The recent state visit to London by the president of the Republic of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, took place amid the pomp and circumstance befitting the historic occasion. A fraught chapter in Anglo-Irish relations has closed, opening the door to a lasting reconciliation based on justice for the wronged during the period of sectarian terror. Oppressed and oppressor have been released from the burdens of the past, as swords turn into ploughshares: “peace hath her victories/ No less renowned than war,” wrote the poet, Milton, to the warrior Cromwell, Ireland’s foremost tormentor. Yet, sharing the same troubled geography, Swift, Burke, Goldsmith, Sheridan, Wilde, Shaw, O’Casey, Joyce, Yeats, Beckett and Heaney brought to the lush landscape of English letters the compelling hues of Irish literary genius.
A more intriguing relationship, now gathering dust in the archives, was one seeded in the struggle for freedom of Indian and Irish nationalists against British colonial rule. Kate O’Malley’s book, Ireland, India and Empire: Indo-Irish Radical connections, 1919-1964, which grew out of a Manchester University doctoral thesis, tells the riveting story of this bonding. She quotes the words of Erskine Childers, a prominent Irish leader, in the Irish Press of August 10, 1954: “[The] indirect influence from Irish nationalism on India’s own freedom struggle… must some day take its rightful place in the annals of the two nations.” O’Malley conjures to life figures of the Indian Left such as M.N. Roy, Brajesh Singh, Shapurji Saklatvala, and their Irish compeers, Roddy Connolly, Sean MacBride, Frank Ryan and Peadar O’Donnell, all activists in the League against Imperialism sponsored by the Communist Third International in Moscow. Beyond its confines were nationalists of a more orthodox genre including Subhas Chandra Bose, an avowed admirer of the soldierly gifts of the Irish nationalist revolutionary, Michael Collins. However, it was Collins the pragmatic politician, who accepted Ireland’s partition as the price of its independence. He was assassinated by extremists for what they perceived to be his act of betrayal. Gandhi suffered a similar fate decades later, for much the same reason: Irish and Indian partitions ran on parallel lines.
Although there was a meeting of minds between Bose and Eamon de Valera in London, in 1938, the Irish leader, again for reasons of pragmatism, displayed deft political footwork in withholding recognition to Bose’s National Provisional Government for India, set up in Japanese-occupied Rangoon in 1944.
In reaching this point, we have, however, vaulted over two centuries of turbulence. The University of Edinburgh, in 1988, published a commemorative volume of papers read at a symposium to mark the bicentenary of Edmund Burke’s Impeachment of Warren Hastings in the Westminster Parliament. Burke was joined in this endeavour by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a fellow Irishman and orator of distinction, better remembered today as a notable comic playwright. The foreword to this volume by Victor Kiernan, eminent historian, cultural polymath and cricket aficionado, said, “It is to be hoped that this collection will find its way to India and remind readers there of how very far their country has travelled, through turnings and tribulations, since two hundred years ago.” India fulfilled its moral moment in British political discourse. Burke, no flaming radical, unlike Thomas Paine, was in essence a Whig Conservative, as his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France showed only too well. His true métier was the taxation grievances of the American colonists, whose leaders were land owners and slave owners.
Burke’s lines in their defence illustrate his cautious outlook: “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.” It was not so much British colonial governance in India that offended Burke’s moral sensibility, but the unaccountable actions of the British proconsul — admittedly a novel principle in India at the time. India in the late 18th century had reached its nadir; against the searing backdrop of internal contests for power, coupled with external land invasions from the north, Hastings emerges as a complex and engaging figure, somewhat removed from “The Great Melody” of Burke’s philippic. More moving, by far, was the passionate espousal of the lesser known Irishman, James Long, of the rights of the savagely oppressed Indian peasantry on the European-owned indigo plantations in mid-19th-century Bengal. Reverend Long, a fluent Bengali speaker, had lived in Calcutta. A commemorative service to his memory was held in a church in Thakurpukur, in 1979.
The First and Second World Wars resulted in a shift of the tectonic plates of the global order. The initial frisson of an Indo-Irish cultural conversation between Yeats and Tagore ended in disenchantment; and it was left to politicians and writers with an interest in politics to resurrect and take the dialogue forward. The personality and role of George Bernard Shaw fitted the bill perfectly. A hero to India’s educated class and an international icon, Shaw’s interest in India and his support for Indian Independence was firm and unswerving. His encounter with Gandhi in London, in 1931, during the Round Table Conference on the future of India, left an abiding impression on both men. “I knew something about you and I felt something of a kindred spirit. We belong to a very small community on Earth,” Shaw told the Mahatma, who was to write later: “In everything of his that I have read there has been a religious centre.” Shaw chided Nancy Astor for her dismissal of Gandhi as a charlatan. “Mahatma G[andhi] is not a crook: he is a saint and as such under the covenant of grace.” Was it an accident that Shaw and Gandhi were vegetarians from ethical conviction? Milan Kundera writes: “Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals.”
On a private visit to India, Shaw was greatly taken by the Jains, “with [their] temples of amazing magnificence, which excludes god, not on materialist atheist considerations, but as unspeakable and unknowable transcending all human understanding. It is in these temples that you escape from the frightful parochiality of our little sects of Protestants and Catholics and recognize the idea of god everywhere.” His biographer, Michael Holroyd, comments: “Shaw the worshipper and Shaw the iconoclast were joined in the Jain understanding of all gods and no gods.”
The Shavian experience of India continued through an exchange of letters with Jawaharlal Nehru, culminating eventually in a personal meeting between the two men,when India’s first prime minister called on the Irish sage at his home in the Hertfordshire hamlet of Ayot St Lawrence. Shortly before he left India for his visit as premier to London for a Commonwealth summit, Nehru wrote Shaw this letter (September 4, 1948): “Forty years ago, when I was 18 and an undergraduate at Cambridge I heard you address a meeting there… like many of my generation, we have grown up in company with your writings and books. I suppose a part of myself, such as I am today, has been moulded by that reading. I do not know if that would do you any credit.”
In his reply, GBS said that, although he was reliant on British newspapers about the situation in India, “I can consider it objectively because I am not English but Irish, and have lived through the long struggle for liberation from English rule, and the partition of the country into Eire and Northern Ireland, the Western equivalent of Hindustan and Pakistan.”
Fast forward, Sean MacBride, a former foreign minister of the Irish Republic, wrote of his association with Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, recalling Nehru’s “deep study” of the Irish Constitution of 1937 and the subsequent incorporation of several of its provisions into the new Indian Constitution drafted in 1949. “I frequently visited India,” said MacBride “and during my contacts with Nehru I developed a tremendous and unbounded admiration for him as a human being, a leader and a writer.” He ended his paean with an invocation to the “Almighty Creator of this Universe” to “protect India and her very small sister Ireland, and provide their people with the necessary shining idealism that will guide them through the man-made decadence and cruelty that threatens humanity.”
When India’s bereaved arrived in Cork, in early July 1985, for the inter-faith service for the 329 passengers and crew, killed on 29 June in the terrorist bombing of an Air India airliner (off the coast of the Republic of Ireland), no Irish cabbie would accept a fare from the visitors. It was a moving epitaph to the memory of an old friendship. Auld Lang Syne.