The paradoxes of Ireland’s imperial past

Ignorance of Ireland’s engagement with empire has enabled extreme nationalists to manipulate a past which is also in the present.

A monument to Bernardo O'Higgins in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A monument to Bernardo O'Higgins in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Credit: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo

Ireland’s relationship with empire is complicated and contradictory. On the one hand, as England’s oldest colony, the Irish had been victims of English and then British imperialism from the twelfth century. On the other, the Irish – both Catholic and Protestant – became active agents in the empires of Britain, Spain, Portugal, France, and others. As well as serving empires, the Irish operated – at home and around the globe – as subversives within them. How then is Irish engagement with empire to be remembered?

Few are aware that the Marxist guerrilla Che Guevara (1928-1967) was descended from the Lynches of Galway, who had settled in Argentina in the mid-18th century. That Wexford-born William Lamport (d. 1659) is a national hero in Mexico because he wrote the first proclamation of Mexican independence in 1642, which advocated for the freedom of African slaves and the return of lands to the indigenous population. That Bernardo O’Higgins (d. 1842), whose father, Ambrose, had been born in Sligo and became Viceroy of Spanish Peru, helped to secure Chilean independence. That Admiral William Brown (d. 1857), from County Mayo, is seen as father of the Argentinian navy; and that Daniel O’Leary (d. 1854) of Cork, who served during the early 19th century in the wars of independence in Venezuela and Colombia, is revered in both countries.

The Irish are oblivious, too, to the fact that men from Ireland engaged in the Atlantic slave trade and in the Spanish, British, French, and Danish sugar plantations in the Caribbean. One of the most successful was Antoine Walsh, son of an Irish merchant who had settled in France in the later 17th century. Over the course of his career, Walsh, based in the Atlantic port of Nantes, made 40 slaving trips and shipped more than 12,000 enslaved Africans. With his profits, Walsh purchased a plantation for himself in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), which supplied up to 70 per cent of all of the sugar sent to France. Similarly, Ricardo O’Farrill y O’Daly (c.1677-1730), from Montserrat and, before that, County Longford, came to Spanish Cuba and became one of the most notorious Irish figures involved in the Atlantic slave trade. It is only recently that scholars have told the stories of Walsh, O’Farrill, and others like them.

Whether consciously or not, the public know little of Ireland’s close relationship with India, the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown. The connection dated from the 1660s when Gerald Aungier, born in Ireland of planter stock, became the founding father of Bombay (now Mumbai). The treasure he remitted as a member of the East India Company allowed for the development of Dublin’s first suburb along Aungier Street, now one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Over the course of the 19th century, roughly two thirds of the British army in India comprised Irish Catholics who received the same treatment as the native sepoys. The life stories of these men and their womenfolk, including indigenous women with whom they had relationships, remain largely untold; yet tens of thousands served across the subcontinent over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Slightly better documented are Protestant officers of Anglo-Irish provenance, who often viewed their Irishness as something of a liability, even an embarrassment. They included Eyre Coote (d. 1783), Arthur Wellesley, later 1st Duke of Wellington (d. 1852), Lord Roberts of Kandahar (d. 1914), the Lawrence brothers, George (d. 1884), Henry (d. 1857), and John (d. 1870), and John Nicholson (d. 1857).

Alongside these soldiers, men – and a few women – worked as doctors, engineers, lawyers, soldiers, nurses, clergy, educators, and administrators. Many trained for the business of empire at Trinity College Dublin and the Queens Colleges at Belfast, Cork and Galway. All of the universities sent missions to India, including the Catholic Maynooth, and the Catholic church actively engaged in the spiritual empire. Particularly important were the Christian Brothers and the Loreto Sisters, who were the first European women missionaries to reach Calcutta, in 1841. The late 19th century was the high point in terms of Irishmen serving in the Indian Civil Service – by the 1890s men from Ireland ran seven (out of eight) of the Indian provinces, including Burma. This period coincided with the viceroyalty of Lord Dufferin (1884-88), who was descended from 17th-century Scottish planters and viewed India through the prism of his Irish experiences.

It was at this moment that the causes of Indian and Irish nationalists became intertwined. The 1916 Easter Rising inspired Bengali nationalists and a copycat event took place in Chittagong in 1930. Yet men from Ireland also orchestrated the Amritsar Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in the Punjab, where, on 13 April 1919, up to 1,500 Indian men, women and children were killed. When a documentary was aired on Irish radio as part of the 2019 commemoration of the event, people struggled to comprehend the bloody role played by the commanding officer that day, Colonel Reginald Dyer, educated in Middleton, County Cork, and his superior, the lieutenant governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, a Catholic from County Tipperary, who, as recent research has shown, considered himself to be an Irish nationalist. Stories like this challenged and complicated the master-narrative of the Irish as victims of empire, rather than active perpetrators of it.

Memories are selective. The archive of the Folklore Commission – which from the 1930s chronicled stories throughout the island – illustrates vividly how memories of what (allegedly) happened during the early modern period have remained alive in social memory. Consider the example of Oliver Cromwell, infamous for his conquest of 1649, especially the blood-letting at Drogheda and Wexford. In the stories recorded by the Folklore Commission, Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), Ireland’s ‘great liberator’, who fought for Catholic emancipation, is the only historical figure mentioned more than Cromwell. That these stories, which were gathered from across the island, have been transmitted down over the course of 300 years – roughly nine generations – is remarkable even in a country with as strong an oral tradition as Ireland.

Other historic events still form part of the DNA of some communities. In 1688/89 a siege occurred in the city of London/Derry, the memory and commemoration of which has been manipulated over centuries. During the siege of Lucknow in 1857 it was invoked by Henry Lawrence, whose dying words were allegedly ‘no surrender’. The siege of Derry, like the Williamite victory at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, or the events surrounding the 1641 rebellion, profoundly shaped Ulster Protestant culture from the 17th to the 21st centuries and helped to create a beleaguered identity.

Some, particularly in Northern Ireland, continue to celebrate these anniversaries. Others cherish connections with the British Empire, which they date back to the Ulster plantation, denying that Ireland was ever a colony at all. In other quarters, discussions of Irish engagement in empire, especially the British one, soon becomes toxic. Many in Ireland have, however, either conveniently forgotten their imperial past or are simply oblivious to it. Ignorance of Ireland’s engagement with empire has enabled extreme nationalists to manipulate a past which is also in the present.


Jane Ohlmeyer