Charting a passage to India

PARK STREET Cemetery in central Calcutta, or Kolkata as it is now known, is a good place to encounter the Irish who once served in the British army in India, including many who were employed as petty officials in the centuries before Indian independence.

Yet a stroll through this and other Christian cemeteries throughout India shows the extent to which the Irish were involved in the subjugation and colonial administration of India. Nowadays, Park Street Cemetery is a haven of peace in a city of 15 million inhabitants, the thirteenth largest city in the world, and India’s fourth largest. It is also a place with headstones bearing names like Hennessy, Kane, Hopkins, Ward, Walsh and Montgomery.

I met Ronnie Jones at his atmospheric auction rooms on Calcutta’s throbbing Park Street one sunny Saturday morning last November. Ronnie’s maternal grandfather, Richard Loane, was born in Cork, had joined the British army in Ireland, and arrived in Calcutta some time in the early 1920s, and married his wife Gladys shortly afterwards.

Ronnie has all the appearance of a handsome Irishman, complete with a winning smile, a glint in the eye, and a warm open handshake that immediately establishes a bond with all those who happen to drop into his auction rooms.

Ronnie is a big man in every respect and was a well-known rugby player in Calcutta. Despite the fact that he has spent over fifty years living in the city, he admits that a ‘strange feeling’ comes over him whenever Ireland is playing. He says he should be an All Blacks supporter, but for some deep instinctual reason he is a devoted fan of the Irish rugby team. He recalls how his grandfather, who only passed away in the 90s, spoke with an Irish accent and sang well-known Irish ballads at the drop of a hat, especially at birthday parties. Christmas Eve saw a tree erected in Ronnie’s home, and meals were always very different from those of their Indian neighbours, consisting chiefly of roast beef and familiar vegetables like cauliflower, potatoes, onions and carrots.

Like many of the descendants of Irish parents in Calcutta, Adrian O’Donoghue works in the hospitality sector. His father, a Dubliner, arrived in the city as a merchant seaman in the late forties. Two of his father’s brothers also moved to India around the same time. Adrian tells the story of how he once visited London in search of another uncle living in Islington. Someone spotted him in a local pub, recognised straight away that he was as an O’Donoghue and put him in contact with his uncle. Like Ronnie Jones, Adrian also carries the hallmarks of an Irishman under an Indian skin. He has the confident swagger of a Dubliner and meets jet-lagged travellers in the hotel where he works with a friendly, warm, firm handshake.

As elsewhere in India, Irish-born priests, nuns and Christian Brothers made a major contribution to education in Calcutta. St Xavier’s College and Loreto Convent are still listed among the city’s top schools. I met Father Patrick Walsh, a Jesuit priest at St. Xavier’s College in downtown Calcutta, and the grounds of the college, on that day, were thronged with Indian Catholics. Many of them had Irish connections, or were at least taught by Irish nuns and priests. Although he was not that clear about his Irish ancestry, Father Walsh knew that one of his ancestors, a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary by the name of Delaney, came to Calcutta the 1850s and changed his name to Walsh in order to avoid detection in India.

Some 2,000 delegates from Australia, Canada, the UK and the United States recently turned up in Kolkata to attend an international reunion of Anglo Indians. Among them were several with Irish ancestors.

The growing popularity of this event suggests that Anglo-Indians today, unlike fifty years ago, are much more confident about their identity and are now, literally, secure in their skins. Many among the 1.2 billion inhabitants of India are re-evaluating their relations with the descendants of those identified with British rule in the past.

Historically, Anglo-Indians included all those of mixed Indian and British, or European ancestry who were born in India. As such, they were an ethnically diverse bunch. By no means all had English parents. Many were descendants of soldiers, officers and mercenaries who joined the East India Company and took Indian women as their sexual partners.

However, under the title of ‘Anglo-Indian’ were many who had Irish, Scottish and Welsh ancestors. Park Street Cemetery became the final resting place for many of those employed in the service of the empire in Calcutta.

Because of the lack of British women in colonial India, it was common for soldiers and low-level colonial administrators, both Irish and English, to take Indian women as their wives. Prior to the Mutiny, or Indian Rebellion of 1847, it was also not unknown for upper class Englishmen and Irishmen in India to also take Indian wives. After that defining event in Indian history, however, intermarriage between white men and Indian women was uncommon, even despised.

Legislation actually outlawed mixed marriages. Many among the ruling elite subsequently took their wives with them to India, while others anxiously awaited the arrival of the ‘Fishing Fleet’, the term given to shiploads of Englishwomen who risked the dangerous passage to India in the hope of hooking a rich husband.

On the eve of Independence, India’s 500,000 Anglo Indians, among whom the colonial Irish were labelled, were an influential and privileged minority, especially in Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi and Madras. What held them together was their sense of being ‘outsiders’ in an increasingly nationalist society.

Their superiority complex, an Anglo-centric world view and their Christian beliefs, marked them out as a distinctive minority. Anglo-Indian men were considered happy-go-lucky fellows who aped the manners of their colonial betters, while looking down their noses at their fellow Indians. Anglo-Indian women, on the other hand, were considered ‘loose’, and were often called, or treated as, prostitutes.

Independence sounded the death-knell of this style of Anglo-Indian life. Their numbers plummeted from the 500,000 in 1947, to approximately 150,000 today. An estimated 350,000 of them left India in the 1950s and 1960s. These people, and their offspring, are now returning to their home country, if not to settle down again, at least to get reacquainted with the wonder that is today’s India.

Anglo-Indians in Calcutta today are far less Anglicised than they were in the past. According to Philomena Eaton, one of the organisers of the recent reunion, they ‘are much more integrated into Indian society, and are even more culturally integrated, having friends in a variety of communities’.

This was confirmed by Neil O’Brien, a prominent Hiberno-Indian in Calcutta, who said that although they were ‘small in terms of numbers, their contribution to society is quite significant’.

The life histories of Hiberno-Indians in Calcutta today testify to the fact that they were by no means a privileged minority. Many came as soldiers, having enlisted in the early years of the last century in port cities like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Waterford. Others arrived as merchant seamen or footloose travellers. After marrying into Calcutta’s Portuguese, British or Chinese communities, they settled and raised a family in the city. Unlike many wealthier Anglo-Indians, the members of Calcutta’s small but significant Hiberno-Indian community did not return home after Indian Independence. With the rise of nationalism in the fifties and sixties, they lost many of their small privileges, often including their very homes. Thus close-knit Anglo and Hiberno-Indian neighbourhoods around Landsdowne Road, Rippon Street and Elliot Road were split up as residents were forced to move to the far less fashionable district around Picnic Gardens. Names like McCarthy, McCann, O’Brien, O‘Donoghue, Walsh and Sullivan are not that uncommon there to this day. Many of these families now have only tenuous links with their Irish ancestors. When we talk of bringing people home for The Gathering, we tend to forget this neglected sector of the Irish Diaspora.

* Jim Mac Laughlin’s most recent book is Troubled Waters: A Social and Cultural History of Ireland’s Sea Fisheries. His Environmental and Cultural History of County Donegal will be published by Cork University Press in May.

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