Irish people holidaying overseas often hear the comment: “Oh, you’re Irish.”
It is almost always freighted with contrasting possibilities.
The speaker, hearing English spoken, may be glad that the person talking in English is Irish rather than British or American.
But, nine times out of 10, no matter where in the world the speaker hails from, they have at best a positive view of the Irish, and at worst a neutral view, not least because we, as a nation, haven’t left scars on them or their country of origin. We don’t have much of a history of invading or colonising.
That’s perhaps why, when, just a week ago, the head of the Church of England publicly prostrated himself in penitence over the massacre at Amritsar in India in 1919, Ireland hardly noticed. We had damn all to do with the Raj and felt no culpability for the way the British treated millions of Indians they turned into fan-wielding servants.
We believed we could not be held accountable for some historic atrocity.
Except that one of the two key men involved in the atrocity was Irish, and the other had the strongest connections with this country. One was educated in Cork, the other came from Tipperary.
To this day, an Irish name evokes a shudder in India: that of Michael O’Dwyer, who never in the two decades following the carnage expressed anything but the approbation of it and the man who directed it, Reginald Dyer.
At the time of Amritsar, the UK was apprehensive of another Indian Mutiny. Apprehensive to the point of paranoia, because it would have taken a rancid case of paranoia to see as dangerous a dusty walled garden full of Amritsarinhabitants gathered to discuss the threat posed by revolutionaries. The agenda for the meeting expressed concern about actions“deleterious to the British government”.
In addition to those wanting to discuss such serious matters,as the day progressed, the garden filled up with pilgrims on their way back from the Golden Temple, looking for somewhere to sit down and eat, somewhere their children could safely play.
The problem was that Brigadier General Dyer was so rigid a character that he couldn’t trust his own eyes. Instead of registering the self-evident harmlessness of roughly 5,000 unarmed civilians, his concern was that he had issued a proclamation that meetings of more than four men were banned, and by God, he was going to ensure the natives paid attention to that proclamation.
He said afterward that if he had been able to get his armoured cars through the procession of people headed for the dusty garden, he would have equipped his men with machine guns — machine guns being more efficient at mowing down the unarmed innocent.
As it was, he blocked the entrance, marched his men into the garden, ordered them into firing positions, told them to aim into the mass of those present, not overhead, and instructed them to open fire. They did. Bullets ploughed into men, women, and children.
Desperate to escape, some of those as yet unwounded tried, with the help of family members, to get over the wall to the outside. The bullet holes still to be seen in that wall testify to their failure. Several hundred (according to British records) died; more than a thousand (according to Indian accounts)perished.
The Brigadier General’s report described the incident as a successful dispersion of a mob. The truth was that he trapped 5,000 people who only a lunatic would regard as a mob and gave them no chance to disperse.
No warning was given. None of those present were told to prove their innocent intent by leaving the area — not that they could have left, given the armoured cars making the gates impassable.
They were assassinated without cause or conscience. Dyer then ignored the wounded and provided them with no medical help: “It was not my job. Hospitals were open, and they could have gone there.”
Within two days, Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, declared martial law, pausing only to instruct the building of gallows in public places so the populace could see what was in store for them if they challenged the military men who now governed their every move.
O’Dwyer devoted the rest of his life to justifying what Dyer had done. But then, he had been raised with a generational reverence for the authority of the British Empire and a matching contempt for revolutionaries back home in Ireland.
O’Dwyer was one of a family of 14 children, so it is, perhaps, unsurprising that the O’Dwyers were Catholic. They were well-to-do landowners who farmed in the shadow of the Galtees. Michael was the sixth child born to Margaret and John O’Dwyer, and adored the two of them, writing admiringly of his father’s unselfish devotion to his clan and his hospitality to others.
Of his mother, he wrote: “She kept the family together in her own loving, unobtrusive and efficient manner till all were launched in the world or provided for at home, no easy task in those days of agricultural depression.”
Michael, like the rest of his family, was raised to high expectations and set out to fulfill them. He was a man untroubled by uncertainty or doubt, for 20 years defending if not promoting the actions of his military in Amritsar.
Indeed, he was at a triumphalist event in a Westminster hall on the night when an Indian named Udham Singh shot him dead. An eponymous biography of the “patient assassin” by Anita Anand, published earlier this year, points out that he had waited for 20 years to avenge Amritsar.
No apology was ever forthcoming for the massacre. When Queen Elizabeth II of Britain laid a wreath at the site of the massacre 20 years ago, Prince Philip described Indian estimates of those who died as “vastly exaggerated”.
On his visit as British prime minister, David Cameron, writing in the visitors’ book, managed to ascribe eternal virtue to the UK while vaguely acknowledging that Amritsar might not have been itsfinest hour.
“We must never forget what happened here,” he wrote. “And in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world.”
Theresa May didn’t even go that far. She expressed regret for the terrible thing that had happened, as if that terrible thing had been an unowned climate event like a hurricane.
We in Ireland have hardly registered the Amritsar massacre. Maybe we should. Maybe we should apologise for an emigrant, who a hundred years ago approved multiple murder. Because that’s the truth of Michael O’Dwyer.Despite a privileged background, a Jesuit education, and enormous pride in tracing his family back to Brian Boru’s time, this man saw nothing wrong in exterminating hundreds of unarmed and entrapped civilians he considered to threaten the Raj, despite the fact that some were babies and several were in their 80s.
His command soaked the garden at Amritsar with the blood of innocents. And he never regretted it.