A history of Ireland in 100 objects


Reclining Buddha, late 19th century

This seraphically beautiful Buddha, now in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, is imperial loot. In the Mandalay style, which dates it to 1857-86, the statue is of marble, with the drapery painted gold. It represents the dying but beatific Buddha, preparing for his death and ascent into Nirvana. Col Sir Charles Fitzgerald, an Irishman in the British army in India, stole it while on a punitive military expedition to Burma in 1885-6. In 1891, Fitzgerald sent it, along with other looted Burmese statues, to the museum.

Audrey Whitty, its curator of ceramics, glass and Asian collections, identified the statue as the one that is mentioned twice in perhaps the most important Irish work of literature of the 20th century, James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (set in 1904 and published in 1922). The novel’s hero, Leopold Bloom, thinks of “Buddha their God lying on his side in the museum. Taking it easy with hand under his cheek.” Later, Bloom’s wife Molly recalls him breathing “with his hand on his nose like that Indian god he took me to show one wet Sunday in the museum in Kildare Street all yellow in a pinafore, lying on his side on his hand with his ten toes sticking out”.

Other imperial spoils ended up in Ireland too. In 1904 the museum paid £100 for 41 metalwork objects from Lhasa, brought back from the British invasion of Tibet. (The treaty of Lhasa, opening up Tibet to British trade, was drawn up by an Irishman, Capt Frederick O’Connor.) They are reminders that Ireland was not only a victim of British imperialism. Very large numbers of Irish people participated in the expansion and maintenance of the empire, most as foot soldiers, but many as high-ranking military and civil administrators, missionaries, doctors and other professionals.

In one of the great literary expressions of the imperial spirit, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the wild-child hero, explains that his name is Kim Rishti ke. What, he is asked, is Rishti? “Eye-rishti – that was the regiment – my father’s.” “Irish, oh I see.” The rishti were indeed common enough to get their own word in Hindi. Key figures in the extension and maintenance of British rule in India included Laurence Sullivan from Cork, George Macartney from Antrim (who was also the British envoy who tried, and failed, to open up imperial trade with China), John Nicholson from Dublin, and Sir Michael O’Dwyer, from a Catholic family in Tipperary, who led the suppression of protest in the Punjab between 1913 and 1920. O’Dwyer’s religion was not typical but neither was it entirely unusual: by the late 19th century, 30 per cent of Irish recruits to the Indian civil service were Catholic.

Irish involvement in the British Empire reached its height with the Boer War, in South Africa, between 1899 and 1902. A few hundred Irish nationalists fought for the Boers and leading militants at home, including WB Yeats, Maud Gonne, James Connolly and Arthur Griffith, campaigned in their favour. Nevertheless, 28,000 Irishmen fought for the British in South Africa. Anti-imperialism was becoming more vigorous, but it was still a minority position.

Thanks to Audrey Whitty

Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie