounds much like an acerbic children's nursery rhyme. As we have come to expect of Muldoon, the poem shifts in tone and, thematically, traverses a great amount of ground. But it is chiefly preoccupied with the deeply intertwined politics and histories of Ireland, both in the North and the Republic, Britain and the United States. Beginning with the "tit-for-tat" violence that was one part of the euphemistically named "Troubles," the poem ends by invoking the "ghost of Roger Casement" as a riposte to the Ancient Order of Hibernians' (AOH) refusal to let the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGO) march in the 1991 New York St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Muldoon's poem—which, curiously, has never been anthologized or republished—is structured around the repeating refrain calling "to our Irish-American cousins" to desist in their support, financial and otherwise, of Troubles-related violence. Poets from Northern Ireland had long been caught in the dilemma of how to adequately respond to the violence, terror, and loss of life caused by various paramilitary groups and the British military. In Seamus Heaney's oft-quoted words, poetry changed from "being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our [End Page 78] predicament."2 Why, then, did Muldoon turn to Roger Casement? What about Casement made him "adequate" for this particular "predicament"?

Roger Casement (1864–1916) remains an enigmatic figure who has left a controversial and transnational legacy as a human rights activist and an Irish nationalist. Born an Anglo-Irish Protestant, his radical politics would see him executed for his role in Ireland's struggle for independence. He was hanged as a traitor by the British in 1916 for liaising with the German military and attempting to obtain a shipment of German armaments in the Easter Rising. To complicate matters further, Casement had, in his earlier years, achieved nothing short of a spectacular career in the British Colonial Service and Foreign Office; his reports on the systematic abuse and racialized oppression that were inflicted upon laborers in the Congolese (1903–04) and Amazon (1910–11) rubber plantations earned him a knighthood. Casement's Irish nationalism intensified as a direct result of his work participating in the British imperial project and his increased awareness of the violence of European colonialism more generally; his anticolonial nationalism led him to source support of various means from Irish America and Germany for Irish independence. Casement was well connected and well liked, especially in the United States, with multiple prominent figures signing various petitions for reprieve before his execution. In the months following Casement's arrest, Britain was courting the United States in the hope of securing support for the war effort, and needed to tarnish Casement's reputation. An opportunity to do so presented itself with the discovery of Casement's so-called "Black Diaries," uncovered during his trial and selectively circulated by the British government. These diaries detailed Casement's sexual encounters, many of which he paid for with cash or gifts, with men and adolescent males. In 1936, W. J. Maloney published The Forged Casement Diaries, which insisted that Britain had forged the diaries in order to weaken support for Casement. Debate has raged about their veracity ever since.

Casement's legacy has been nothing if not contested. He has been vaunted as a seminal human rights activist; a key figure in the struggle for Irish independence; a traitor to British imperialism; and a homosexual martyr. In Casement, a slippery, evasive subject who resists categorization and capture, Muldoon finds the perfect symbol of his hope for a more tolerant, convivial sense of Irishness, unencumbered by limiting notions of religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. In celebrating Casement as a queer, unsettling subject...