Although the early nineteen-hundreds directed the imperial world into an inevitable demise, the long shadow of the British Empire continues to eclipse a quarter of the world’s nations today. Out of these previously conquered regions, Ireland and India deemed to be the two most important to the British during the first half of the twentieth century. By looking through the window of the Irish perspective, one may learn to further understand the wholesome reality of the British Empire and the public history rewritten by British enthusiasts. To further enhance the general understanding of British rule in the twentieth century, it is also crucial to examine the relationship between Ireland and India, revealing the dark and oppressive state of this empire, a state which held innocent people against their will for their own venal motives.
In 1920, Eamon de Valera, the president of the Sinn Fein party of Ireland, published a pamphlet through the Freedom Friends of India titled, India & Ireland. In this pamphlet, which was also read as a speech in New York city hosted by the Freedom Friends of India, de Valera dedicated the message to comparing the common anguish experienced under British rule in India to that of the oppression of Ireland.
Due to their common loss of “not only wealth but in actual blood,” the Irish cultivated a sense of empathy with the Indians (De Valera, 1920). This conversation between Ireland and India continued to last throughout both the Irish and Indian fight for independence, and ultimately morphed into a lasting alliance between the two nations. India & Ireland, just like Kilmainham Gaol and W.B. Yeats’s poem, now plays as a piece of public history available for interpretation by historians, or frankly even anyone. This page will deconstruct de Valera’s India & Ireland, exposing features of the speech which reveal the common perspectives of the British Empire shared between the Irish and Indians. Furthermore, this page will uphold the notion that de Valera promoted vehement and militant strategy in urge to overthrow Britain in his speech to the Freedom Friends of India. The deciphering of this primary source will answer questions regarding India & Ireland and how this text reads under the eye of public history.
The story of Irish independence holds a dense series of horrors, eventually leading to a tale of heroic liberation from the malicious British Empire. The story of Irish independence reads opaquely, however, without the mention of the Indian-Irish relationship leading up to independence. Ireland maintained a status of being “imperialist” all the while being “colonized” by Great Britain. On the other hand, the British saw the people of India as inferior to Irish people. This bigoted and discriminatory perspective the British maintained against any other nationality, being drawn by author and historian Michael Sylvestri, proved that “these contradictory Irish identities allowed Indian-and especially [Indian]-nationalists to embrace the Irish a fellow ‘subject race.’” In addition, British-influenced Irish identity began to gradually deteriorate as the eve of the First World War commenced, allowing for the Indian people to relate to the Irish in a much more realistic manner. Both Ireland and India faced gruesome realities when combating Britannia, and these congruent experiences led to an Irish sympathy connecting with Indian oppression, and vice-versa.
One of the bloody realities which India suffered through during this approximate time was Amritsar Massacre of 1919 in Punjab. Ordered by General Reginald Dyer, the British authorities sought to control this setting of a few hundred peaceful protestors with gunfire, which ultimate led to the loss 379 lives. The relationship between Ireland and India began to morph into a harmonious alliance following these common struggles under British rule.
Oppression continued in Ireland as the Irish fought the Anglo-Irish War from 1919-1921 via guerilla war tactics organized by Irish nationalists. As India continued to squirm under the thumbs of the British, they quickly heard of the successes obtained by Irish revolutionaries overseas. This war eventually led to treaty between Ireland and Britain allowing for an independent, or ‘dominion’ state, which permitted a version of self-governance. India gained great inspiration from the success of the Irish, for the “Anglo-Irish conflict provided inspiration for nationalist movements in both India and Egypt.” This proves that the communication and alliance between India and Ireland transitioned from a merely non-existent state of correspondence into an alliance stimulated by synonymous experiences. This brief insight of the context of the Irish and Indian independence movements expose the commonality of the violence which occurred on both Irish and Indian lands, the cause of this being conflicting linguistic and sectarian cultures.
INDIA & IRELAND: DECONSTRUCTION OF THE TEXT
The pseudo-President of Ireland, de Valera, analyzes the commonalities between Irish and Indian oppression from British rule in a pamphlet titled, India & Ireland. Written by an Irish nationalist, this pamphlet provides an extensive trail of evidence supporting the notion that Irish and Indian alliances grew stronger under British oppression. In this pamphlet, de Valera frequently compares Irish and Indian aspirations to George Washington and his efforts during the American Revolution.
De Valera begins with declaring that America’s revolution should be an example to not only to the Irish and their independence movement, but to India as well. He even stressed the superiority of Americans due their leadership and action to rid the chains of British rule. “The laboring classes can bring about change if they want to; if they do not they are guilty with the others,” states de Valera, “and when representatives of these classes come to their fellow laborers in America we believe the Americans will not be slow to remind them of this fact.” This way, de Valera lures his Indian and Irish listeners by inducing fear of shame from Americans. He proclaimed that Americans
wouldn’t even be capable of comprehending the death toll of 32,000,000 starved families. The Irish, unfortunately, understood these forms of horror. In his conclusion, de Valera mentions Washington again while declaring that India and Ireland must “rid [them]selves of the vampire that is fattening on [their] blood, and [they] must never allow [them]selves to forget what weapon it was by which Washington rid his country of this same vampire. [Their] cause [was] a common cause” (Eamon de Valera, 1920). This statement confirms that India, along with Ireland, must adopt the same militant techniques used by Washington during the American Revolution.
De Valera closely denotes General Dyer and his responsibility behind the Amritsar Massacre in 1919. By arguing that Britain’s false altruism serves as a cover for their exploitative motives for being in India, de Valera explores the motives behind General Dyer’s massacre of hundreds of people. He states that since the Indian population is much larger than the presence of the British military and people, the actions of General Dyer are necessary for Britain in order to continue the “imperial robbery.” He continues by stating that the British once saw the growing population of the Irish as threat to British rule, and that this is simultaneously occurring in India. De Valera added that the British always pretended that massacres such as those led by Dyer are cruel, but afterwards they trusted that violence is necessary to maintain control in foreign and subject nations. By including this, de Valera further expresses the empathy of Irish for British oppression in India. This information reveals the brutality inflicted upon the people of India, contributing to the central theme of violence argued by this web page.
De Valera combats the racially divisive claims made by British elitists, stating that the Irish were inferior to British people, but superior to any Oriental race. He does this in a series of rhetorical questions, bringing up the necessity of British intrusion. He asks, “do you think it is because they really regard the Indians as a backward people who need their assistance to lead them to the way of prosperity and civilization, that they persist in remaining there despite the people of India?” By asking this question, de Valera brought to light Darwinist claims defended by British Imperialists, and challenged the existence of racial superiority globally. This proves that the Irish thought progressively in defense of their distant allies, and that racial hierarchy sponsored by the British public needed to be challenged.
Though de Valera describes their geographical and ecological differences, he makes sure to highlight the similarities between the two nations. By connecting the relationship between the Irish and the Indians, he decrees that both identities needed to fight Britain in order to attain independence. Towards the end of his work, the Irish nationalist states, “It is, of course, always by the sword that she has maintained herself in Ireland, as in India, but she prefers to maintain herself with the sword in its scabbard if she can.” By creating this metaphor, de Valera declares that violence and military action are the only ways the British Empire will decide to bring their soldiers back to the United Kingdom. Just how Washington declared independence and led the war towards freedom from the Crown, de Valera demanded for revolution and military action against the British. By calling for action from both India and Ireland, de Valera aimed to inspire Indian nationalists to bring change to their nation. This proves that the general theme of de Valera’s speech was a call for violence and resistance against the British.
THE LENS OF PUBLIC HISTORY
Anti-imperial revolutionaries were some of the first revisionist historians of Empire. Instead of contributing to the triumphant telling of British history and its civilizing mission, they told an alternative story which exposed the tragedies of imperialism. These stories were essential to the development of the new nations of Ireland and India. Some of these were the articles written in the Bangali and Daily Mail.
Though de Valera clearly sided with the oppressed subjects of Britain and used this to earn the trust of his listeners, he was also guilty of altering public history towards the Irish advantage. At the time, the decision to attack the crowd in Punjab was vetted by Sir Michael O’Dwyer, an Irish lieutenant governor for the British in India. As imagined, India responded poorly in opinion of the Irish. Even in a Bangali article written in India during this time, it stated that, “such is the difference between Ireland and India! India is a conquered country, inhabited by black people; she is merely a zamindari of the conquerors. So no comparison should be attempted between Ireland and India. Nor should the Indians imitate the Irish.” This article highlights the contribution of O’Dwyer, while de Valera urges to hide this feature to the history. Of course, it would be damaging to de Valera’s cause if he included Sir Michael O’Dwyer mentioning the Amritsar Massacre in Punjab, for it would disprove all of the empathy was said to be felt on the side Irish regarding suffering in India. By failing to mention O’Dwyer in his speech, he avoided including a piece of history which provides the truth behind the occurrences.
De Valera’s speech plays multiple roles in public history. In 1920, India & Ireland served to further merge the alliance between Ireland and India, as well as to appeal to the Indian audience through avoiding the mention of O’Dwyer. However, as modern historians refer back to this work as primary source of Irish history, the avoidance of mentioning O’Dwyer allows for this fact in history to saturate into the limitless historical archives and conclusions made of the past. While de Valera championed for Ireland during the revolution, the British had their take on public history and wrote articles hoping to discourage other nations to follow Ireland’s lead. The Daily Mail wrote an opinion on the Indian rebellions and its relation to Ireland when stating, “Ireland has furnished the inspiration for the revolutionary movement in Bengal. Nothing interests the Bengali so much as the story of the rising against Dublin Castle… The Bengali believes that if he adopts the same methods as the Irish Republicans he will achieve at least as great a measure of self-government” (Daily Mail, 1926). It was obvious to the British that Ireland’s persistent battle has inspired the people of India to follow their lead.
As one reads this speech by de Valera, it is clear that he successfully created an alluring image of the Irish, as if they were the champions of all British subjects at the time. Through aiming to inspire the Indians to spark violence against British authorities, he establishes Ireland as a leader in the decolonization movement. This, of course, seemed very appealing to all non-British listeners and readers at the time. Although this was the case, the ethics to de Valera’s motives come into question when analyzing India & Ireland, especially doing so after India gained independence in 1947. India gained independence from Britain through a much more peaceful process compared to Ireland, initiated through Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. In Silvestri’s, “The Sinn Fein of India,” the author mentions Gandhi and his opinion on de Valera. He was known for respecting de Valera’s aspirations for independence, but compared him to General Dyer in his method towards attaining independence. De Valera dared to recommend violence and loss of life in return for Irish independence. Gandhi proved that a peaceful approach to fighting oppression resides as an alternative. This difference in methodology reveals de Valera’s signs of colonial behavior, the sole violent behavior and attitudes the Irish sought to shake off from the revolution.
As modern historians refer back and compare de Valera’s methodology for gaining independence to Gandhi’s efforts, de Valera’s ethics come into question. From a contemporary perspective, de Valera comes across as violent and blood-hungry towards the British Empire. However, the public historical understanding of Gandhi’s legacy seems be progressive and optimistic as opposed to de Valera’s. Of course, de Valera is still remembered as a champion and instigator of Irish independence, though Gandhi continues to be known globally as a leader of peaceful revolution, something that de Valera said to be impossible. Public history has played a role through the entire last century, however. It was proven how public history impacted the Irish and Indians during the times of the early twentieth century using the Bangali and Daily Mail articles. Now, over a century after independence, Irish people continue to commemorate the Easter Rising in 1916. Clearly, the heroism and leadership during the time of the revolution continued to maintain a positive tone among the Irish public. At the time, articles written for public history has played a crucial role in shaping the independence movements for both India and Ireland, as well as contributing to modern-day understandings of these valuable moments in history.
- Bangali (8 February 1920), in Report on the Native Papers in Bengal (BRNP)(Calcutta, 1920), p. 96. For the relevance of Amritsar to contemporary debates about British policy in Ireland, see Derek Sayer, “British Reaction to the Amritsar Massacre, 1919-1920.” Past and Present, no. 131 (May 1991): 130-64.
- De Valera, Eamonn. “”Address delivered at the India freedom dinner of the Friends of freedom for India, on February 28, 1920, at the Central opera house, New York city.” India and Ireland. Friends of Freedom for India, New York, 1920.
- McGreevy, Ronan. “‘Over 1 Million’ Attend Dublin Easter Rising Commemorations.” The Irish Times 31 Mar. 2016, www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish- news/over-1-million-attend-dublin-easter-rising-commemorations-1.2594190.
- O’Malley, Kate. “Ireland and India: Post-independence Diplomacy.” Irish Studies in International Affairs 22 (2011): 145-62. Phillips, Sir Percival. “The Firm Hand in Bengal.” Daily Mail (12 February 1926), Tegart Papers, Centre of South Asian Studies Archive (CSAS), University of Cambridge.
- Silvestri, Michael. “’The Sinn Fein of India’: Irish Nationalism and the Policing of Revolutionary Terrorism in Bengal.” Journal of British Studies 39, no. 4 (Oct. 2000): 454-486.
Author: Adam Dankowski