Nobel prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa has a short article in the Daily Telegraph (yes, I know, not my usual choice of newspaper) examining the County Antrim background of the Irish revolutionary Ruairí Mac Easmainn or Roger Casement, the subject of his acclaimed new novel, “The Dream of the Celt”:
“Galgorm Castle, in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, was built in the first half of the 17th century by Doctor Alexander Colville, not a doctor of medicine but a doctor of “divinities” – that is to say, theology – who became wealthy overnight and as a result was suspected by his contemporaries of having made a pact with the devil, and of practising the dark arts. A portrait of Colville still hangs in the entrance hall of the castle and the place’s current owner, Christopher Brooke, says that no one has brought themselves to remove it because, according to an age-old belief, whoever dares to do so will die in the process.
Galgorm Castle has been in Christopher’s family, the Youngs, since the mid-nineteenth century, and one of the current owner’s most illustrious ancestors was Rose Maud Young, who, despite coming from a staunchly Unionist family – protestant and pro-British – was one of a handful of Antrim ladies who had a very active part, towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the renaissance of Gaelic language and culture, an endeavour that brought them closer to their traditional adversary, Irish nationalism. In addition to writing a detailed diary, Rose Young published three volumes of poetry, legends and songs in Gaelic which had been preserved orally and which she collected herself among fishermen and peasants in the old hamlets of Antrim. As well as being beautiful, cultured and liberal, Rose Maud Young – whose gatherings united Presbyterians, Anglicans and Catholics – was a friend and protector of Roger Casement (1864- 1916), the fascinating character in whose footsteps I have ventured to follow throughout these parts of Ireland.
As an adolescent, at the end of the nineteenth century, Casement studied at Ballymena Academy for three years, and spent many weekends at Galgorm Castle, as recorded in Rose Maud Young’s scrupulous diaries. It was here, perhaps, that he read the memoirs of great English explorers such as Livingstone and Stanley, who gave him an appetite for travel, and for Africa. Although he was born in Sandycove, Dublin (very near Martello Tower, where Joyce’s Ulysses begins), his family came from here and he spent a large part of his childhood and adolescence in Antrim. As an adult he returned to this land as often as he could, to cure his nostalgia and calm his spirit after the great torments that visited him in the course of a life as intense, as adventurous and as full of risk as that of a knight in an epic novel. He devoted a large part of that to denouncing the exploitation of indigenous communities in Africa and in the Amazon, and similarly – especially in his later years – to fighting for Irish independence.
Roger Casement had good reason to want to be buried in Murlogh Bay: it is the most beautiful place in Ireland, Europe, and possibly the world. It is the culmination of one of the loveliest glens in Antrim, those valleys or gorges that, between mountains of every shade of green, streams, waterfalls and sheer cliffs, descend to meet a raging sea that crashes against sculptural rocks. Hordes of birds swoop through the sky and when the days are as bright and cloudless as those the Celtic gods have granted me, you can make out, very close by, the mass of Rathlin Island, in whose villages Rose Maud Young gathered many of the poems and stories of ancient Ireland. The landscape seems to be uninhabited by humans, nature in its purest, most virginal, most edenic state.”