Revisiting India's Bond With Ireland, 100 Years After the Easter Rising

From the Connaught Rangers mutiny to the Indian-Irish Independence League, numerous threads connected India and Ireland as both fought for independence from the British.


Members of the Irish Republican Army’s Flying Column during the Irish War of Independence. Credit: Wikipedia

We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

– W.B. Yeats, Easter 1916

A little more than a hundred years ago, an organised uprising against colonial rule took place in Europe, next-door to the British – in Ireland in April 1916.

That Ireland was a colony of the British for so long is a fact many are not even aware of. Ireland’s colonial experience began as early as 1542. At that time, it was nominally independent and even had its own parliament. But the king of England was the king of Ireland and he appointed a viceroy to supervise its affairs. In 1801, this arrangement was done away with; the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed, and the Irish parliament dissolved.

The scene at Skibbereen, west Cork, in 1847. From a series of illustrations by Cork artist James Mahony (1810-1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News 1847. Credit: Wikipedia

The scene at Skibbereen, west Cork, in 1847. From a series of illustrations by Cork artist James Mahony (1810-1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News 1847. Credit: Wikipedia

Britain now exercised complete control over Ireland and no attempt was made to disguise this. Ireland soon became a source of agricultural raw material for England. The industrial revolution bypassed it. By the middle of the 19th century, Ireland was a deeply impoverished country, the butt of English jokes. Successive failures of the potato crop in the 1840s saw the Irish leave in droves, mostly to the US. At one point, half of all immigration to the US was from Ireland.

By the late 19th century, an incipient Irish nationalism began and a home rule movement demanded greater Irish say in the country’s affairs. Many nationalists attempted to secure this through constitutional means. Sinn Fein was one such political organisation. It later attained notoriety in the ‘Troubles’ of Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, an undercurrent of armed resistance continued to run through the Irish population. Armed resistance to English presence had been widespread almost from the start and there had been periodic uprisings against the British. There was also widespread resentment against the British attempt to alter the demographics of Ulster, the north-eastern part of the island, by encouraging Scottish settlers to move there, a process that began in the 17th century.

The uprising

In 1914, Britain got involved in World War I. The war that began in July 1914 was expected to be over soon, but in fact dragged on interminably. The constitutionalists rallied on the side of the British in its hour of need. The armed wing sensed, however, that with the British busy in the war, they had been handed a golden chance to drive them out of Ireland.

‘The Rising’ formally began on Monday, April 24, 1916, a day after Easter. It lasted for six days. Three groups – the Irish Volunteers led by Patrick Pearse, the smaller Irish Citizen Army led by James Connolly and two hundred women of the Cumann na mBan, or the ‘Irishwomen’s Council’ – worked together to effect the uprising. They seized key locations in Dublin and proclaimed an Irish republic. The British retaliated brutally, with thousands of troops and heavy weapons. About 500 people were killed during the uprising and about 3,500 arrested after its suppression. Pearse and Connolly were executed, among many others.

W.B. Yeats. Credit: Wikipedia

W.B. Yeats. Credit: Wikipedia

A few months after the event, W.B. Yeats commemorated it in his poem Easter 1916. Yeats himself was torn between wanting independence for his beloved homeland and ambivalence about the use of violence to achieve this aim. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the sacrifices and bravery of the leaders in the poem he wrote.

In another poem, Sixteen Dead Men, he questioned the British argument for patience as well as their heavy-handed treatment of the revolutionaries:

You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?

Ireland eventually won its independence in 1921 but the British did not cede Northern Ireland, which continued to remain a part of the UK. The ‘troubles’ that plagued Northern Ireland for most of the 20th century began at that time, as the Catholic minority wanted it to unite with the Republic of Ireland, while the Protestant majority, who had been settled in Ireland centuries ago by the British, wished to remain with Britain.

The conflict turned violent in the ’70s, when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) led a bloody campaign to effect the union by force. One prominent victim of the IRA campaign was India’s last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. Mountbatten, as a member of the British royal family (he was Prince Philip’s uncle), was seen as a legitimate target by the IRA. In 1979, while he was at his summer home in county Sligo, Ireland, his boat was bombed and he was killed.

The Irish-Indian connection

The Irish had more than a modicum of sympathy for the Indian struggle against the British. One can cite several examples of the Irish-Indian bond.

Sister Nivedita. Credit: Wikipedia

Sister Nivedita. Credit: Wikipedia

In 1895, a young woman of Scottish-Irish descent, Margaret Noble, attended a lecture by Swami Vivekananda in London. Drawn to him, Noble soon transformed into Sister Nivedita and became one of Vivekananda’s ardent disciples. She relocated to India and carried on her guru’s mission after his death. She was also involved with Anushilan, a Bengali revolutionary society prominent in the first decade of the 20th century.

In 1906, in New York, Irish nationalists belonging to the Clan-na-Gaelan Irish republican organisation in the US, helped start several associations of Indian students. George Fitzgerald “Freeman”, the editor of Gaelic American, was of particular assistance.

In 1913, Lala Har Dayal, Sohan Singh Bhakna, Bhagwan Singh and others began the Ghadar movement in the US. They sought to mobilise Indians serving in the British army to mutiny and drive the colonists out. Their newspaper, the Ghadar, carried reports of movements from around the world. Inevitably, Ireland figured prominently. Har Dayal also often took Irish revolutionary friends to meetings.

Annie Besant. Credit: Wikipedia

Annie Besant. Credit: Wikipedia

Perhaps the best-known example of the Irish-Indian connection is that of Annie Besant, an Irish woman who was a prominent member of the Theosophical Society and later founded the Home Rule League in 1916 to demand dominion status for India within the British Empire. The Home Rule League merged with the Congress in 1920.

In 1932, the Indian-Irish Independence League was founded. The most prominent Indian member was Vithalbhai Patel, the older brother of Vallabhai. Among the Irish members was Maud Gonne, Yeats’s muse. One of the League’s aims was to use “every possible means to secure the complete independence of India and Ireland, and to achieve the closest solidarity between the Irish and the Indian masses in their common struggle against British imperialism”. Ireland had achieved independence in 1932, but not yet shed off its British baggage. It was a dominion of the Empire and more than anything else, it sought to become a republic (which it achieved in 1948).

The Connaught Rangers mutiny: Irish politics comes to India 

In June 1920, another incident took place that underlined the peculiar relationship the Irish had with India. A company of the Connaught Rangers comprised of Irishmen mutinied at Jalandhar. They refused to perform their military duties as a protest against the activities of the British army in Ireland. On the following day, the mutineers sent two emissaries to a company of the Rangers stationed at Solan in the Himalayan foothills. Those soldiers joined the protests as well. They flew the Irish tricolour, wore Sinn Fein badges and sang rebel songs.

Initially, the protests were peaceful. But on July 1, around 30 soldiers in Solan attempted to seize their rifles from the company magazine. The guards opened fire, killing two men and wounding another. This effectively brought the mutiny to an end, and the mutineers at both Jalandhar and Solan were placed under armed guard. Sixty-one men were convicted for their roles in the mutiny. Fourteen were sentenced to death by the firing squad, but only one sentence was carried out – that of private James Joseph Daly. Daly was considered the leader of the mutiny at Solan and the man responsible for the attack on the magazine. On the morning of November 2, 1920, he was executed in Dagshai.

By the middle of the next year, all of the convicted mutineers (except the one who had died) had been transferred to prisons in England to serve out the remainder of their sentences. The Connaught Rangers, along with three other Irish regiments, were disbanded in June, 1922. In 1923, the mutineers were released from prison and returned to Ireland.

The Connaught Rangers mutiny captures the complexity of the Irish-India relationship. At one level, the Irish were the colonisers, as far as the Indians were concerned. But they were also, equally, the colonised. Indian publications saw in the Irish kindred souls and were quick to support the mutineers. The Fateh, published from Delhi, drew parallels between the mutiny and Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement. The Independent Hindustan, a publication of the Ghadar party in America, also joined the chorus of approval.

An Easter Rising in India

On April 18, 1930, or Easter Day, in remote Chittagong, a group of revolutionaries led by a schoolteacher, Surja Sen (“Master Da”), raided the armoury of the police and auxiliary forces. Their plan was to seize arms from the armoury, destroy the communication systems of the city (including telephone, telegraph and railway) and isolate Chittagong from the rest of British India. The group was able to loot arms but failed to seize ammunition. Undaunted, they then hoisted the Indian national flag on the premises of the armoury, declared Master Da the ‘President of India’ and escaped.

A few days later, a number of revolutionaries were cornered in the nearby Jalalabad hills by British troops. In the attack that followed, twelve revolutionaries died and many were arrested, with only some, including Sen, managing to flee. Sen was eventually arrested and executed in 1934.

This group drew a large dose of inspiration from the Irish Rising of 1916. They consciously planned their attack on Easter even though Easter had very little meaning for them; they called themselves the Indian Republican Army, Chittagong Group, after the IRA, and modelled their attack on the 1916 Dublin attack, after carefully studying it. In pamphlets that announced the raid, the revolutionaries even quoted Pearse, one of the heroes of 1916.

Netaji and Ireland

Between 1933 and 1936, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose spent a lot of time in Europe. His Irish experiences during this time haven’t received as much attention as they perhaps should have, given that they significantly influenced his later career. He visited many cities in Europe in those three years, the stated purpose being ‘medical treatment’. But in reality, he was acting as some sort of roving ambassador for Indian independence. The role he played was akin to Eamon de Valera’s American sojourn between 1919 and 1921.

Bose visited Dublin in February, 1936. As the former mayor of Calcutta, he was given an official reception by President de Valera. De Valera had three meetings with Bose, in which he said that India could not take on the British in a face-to-face war.

An interesting parallel between De Valera and Bose is that rather like De Valera, who escaped from Lincoln Jail in Lincolnshire, England, Bose escaped from Calcutta in December, 1940, in dramatic circumstances. In later years, Bose drew much inspiration from the Irish experience and came to believe that only Irish style militant action would secure India its freedom. This led to the founding of the Indian National Army.

In a reception held in Birmingham on January 26, 1950, to celebrate India’s becoming a republic, De Valera was the guest of honour. The organisers were asked why they had not chosen an Indian. This was their response:

“We and the Irish had strong ties of friendship. We suffered under the same tyranny for many centuries. They had the Black and Tans; we had the massacre of Amritsar. They had de Valera and Casement and MacSwiney; we had Gandhi and Nehru and Bose. They had Sinn Féin; we had our National Congress. They had the IRA; we had the INA. It is not only for the smile and the shamrock we know Ireland. It is for the toughness of their leaders and for the rebellion in their hearts.”