Indo-Irish Relations A Tale Of Two Natural Allies


The prodigious British Prime Minister Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, once remarked on a veiled laudatory note, ‘We have always found the Irish a bit odd. They refuse to be English.’ I have always been an indefatigable admirer and protagonist of Ireland. The ‘warm, wild and wonderful’ country and its zestful people have held an exalted place in my thoughts and I have followed with a deep and abiding interest the truly momentous changes and developments that Ireland has experienced. I have enjoyed the superb music of  John Field, Hamilton Harty and Charles Stanfort, the sheer beauty of James Galway’s rendering of  Beethoven’s flute sonatas, the majestic voices of John McCormack, John McDermott, Morgan Crawley, Ronan Tynan, John O’Connor and Isabella O’Connel and the wonderful writings of James Joyce, Oliver Goldsmith, Samuel Beckett, Jonathan Swift, William Butler Yeats (who was a close friend of India’s national poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore!),George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. I have over the years met and befriended many Irish men and women, including ministers, teachers, economists, lawyers, diplomats, musicians and others like Patrick Bartholomew ‘Bertie’Ahern, Ireland’s former Taoiseach, Éamon Ó Cuív, the grandson of Ireland’s former President Éamon de Valera, and Lord Diljit Singh Rana, the Sanghol born and Belfast based property developer, hotelier and philanthropist who was singularly responsible for the economic regeneration of Belfast and the protection of  a number of heritage buildings in the city, Brian McElduff, the Irish Ambassador to India, and his worthy predecessors Fellim Mclaughlin, Kenneth Thompson and Kieran Dowling.

Ireland is not an unfamiliar country in India and many Indians have grown up in the adoration of Ireland and its exemplary ideals and objectives. India and Ireland are both parliamentary republics with Westminster style systems of unicameral  parliamentary democratic governments representing various constituencies and  share a common faith in democratic institutions and the democratic way of life and are dedicated to the cause of peace and freedom. The visionary framers of the Indian Constitution were appreciably motivated by the Irish Constitution. In this context, Nehru had expressed his admiration for the Irish Constitution, one of the finest achievements of de Valera. Strong links between India and Ireland stretch back to ancient times. There are discernible threads between the languages and social customs of the Old Irish and Celtic and the Sanskrit worlds. The Romani gypsies who came to Ireland around the 15th century AD had escaped from persecution at the hands of the barbaric Muslim invader Mahmud of Ghazni in the 10th century AD. In the 1600s, the East India Company bought and leased lands in Ireland for timber for the construction of its ships. The company, which also bought lands in the north of Ireland, was eventually chaired by Laurence Sullivan, an Irishman from Cork. In the 1850s, swift ‘clipper’ trading ships that sailed between India and Britain were built in Belfast, which had emerged as a global shipbuilding hub. Warships for the Indian Navy and freighters for the Hindustan Steam Shipping Company were built in Belfast. India and Ireland share a colonial legacy, which includes the English language and the legal, governmental and administrative well as the indefinable pangs of partition! Irish men and women have played pivotal roles in shaping India’s civil services, the armed forces, education and its commercial life. Distinguished Irish soldiers include Eyre Coote from Limerick, who contributed decisively to the defeat of the French in India. Among those who helped to fashion India’s administration were George Macartney, the Governor of  Madras in 1780, Hugh Boyd, Macartney’s Secretary, and Lord Dufferin, the Viceroy of  India in 1888. Lady Dufferin founded a string of hospitals including the Dufferin Hospital for Women at Nagpur. A substantial contribution to social, educational and religious life was also made by Irish missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant. They included Fathers John Fennelly and Daniel Murphy who set up schools and hospitals in Madras and Hyderabad. Loreto nuns from Dublin worked in India from 1841, setting up schools around Calcutta and influencing Mother Teresa, now known as Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Care for leprosy victims was pioneered by Wellesley Bailey from Dublin in the 1870s and inspired ‘The Leprosy Mission’. Irish influence on India’s relentless march to freedom was equally significant. The Irish feminist and pacifist, Annie Besant, was elected President of the Indian National Congress in 1918.  She also founded the first Hindu university and, along with another Irishwoman, Margaret Cousins, who was educated in Londonderry, was involved in the creation of the All India Women’s Association in 1917. Cousins was also the first woman magistrate of India and founded the National Girls School in Mangalore in 1919. With Gandhi’s support, she also formed the All India Women’s Conference in 1926.  The conference succeeded in achieving diverse reforms in women’s rights. Amy Carmichael, born in Northern Ireland in 1867, led the campaign that gave birth to path-breaking laws against the sale of children to temples. The early Indian nationalist movement ‘Young Bengal’ was stimulated by the ‘Young Ireland’ organisation of the 1840s.  Later, the Irish Parliamentary Party sent one of its members, Alfred Webb, to attend the 10th  Indian National Congress session in Madras in 1894 to share his views on the common goals of self-government and land reform.  The thoughts and actions of Indian political leaders were galvanised by Ireland’s experiences as Ireland had gained freedom from British rule more than two decades before India. As a young student Nehru, whilst on a visit to Ireland, had beheld with awe the first rumblings of the Sinn Féin movement which Arthur Griffith had set in motion in 1900. The Easter Rising (the armed insurrection in the Easter week of 1916 which Yeats described in his poem ‘Easter, 1916’ as a time when ‘All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born’) stirred his heart and mind. He was moved by Robert Casement’s speech from the dock and was dumbstruck by the unconquerable spirit which engulfed it. Nehru developed a close friendship with de Valera. Both were imprisoned by the British and Nehru’s letters from prison to his daughter Indira, in the early 1930s, contained numerous references to the Irish independence struggle, with a particular emphasis on de Valera’s stellar role. Nehru used to always profoundly recall the vast number of Irish who ‘left the home they loved so passionately and emigrated to …many distant countries…and whenever they went they carried a bit of Ireland in their hearts.’ In his monumental treatise ‘The Discovery of India’ Nehru said that India would never forget Ireland’s very generous help in its hour of trial. Nehru visited Ireland as Prime Minister on two occasions in 1949 and 1956 respectively. There is a most interesting story about Nehru’s second visit. Nehru had gone for a walk in the sleepy little village of Drumconrath comprising about 200 inhabitants. With Nehru was Mr. D.E.T. Lindsay, the proprietor of the Aclare House Hotel, where Nehru had come to relax for two days. On his 40-mile drive from Dublin in one of President Sean T. O’Kelly’s cars, the party outpaced a police car ordered to accompany Nehru discreetly. When the police arrived, Nehru was standing on the hotel steps, laughing. ‘We got here first’, he glibly remarked. Irish people have always admired Nehru’s depiction of Ireland as a little country which, throughout many long centuries of occupation, had refused to submit to an alien domination and which, generation after generation, had risen in revolt to proclaim it would not submit. The fourth Indian President Varahagiri Venkata Giri, with whom I came in close contact during my Delhi University days, studied law at the University College, Dublin, and used to proudly boast, ‘When I am not an Indian, I am an Irishman.’ His active association with the Sinn Féin movement and its leaders including Thomas MacDonagh, James Connolly, Patrick Henry Pearse and the young  de Valera, and his suspected role in the Easter Rising triggered his expulsion from Ireland in 1916. Ireland’s Prime Minister Garrett Fitzgerald visited Delhi to attend the funeral of Indira Gandhi in 1984. On 23rd June,1985, a most tragic event united the two nations in unbearable grief and shock and led to a further bonding of ties beyond the political arena. Air India’s Boeing 747-237B aircraft christened ‘Emperor Kanishka’ exploded in mid-air under the devastating impact of a powerful bomb surreptitiously placed by a dreaded terrorist and crashed 150 miles off the coast of Cork claiming the lives of 329 hapless beings. The inauguration by the Indian government in March,2007 of the Éamon de Valera Marg, a new road in Chanakyapuri, Delhi’s diplomatic district, celebrated the historic links between the republics of India and Ireland. Ties in business and trade were also strengthened in January, 2006 during a major mission to India led by Bertie Ahern. In September, 2011, a bust of Tagore was installed in St. Stephen’s Green, the only non-Irishman to be so honoured at this most prestigious of locations in Dublin. On 23rd September,2015, India’s charismatic Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid a whirlwind five hour visit to Dublin..the first Indian Prime Minister after Nehru to visit Ireland! Whilst in Dublin, Modi asserted in ringing tones, ‘India and Ireland share much in common. We can compare notes on our shared colonial history. Our Constitutions have something sacred in common. The Directive Principles of State Policy in the Indian Constitution are inspired by the Irish Constitution.’ Modi presented Enda Kenny, the youthful and dynamic Taoiseach of Ireland, a selection of rare manuscripts and papers from the National Archives of India, recognising the contribution two Irish officials viz. Thomas Oldham and Sir George Abraham Grierson had made to India. Oldham conducted India’s first systematic coal mapping and Grierson conducted India’s first linguistic survey. In reciprocation, Kenny presented Modi an Irish cricket team jersey with his name printed on the back. Modi also delivered an impassioned speech to members of the Indian diaspora in Ireland at a special event hosted at Hotel Double Tree Hilton in Dublin in which he assured them that it would not take another 60 years for an Indian Prime Minister to visit Ireland!

Ireland is one of India’s major trading partners. Indian exports to Ireland cover textiles, garments and clothing accessories, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, light engineering goods, food and computer software and hardware. Major Indian companies with a presence in Ireland include pharma majors like Wockhardt Ltd. and Sun Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and IT giants like Tata Consultancy Services Ltd., the flagship of the Tata empire. In 2013, the total trade in goods and services was pegged at  ­€2.48 billion. Ireland is home to more than 26,000 Indians or persons of Indian origin who are fully integrated in all aspects of Irish life and are well respected. Many settlers in Ireland were Hindus from the Punjab who emigrated before and following the British induced dismemberment of India in 1947.

The Rule of Law, swaying neither to the right or to the left, however political tides and currents may flow, is the bedrock of freedom. Independence of the judiciary is the surest bulwark against tyranny and retrogression of totalitarian government. Here, I am prompted to quote the great Irish-American lawyer and orator, William Bourke Cockran, ‘In a Society where there is democratic tolerance and freedom under the law , many  times evils will crop up , but  give  them a little time and they usually breed their own cure.’

And finally, I am irresistibly emboldened to wish all readers in a traditional Irish vein ‘Go raibh mile maith agaibh’ which simply means ‘may you have a thousand good things’! 


Advocate, Supreme Court of India

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