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April 5, 2016

Indian Students in Ireland, 1913-16

Conor Mulvagh, Irish Days, Indian Memories: V.V. Giri and Indian Law Students at University College Dublin, 1913-16 (Irish Academic Press, 2016, 160pp, €16.99 HB). 

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There were 3,606 persons of Indian birth living in Ireland at the time of the 1911 census, a third of those in Dublin. Interestingly Dublin’s first Indian restaurant opened in 1908, predating the opening of London’s first Indian restaurant by three years. (pp.26-27) In 1915 no fewer than 23 of the 54 students in the University College Dublin’s freshman law class came from the Indian subcontinent. (p.55) Conor Mulvagh’s book Irish Days, Indian Memories is about a group of thirteen Indians who travelled to Dublin in 1913 to study law at King’s Inns and University College Dublin until the end of 1916; focusing in particular on V.V. Giri who would later become the fourth President of India (1969-74). Giri told Irish officials in India that ‘when I am not an Indian I am an Irishman’. (p.94)

The book reincorporates the history of Dublin’s Indian student population into the social fabric of the city in those years. Mulvagh shows that those Indians were not merely witness to the dramatic 1913-16 years, many were intimately associated with Irish radicals. The book traces the origins of Indo-Irish radical connections to Irish solidarity with Madan Lal Dhingral who was sentenced to death for killing a senior official in the British Government of India in 1909. Mulvagh pays particular attention to how support was expressed in the nationalist and feminist paper Bean na hEireann (pp.18ff)

As V.V. Giri would later recall: ‘Although my student life at the University was spent, ostensibly, for the study of law and the pursuit of Jurisprudence, I was drawn irresistibly into the cross currents of the Irish struggle’. Giri studied English in UCD with Thomas MacDonagh. MacDonagh’s revolutionary convictions filtered into his teaching, going as far as producing a revolver during a lecture at UCD remarking that ‘Ireland can only win freedom by force’. (pp. 50-52)

By February 1914 the Irish Volunteers had established connections with some of UCD’s Indian student body. The book establishes that P.S.T Sayee was the author of a number of articles in the Irish Volunteer newspaper establishing parallels between India and Ireland, but despite Sayee claiming to have ‘undergone training along with the Irish Volunteers in Dublin’ the book uncovers no further evidence of Indian students parading with the Irish Volunteers. (p.34)

As to Indians taking part during the Easter Rising, the only evidence that Mulvagh has found is that Indian students served in an ambulance and first aid capacity in 1916. However, V.V. Giri later wrote that: ‘I remember vividly meeting Connolly on several occasions as I was regularly invited to their Citizen Army meetings…More than any of the leaders of the uprising it was Connolly who inspired me. I resolved that as soon as I returned to India I would give a graphic account of these struggles to inspire our own people…With the fervour inspired by the revolutionaries still fresh in my mind, I determined to return to India and take an active part in the political movement to secure the independence of my country.’ (pp.79-80, 85) Many of the Indian students were under state surveillance due to their connections with Irish radicals, and some of their homes were raided following the 1916 Rising.

The book has an interesting section entitled ‘the politics of the plate’. Indian students had vegetarian dietary requirements. Vegetarianism and politics are an unlikely meeting when studying Indians in 1914 Dublin, but the book establishes that there was at least one vegetarian restaurant – the Irish Farm Produce Café, which secured its place in the annals of Irish history as it was there that the 1916 Proclamation was signed in April 1916. Adverts for it appear in An Claidheamh Soluis and radicals like Thomas MacDonagh could be seen there. The vegetarian restaurant is thus a likely point where advanced nationalist, socialist and feminist politics and activists intersected. Interestingly, the same vegetarian restaurant secured its place in literary as well as political history when being referenced in James Joyce’s Ulysses. (pp.62-64)

The book also examines orientalist clichés and moral panics of the time concerning Indians in Dublin, how these were fed by ‘mosquito press’ newspapers such as The Eye-Opener, and also sheds new light on the killing in 1916 of its editor, Thomas Dickson, revealing how his attacks on Indian students played a central role in his downfall.

With just 95 pages of text, this is a short but valuable book. As the 19 pages with over 260 endnotes and the eight pages bibliography show, it has been meticulously researched. It has also eight pages featuring thirty rare and unpublished images. This is an academic study but it is highly readable and should interest many people, not just specialists. Although the author mentions a student born in the Gold Coast Colony (modern day Ghana) (p.88) what is missing from Mulvagh’s book are the relations between Indian and African students at the time, and whether they interacted politically. It is very possible that Mulvagh looked into this but could not find any information. This is the only weak point in an otherwise original piece of research into an interesting topic.

Liam Ó Ruairc is a contributor to The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism.