These are some
incidents involving Irishmen in India. Included are extracts
from an article by Thomas Bartlett, with pictures from various
Father Victor stepped forward quickly and opened the
front of Kim's upper garment.
'You see Bennett he's not
very black. What's your name?'
'Perhaps. Will you let me go away?'
'They call me Kim Rishti Ke. That is Kim of the
'What is that - "Rishti"?'
'Eye-rishti - that
was the regiment - my father's.'
'Irish - oh, I see.'
(from Kim, by Rudyard Kipling)
It was no accident that Kipling chose to give his eponymous
hero an Irish military background. Kimball O'Hara's father, we
learn, had been a colour sergeant in the 'Mavericks'
(regimental crest: 'a great Red Bull on a background of Irish
green'), and when time-expired had stayed on working on the
Sind, Punjab and Delhi Railway. But he had subsequently lost
heart and taken to "loafing up and down the line", finally
succumbing to opium and dying "as poor whites die in lndia".
The orphaned Kim, a child, took to the roads of Lahore as a
vagabond but later met up with his father's old regiment which
took him in, found him an education, and gave him a role to
play in the 'Great Game' of nineteenth-century India -
British/Russian intrigues along the North-West frontier. Kim's
dilemma (born to an Irish regiment, white certainly, but
reared as a native) was, however, scarcely resolved by his new
career as an English agent: "I am Kim. I am Kim', he wails,
"And what is Kim?"
The adventures of Kimball O'Hara, and the many short
stories by Kipling featuring Private, sometimes 'Corp'ril',
Terence Mulvaney (motto: "Hit a man an' help a woman, an' ye
can't be far wrong anyways") make the simple point that almost
from the beginnings of British involvement in India, the
archetypal Irishman on the sub-continent was neither
missionary nor merchant, neither doctor nor administrator, but
soldier. C. J. O'Donnell's claim in 1913 that "India was the
great prize of a Gaelic-speaking army recruited by the East
India Company exclusively in Ireland under Irish generals"
was, no doubt, grossly exaggerated: but it did contain a
modicum of fact, for Irish soldiers and Irish generals had
made (and continued to make) a disproportionate contrbution to
the 'steel frame' around which the Raj was built.
A private of the Royal Irish Hussars on
horseback, with a sepoy, around 1857.
ArmyFrom 1783 to 1806 men enlisted for life
in the ranks of the British Army. Between 1806 and 1829
enlistments were seven years in the infantry and ten years in
the cavalry. Sappers and gunners had a minimum enlistment of
twelve years. In 1829, Parliament restored enlistments for
life. In 1847 it was reduced to twenty-one years which still
amounted to life in the ranks. In 1870, a short service was
introduced and men who enlisted for twelve years spent three
to eight years under colours, and the balance in the reserves.
Sir Henry Wilson, himself an Irishman, said, "...jack frost
is the best recruiting sergeant we have." Many men joined the
army to put warm food in their bellys, clothes on their backs,
and to have a roof over their heads.
The lot of the Indian soldier, in comparison, wasn't as
good as their European counterpart. For example, at one stage
in the Bengal Army the 140,000 Indians who were employed as
"Sepoys" were completely subordinate to the roughly 26,000
British officers. These sepoys bore the brunt of the First
Britsh-Afghan War (1838-42), the two closely contested Punjab
Wars (1845-6, and 1848-9) and the Second Anglo-Burmese War.
They were shipped across the seas to fight in the Opium Wars
against China (1840-42) and (1856-60) and the Crimean War
against Russia (1854). Although at constant risk of death, the
Indian sepoy faced very limited opportunities for advancement
- since all positions of authority were monopolized by the
Duke of WellingtonBorn Arthur Wesley in
Dublin in 1769, he was the sixth child of Lord Mornington,
professor of music at Trinity College. Young Arthur was sent
to a school near Dangan Castle, their country home, and later
to Eton. He appears to have been an indifferent student and a
worse athlete, so his mother had him tutored and then sent to
Brussels to improve his French. It was thought that he would
be following his father into the music business, but his
mother, deciding that he was "food for powder and nothing
more," found him a position in an undemanding military school
at Angers in France.
He was also indifferent to a military career but allowed
his oldest brother, Richard, to arrange a low-ranking
officer's commission in the British army. His mother then used
her own influence to have him selected as an aide-de-camp to
the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and promotion to lieutenant in
a regiment in Ireland near home.
Arthur's regiment was sent to India when his brother was
appointed Governor-General of India. He insisted that Arthur
change his last name to the more respectable-sounding
Wellesley--"Wesley" had an unfortunate association with
At the time, British India was a very small part of the
whole and the French looked to be assembling a strong position
there. The princely state of Mysore under its sultan, Tippu,
was a particular danger. Colonel Wellesley, as he now was, was
given command of one of the columns sent to end the threat,
but walked right into an ambush.
He did a little better north of Mysore in hunting down a
Maratha warlord and, over a number of expeditions, learned his
army trade, at one point beating a 40,000-strong
French-trained Maratha force with 10,000 men.
He returned to England in 1805 and was appointed Chief
Secretary of Ireland, with offices in Phoenix Park in Dublin.
In 1817, two years after Wellington defeated Napoleon at
the Battle of Waterloo, a monument was erected to him in the
Phoenix Park. At 62.5 m, it is the second highest obelisk in
the world (being exceeded only by the Washington Monument).
A bas-relief on the pedestal of the Wellington Monument in
Dublin, dipicting a battle scene from the Duke's India
Massacre at Vellore
This incident was a consequence of underestimating the
religious and cultural sensitivities of the sepoys, not always
understood by British officers but ignored at their peril. In
November 1805 the commander-in-chief of the Madras Army, Sir
John Cradock, son of the Archbishop of Dublin, ordered a
change in head-dress from turban to `round hat', and the
removal of beards, face-painting and joys' (jewellery).
Caste-marks ornaments and beards often had religious
significance, and `round hats' were regarded as synonymous
with Christians in the eyes of the sepoys, so the new
regulations were seen as an attack upon the troops' religion.
Vellore, in Southern India, was garrisoned by three Madras
battalions (1st/1 st, 2nd/lst and 2nd/23rd), and four
companies of the 69th Foot. The Indian regiments rose on the
night of 10 July 1806, massacred the 69th's sick in their
hospital, murdered officers and fired into the European
barracks. By delaying to pillage the fort, they allowed the
surviving British to congregate on the ramparts; and an
officer who was outside the fort when the rising began went
for help to the nearest military post, Arcot, the station of
the l9th Light Dragoons and some Madras Native Cavalry, who
were unaffected by the unrest. The l9th was commanded by Sir
Rollo Gillespie, from County Down, one of the most capable and
energetic officers in India, and he set out with a relief
force within a quarter of an hour of the alarm being raised.
Gillespie dashed ahead with about twenty men, and arriving
at Vellore found the surviving Europeans, about sixty men of
the 69th, commanded by NCOs and two assistant surgeons, still
clinging to the ramparts but out of ammunition. Unable to gain
entry through the defended gate, Gillespie climbed the wall
with the aid of a rope and a sergeant's sash which was lowered
to him; and to gain time led the 69th in a bayonet-charge
along the ramparts. When the rest of the l9th arrived,
Gillespie had them blow in the gates with their galloper guns,
and made a second charge with the 69th to clear a space inside
the gate to permit the cavalry to deploy. The l9th and Madras
Cavalry then charged and slaughtered any sepoy who stood in
their way. No mercy was shown. About 100 sepoys who had sought
refuge in the palace were dragged out, placed against a wall
and blasted with canister shot until all were dead. Such was
the nature of combat in India where the 'civilised'
conventions of European warfare did not apply.
Gillespie later joined the 8th Royal Irish Light Dragoons
and saw service in Java and Sumatra before returning to India
where he was shot dead while leading his men in a war against
On 10 May 1857, British rule throughout India was shaken to
its foundations when the native troops or sepoys at Meerut
mutinied, and a day later they captured Delhi. The revolt
quickly spread. Native regiment after native regiment turned
on its British officers, and the outnumbered European forces
(26,000 regular army, 14,000 East lndia Company) sought to
contain an Indian strength of perhaps 300,000.
The roots of the revolt lay in the relentless process of
modernisation which British rule in India had unleashed since
the early nineteenth century. Sacred Hindu and Muslim customs
and beliefs were being swept aside with scant ceremony, and
the caste system in particular had come under attack. Added to
this seething unrest at what British rule might ultimately
mean was the growing fear that service in the company's native
regiments was a stepping stone to Christianity—a fear that
some British officers conceded was wholly justified. Moreover,
the blatant racism of British officers (though there were
exceptions, such as General William Butler, from Bansha,
Tipperary, who was sympathetic to the natives wherever he was
stationed, though he spent only two years in India) towards
their Indian colleagues, as well as the sepoys, and the
widespread native perception that European forces were spread
impossibly thinly throughout the country, helped set the
scene. The Indian soldiers of the Bengal Army had been shaken
by the reduction in the purchasing power of their pay since
the beginning of the century to less than that of their
offices' private servants. Their houses were filthy, with
sanitation non-existent. This all led to the furious sepoy
reaction to the introduction of the new Lee-Enfield rifle in
1857 and its controversial greased cartridge (supposedly using
grease from pigs). In the crisis that subsequently engulfed
the "Raj" (an expression invented by the BBC around 1947!),
Irishmen and Irish soldiers were to play a vital role.
The Great Mutiny—as the British called it—found a number of
Irishmen in key positions. The three Lawrence brothers held
high office in Rajputana (George), the Punjab (John) and,
significantly in Lucknow where Henry was Chief Commissioner.
Under him, the siege of the residency at Lucknow was embarked
upon, an epic that caught the imagination of the Victorian
public. With Henry besieged (and soon mortally wounded), John
set about disarming and breaking up potentially mutinous
native regiments in the Bengal army. He was also successful in
drawing a number of Indian princes into an offensive alliance,
and at the same time he was instrumental in supplying the
small British force still holding out near Delhi. The
Lawrences had been educated at Derry, and they were inspired
not to yield to the attacking forces by folk memories of the
seventeenth-century 'Siege of Derry'. Henry's dying
instruction to the Lucknow garrison was "No surrender! Let
every man die at his post, but never make terms!"
Similarly imbued with the
seventeenth-century covenanting spirit was that remorseless
foe of the rebels, John Nicholson, who on news of the
rebellion formed a Movable Column from British and Punjabi
irregulars. Moving with great speed, he wreaked havoc wherever
he led them in the Punjab: one tactic which he soon adopted
was the blowing away of mutineers from cannon mouths.
Lieutenant Frederick Roberts (later Lord Roberts of Kandahar
and Waterford, and Commander in Chief in India)—the famous
'Bobs'—commented that Nicholson's methods were "awe-inspiring
certainly, but probably the most humane as being a sure and
instantaneous mode of execution". However that may be,
"blowing rascals away from guns", as the Ulster-born Colonel
James Graham put it, was also designed to have a major
deterrent effect in that it challenged the Hindu belief in
In the event, these spectacular mass executions were soon
curtailed as being a waste of gunpowder: resort was soon had
to the usual methods of wholesale hanging, bayoneting and
shooting. There were other excesses, which may be passed over,
but it should be noted that such tactics were employed by
Lawrence and Nicholson (and other British commanders) from an
early date, certainly before news broke of the massacres of
British soldiers and civilians at Cawnpore. Nicholson was
killed leading the main assault on Delhi: stern, implacable
and fearless to the end, he was a Victorian hero. His Sikhs
loved him: indeed a cult had grown up around him during his
life, and several of his followers committed suicide on his
death. Kipling in Kim pays homage to Nicholson's memory when
he has the old man sing "the song that men sing in the Punjab
to this day: Ahi! Nikal Seyn is dead—he died before Delhi!
Lances of the North take vengeance for Nikal Seyn."
Right, Privates Ryan, from Kilkenny, and
McManus, from Armagh, were awarded the VC for saving wounded
Irish soldiers, both in Irish regiments (the 75th Foot, the
53rd Foot, the 60th Foot, the 101st Foot, the 86th Foot and
especially the 88th Foot—the Connaught Rangers) and in the
East India Company forces, were much involved in the various
battles and storms (notably the relief of Lucknow, the attack
upon Jhansi, and the assault on Delhi) that brought the
rebellion to a bloody end.
At a critical time during the siege of Lucknow, when
a relief force was said to be nearing the city, a tall Irish
postal worker, Thomas Henry Kavanagh, volunteered to slip out
of the Residency, make contact with the relief force and guide
it back through the city to the compound. Kavanagh had gained
a reputation for courage in the underground battles during the
siege and his offer was accepted. Although over six feet tall
and with red hair, he was disguised as a native. Kavanagh made
his way past checkpoints, swam the river Gomti and made
contact with the British army. He was awarded the Victoria
Cross and acquired the nick-name "Lucknow" Kavanagh. The
picture on the left shows Kavanagh (in dark jacket) with
officers of the 1st Bengal Fusiliers, who had a long history
in India. They later became the Munster Fusiliers.
Everywhere the fighting frenzy of the Irish and their lust
for booty became the stuff of legends. At the sack of the
fabulous Kaiserbagh Palace at Lucknow, W.H. Russell, the
famous war correspondent, described how one of the Irish
soldiers of the 53rd Foot, "drunk with plunder", came at him
through the smoke and flames.
"Look here! Look here!", he cried, "Holy mother of Moses,
what will you give me for this iligant shtring of imeralds and
Right, Sergeant Garvin, from Tipperary, who was awarded the
VC at Delhi.
And while it is true that the assault on Delhi was led by
Nicholson whose death in action brought him entry to the
Victorian pantheon of heroes, the conduct of his fellow Irish
among the other ranks also brought fame of another kind. G.O.
Trevelyan, later a noted advocate of army reform, described
one incident in graphic terms:
"The principal part in the
capture of Delhi was played by a comic Irish sergeant who
appeared to have emancipated himself from all discipline and -
perhaps with unmerited distrust of the powers of the
regulation rifle - went into action armed with a shillelagh.
Among other feats, he danced the jig without hat or bonnet
under the mid-day Indian sun - an act of daring which alone
should have sufficed to procure him the Victoria Cross."
RobertsHe was born in India, though his
family came from Kilfeacle, County Tipperary. He joined the
Bengal artillery in 1851 and fought with distinction in the
Indian Mutiny (1857-58), earning the Victoria Cross. By 1875
he was quartermaster general of the Indian army and a strong
advocate of the -forward- policy of controlling the Himalayan
passes to forestall Russian encroachments; this became the
general defensive policy of the British in India. He became a
popular British hero for the relief of Kandahar in the second
Afghan War (1878-80).
In remembrance of the War, a special "Kabul to Kandahar"
medal was struck (later known as the Roberts Star). The
Roberts Star was presented to all who had taken part on his
march, and Queen Victoria even gave one to Roberts' horse,
Voronel, which also received the Afghan campaign medal with
Roberts was made commander in chief of the Madras army in
1880 and of the entire Indian forces in 1885. In 1893 he came
to England and wrote his reminiscences, Forty-one Years in
India (1897). He became field marshal in 1895. In 1899, when
the English were meeting reverses at the hands of the Boers in
the South African War, Roberts was appointed commander in
chief. Roberts reorganized the transport system, achieving a
mobility that had been lacking. His son was killed trying to
retrieve the guns in Colenso during the Boer War, shortly
before Bobs took over as commander. By late 1900 the war
seemed near a successful conclusion, and Roberts was brought
home, awarded an earldom, and appointed commander in chief of
the British army.
Along with Sir Henry Wilson (and of course most British
Army officers) he was a vehement opposer of Home Rule for
Ireland. He was asked to command the Ulster Volunteer Force to
fight Home Rule, but felt he was too old, and proposed General
Richardson, another Indian veteran, instead. He died of a
chill caught visiting Indian troops in France in 1914.
Soldiers of the 1st Madras Regiment standing outside the
gateway of the Chota Imambara, Lucknow, Summer 1858, which had
been damaged in the fighting. Three of the four VCs awarded to
the regiment during the recent fighting had been gained by
Irishmen. This regiment later became the Dublin Fusiliers.
NapierThe Napiers were a famous military
family, one branch of which came to live in Oakley Park House,
Celbridge, Co. Meath, in 1788. They had eight children and two
of their sons, William and Charles, became world famous. They
were first cousins of Lord Edward Fitzgerald from Carton
House, Maynooth, who died a rebel in the United Irishmen
Rising of 1798.
Charles Napier was a lieutenant in the army at the age of
13 years. He served with distinction in the Peninsular war but
it was in the army in India that he was to achieve fame. He
outraged his family by returning home from a long campaign in
Greece with two daughters, born of an alliance with a Greek
woman. Now in his sixties, he had made no secret of the fact
that he had accepted command in India only to make enough
money to see his daughters properly married. He was a superior
strategist, always conquering with a minimum of British
losses, and he also proved to be a remarkable pacifier, who
brought a measure of good government to an area that had been
periodically robbed by predatory hill tribes. Throughout the
Sind he was known as "the Devil's brother". He was
subsequently knighted and became Commander-in-Chief of the
army of India, before returning home with his invalid wife.
Hamilton, V.C. Hamilton came from a
well-known family from Inistioge, Co. Kilkenny. He was a great
nephew of General Sir George Pollock who led the Army of
Retribution in the First Afghan War. He arrived in India in
1874 and transferred to the Corps of Guides, one of the most
famous and active Indian Army regiments. He won his VC at
Futtehabad where he was obliged to assume command of two
squadrons of Guides Cavalry following the death of Major
Battye in a charge against 5000 Afghans who had streamed out
of their defensive position behind breastworks at the top of a
steep slope. Hamilton and his intensely loyal men were spurred
on by a sense of revenge for their leader's death and drove
the ememy back to the breastworks and scattered them. In the
fight, Hamilton rescued a sowar (Indian trooper) from three
The scene of Hamilton's
last stand was the Bala Hissar, an enclosure within the city
of Kabul. He commanded a small force of 20 Cavalry and 50
Infantry, all from the Corps of Guides, which formed a
discreet escort for Sir Louis Cavagnari the Envoy who was to
set up the ill-fated residency in Kabul following the Treaty
of Gandamak (Cavagnari, in the centre of the picture on right,
was the son of an Italian aristocrat and an Irish mother).
This treaty was made with the Amir, Yakub Khan who resided in
his palace 250 yards from the British Residency.
On 3rd September 1879, one of the Amir's Afghan regiments
paraded without rifles to receive arrears of pay. When they
realised that they were to receive half what they were
expecting, they rioted and killed the Amir's General, Daud
Shah. Hamilton and Surgeon Ambrose Kelly, from Dublin, were
having breakfast at the time but were rudely interrupted by
the crowd who entered the residency throwing stones at the
troops. The troops fired back, whereupon the rioters withdrew
and stormed the arsenal to collect weapons.
The crowd attacked the barracks and managed to set it on
fire. They had also managed to set up two field guns to attack
the troops. One of the Afghans' guns was positioned to blast a
hole in the barracks where Hamilton and most of the Guides
were. He led a brave attempt to capture the gun but had to
fall back after killing the gun crew. Two other attempts
involving Surgeon Kelly and the political officer, William
Jenkyns, failed causing the deaths of both of them. Lt.
Hamilton was the last officer remaining. He led another effort
and managed to seize the gun but the other gun was in place.
In a last ditch attempt, Hamilton shot and hacked his way
through the rebels and placed himself between the gun and them
where he finally succumbed to wounds and was cut to pieces.
The remainder of his company were killed.
Although General Roberts did succeed in defeating Ayub in
one more battle, the British had to admit that their time was
up in Afghanistan. The various tribes still made it abundantly
clear that as little as they liked each other, they liked the
British still less. The North-West Frontier was still
considered the wild frontier and caused headaches for British
planners in India for a long time yet to come.
at Amritsar, 1919
Udham Singh was hanged in Britain in June 1940 for the
murder of Sir Michael O'Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor who
presided over the British suppression of the 1919 uprising in
Punjab. Udham Singh was an orphan raised at Khalsa Orpanage.
O'Dwyer was of farming stock from Tipperary. His killing
marked the end of a chain of events that began at 4:30 p.m. on
April 13, 1919, when Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, himself
born in India, opened fire on an unarmed gathering in
Jallianwala Bagh. Udham Singh was a witness to that carnage,
which became a turning point in Indian history, and he waited
twenty years to carry out his act of vengeance.
As in Ireland, nationalism was on the rise in India at this
time. The actual issue that served to rally millions of
Indians, arousing them to a new level of disaffection from
British rule, was the government of India's hasty passage of
the Rowlatt Acts early in 1919. These "black acts," as they
came to be called, were peacetime extensions of the wartime
emergency measures passed in 1915, against the unanimous
opposition of its Indian members. There was a succession of
protests in the Punjab against the detainment of opposition
politicians, leading to the death of a handful of British
residents in Amritsar. When Brigadier General Dyer arrived,
his fellow British residents had convinced themselves that the
events of 1857 were about to repeat themselves. A protest
meeting was arranged at Jallianwala Bagh. It was a Sunday, and
many neighboring peasants had come to Amritsar to celebrate a
Hindu festival, gathering in the Bagh, which was a place for
holding cattle fairs and other festivities. Dyer arrived
there, along with two young officers, Briggs and Anderson, 50
Indian and British rifle-men, 40 Gurkhas, and two armoured
cars. A few minutes before sunset, the first of 1,650 rounds
were fired into the crowd. No warning was given to disperse
before Dyer opened fire, and the crowd of men, women and
children had no way of escaping the Bagh, since the soldiers
spanned the only exit. About 400 civilians were killed and
some 1200 wounded. They were left without medical attention by
Dyer, who hastily removed his troops to the camp.
Sir Michael O'Dwyer backed Dyer's actions, as did many of
the British establishment. Twenty years later he paid the
Mutiny by the Connaught
By 1920 a guerilla war had been waging in Ireland for
several years against British rule, during which Britain sent
irregular forces which carried out indiscriminate acts of
violence against the civilian population. The 1st battallion
of the Connaught Rangers had returned to India the previous
year, after having seen action throughout the First World War.
Astounded and disgusted by news of the brutalities being meted
out to their friends and relatives at home, 'C' Company of the
Rangers were so incensed that they refused point blank to
carry out any more orders issued by anyone connected with the
British Army. They were soon joined by others, and it became
evident that their nickname 'the Devil's Own' had another side
to it. Stubbornness was allied to their known courage.
All efforts to talk the continually growing group of
mutineers into giving up 'their silly act' only intensified
their feelings. They held a meeting and it was left open to
any man among them to join the mutineers or not. Only some
twenty men decided to opt out and no hostility was shown to
these. A committee was selected; the Union Jack at Jullundur,
on the North West Frontier, was replaced by the Irish
tricolour, stitched together by men who had bought lengths of
material from the local bazaars. The four hundred men of the
Rangers, their average age twenty-two, continued their mutiny.
They mounted sentry and did all that was required to keep
their own position intact. They continually repeated their
reasons for the mutiny to their officers.
When terms of surrender were eventually reached, the
Rangers were marched to 'a new camp' outside the cantonment on
the plain. Here they were subjected to the greatest of
inhumanities - threatened with death by a squad of fully-armed
troops and only saved by the inter- vention of a priest. They
were made to live under canvas, something no British troops
were ever expected to do in the broiling heat of India.
The mutiny spread to Solan where other companies of the
Rangers were stationed, and it was here that one man stepped
forward and calling out his name and number identified himself
as the leader. Two of the mutineers died at Solan while
attacking the armoury. When eventually the mutiny was put down
and the long months of terrible hardship endured, those words
of Private James Daly were well remembered. He was one of
fourteen men sentenced to death for their part in the mutiny;
when the sentences were reviewed Daly's was the only one left
standing. T P Klfeather in his detailed book, The Connaught
Rangers, begins his story at this point:
"It was ordered by Major-General Sir G. de S. Barrow,
K.C.B., K.C.M.G. of northern command of the British Army in
India, from his headquarters at Murree, that at six o'clock
precisely on the morning of 2 November, Private James Joseph
Daly, age 22 years, of the 1st battalion The Connaught
Rangers, regimental number 35025, from Tyrrelspass, county
Westmeath, Ireland, would be executed by a firing party at
The final act of the drama that began on that hot day in
June now moved inexorably towards its conclusion. Daly, from a
family all of whom had served with the British army, would get
The picture on right shows a private in the Connaught
Let's leave the last words on these soldiers to Emily
Lawless, a poet and writer:
"War-dogs hungry and grey,
Gnawing a naked
Fighters in every clime,
Every cause but their
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