Gandhi’s complex ties with Ireland and the Irish

The writings of Gandhi, who died 75 years ago today, reveal a tantalising breadth of Irish references

Increasing attention has been paid to the many associations between Ireland and India, most recently prompted by Leo Varadkar’s rise to political prominence in Ireland. The similarities range from the more coincidental – such as the colours of both countries’ national flags – to the deeply political and cultural associations between the two nations.

Both countries were on the receiving end of British colonial policy; both learned from each other’s struggles for independence, adopting and adapting various political strategies; both committed to similar programmes of cultural nationalism, their chief proponents supporting one another, as when WB Yeats wrote the foreword for Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, for which the latter received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913.

When India became a republic in 1950, Éamon de Valera was invited to be guest of honour at a special ceremony held by an Indian association in Birmingham. Though the choice of de Valera was unpopular among certain quarters of the British press, the association staunchly and proudly defended their action, stating: “We and the Irish had strong ties of friendship. We suffered under the same tyranny for many centuries. They had the Black and Tans; we had the massacre of Amritsar. They had de Valera and Casement and MacSwiney; we had Gandhi and Nehru and Bose. They had Sinn Féin; we had our National Congress. They had the IRA; we had the INA. It is not only for the smile and the shamrock we know Ireland. It is for the toughness of their leaders and for the rebellion in their hearts.”

However, the associations between Gandhi, who died 75 years ago on January 30th, 1948, and Ireland were considerably more nuanced and bear much further scrutiny. Gandhi was a prolific writer and his Collected Works, a 100-volume series compiled and published by the Government of India, reveals a tantalising breadth of references to Ireland and the Irish which ranges from public commentary on the Irish political climate to the personal exchange of letters with several Irish correspondents.


Gandhi was an Anglophile for the first five decades of his life, admitting in his autobiography that at one time he “vied with Englishmen in loyalty to the throne”. He hailed the contentious first visit of the recently-crowned King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra to Ireland in July 1903 as “one of vast significance not only to the Irish people but to the Empire at large” and derides the “pettiness” of the Dublin Corporation’s refusal to “present an address” to the royal couple, “as if they were responsible for that country’s distress”.

Gandhi continues to note that, following a visit to the city’s “slums”, the royal couple donated the sum of £1,000, and though one is “very apt to think that sovereigns can afford to give away money without feeling the slightest pinch”, it is “a well-known fact that, probably of all the first-class sovereigns in the world, the English King is the poorest”. He concludes that the “humility”, “warm words of sympathy” and “open-hearted manner” shown by “their Majesties” during their visit “disarmed all opposition, and by returning good for evil shamed the Corporation of Dublin into an attitude, so we are told, of repentance”.

Just two years later, in 1905, Gandhi was becoming increasingly engaged with the Swadeshi movement, a self-sufficiency drive which underpinned the campaign for Indian independence. Sinn Féin was founded in the same year by Arthur Griffith and, in a 1907 article entitled “Benefits of Passive Resistance”, Gandhi makes clear his admiration for the new Irish political party, whose name, he points out, translated into Gujarati, “means exactly our Swadeshi movement”. “In their struggle”, he notes, “passive resistance is one of the main weapons. Till now, Irishmen favoured violent action.”

However, his later writings capture his disillusionment with the party, and in 1920, writing of the recent assassination of a British local government figure in India, Gandhi condemns such attempts to seek political independence by violent means. Sinn Féin, he asserts, “openly practice murder and other forms of violence for the purpose of freeing their country from the English connection”. This, he continues, is an opportunity for distinguishing the Sinn Féin non-co-operation from the Swadeshi non-co-operation: Sinn Féin non-co-operation “does not and did not depend for success on non-violence. The Sinn Féiners resort to violence in every shape and form”.

Terence MacSwiney, the Sinn Féin mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in a British prison in October 1920, was an object of respect for many contemporary Indian politicians, including Nehru and Gandhi. Yet Gandhi refused to publish a eulogy to MacSwiney sent to him by a young Irish girl because he “could not ethically justify the fast”. Gandhi was to use the hunger strike many times as a key part of his non-violent campaign for independence, but he felt that fasting could only be successful if pursued as a means of self-purification rather than as an attempt at “bending the wrong-doer to [their] will by physical force”, as was one of the aims of hunger strike when employed by both the women’s liberation and Irish independence movements.

Turning to his personal acquaintance, Gandhi was a close associate of Annie Besant (1847-1933), well-known political activist, social reformer, Theosophist, educationalist and agitator for both Irish and Indian Home Rule who was the first woman president of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi’s references to Besant in his Collected Works belie the increasing conflicts between them as Besant began to decry his non-cooperative methods. Besant favoured the attainment of political independence by constitutional means and concluded that “He (Gandhi) is very good for other kinds of work but he is not a politician.”

In 1902, Gandhi met Margaret Noble (1867-1911), later known as Sister Nivedita, a Dungannon-born educationalist, social activist and Irish Home Ruler. A devotee of Swami Vivekananda, the philosopher and teacher often credited with bringing Hinduism to the West, Noble followed him to India, and her memorial at Darjeeling reads “Here lies Sister Nivedita who gave her all to India”. Reflecting upon this meeting in his autobiography in 1927, Gandhi referred to Nivedita as “volatile”, prompting an outcry from the Indian nationalist magazine The Modern Review who said such a description “wronged her memory”. In response to the accusation, Gandhi defended his use of the adjective, on the basis that the choice “lay between volatile, violent and fantastical”, with the latter two deemed “too strong”.

Gandhi was also in close contact with Margaret Cousins (1878–1954), a women’s suffragist from Boyle, Co. Roscommon who moved to India in 1915 with her husband, the Belfast-born poet and writer James ‘Jim’ Cousins. The couple had co-founded The Irish Women’s Franchise League in Dublin in 1908 with Hanna and Frances Sheehy-Skeffington. Jim’s entry into Indian literary circles led to close acquaintance with Tagore and Gandhi, and Gandhi championed the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC) which Margaret established in 1927 to advocate for the rights of Indian women and children. Now an NGO, the AIWC continues to be one of India’s oldest women’s rights’ organisations. In his newspaper Young India, Gandhi’s article on the “curse of child marriage” is prompted by a “tragic case” brought to his attention by Margaret Cousins and both agitated for legislation to raise the age of sexual consent in India.

Gandhi also corresponded with those of less prominence. His Collected Works contains a letter from Bishop Henry Montgomery (1847 –1932) of New Park, Moville, Co Donegal. From an Anglo-Irish family, Montgomery was born in India as the son of a Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab and later became an Anglican bishop and author. His son was Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976), a prominent commander for the British in the second World War, later known as ‘Monty’; during an early career posting as brigade-major in Co Cork in 1921-23 he had also been involved in some skirmishes with the IRA.

Montgomery addresses Gandhi as “Dear Friend” and thanks him for his “long letter” which he had kept by him “all these days to be able to send you just a line of thanks for it and for the sentiments expressed therein” (11th Nov. 1931). Montgomery’s reference to having shared the letter with “Charlie Andrews” suggests he was a close friend of Charles Freer Andrews (1871-1940), also an Anglican priest and fighter for Indian independence who counted Gandhi among his close friends. CF Andrews is particularly well known for his role in convincing Gandhi to leave South Africa, where he had been involved in the Indian civil rights movement, to return to India to work on the cause of Indian liberty.

He also befriended an Irish widow, Emma Harker, who had left Ireland to live in India with her daughter and son-in-law, an employee of the Indian Civil Service. Harker both met and corresponded with Gandhi from 1924 to at least 1934. During this time Gandhi largely advises the “elderly widow” who is “anxious to do some work” against undertaking the various courses of action she proposes which include joining his Satyagraha Ashram at Sabarmati –ashram life, he says, is “really too simple and too hard for one brought up like you”) – and undertaking relief work in the flooded areas of Bihar and Orissa.

There is also evidence of correspondence, in November 1931, with the Irish-American woman Vivian Butler Burke (1881?-1937). By then based in Dugort, Westport, Co Mayo, Burke is believed to have founded the first Buddhist centre in Ireland in her home in central Dublin in the late 1920s. The correspondence shows that Burke blames the abovementioned Andrews, Gandhi’s friend and advisor, for the postponement of Gandhi’s planned visit to Ireland, quoting “an Irish saying” that “One must never trust the horns of a bull and the smile of an Englishman.” Gandhi responds both coolly and ambiguously, advising that his postponement was caused by “a peremptory summons from India”; however, he hopes that his plans to visit Ireland do materialise, “in which case”, he writes in a snub to the Irish-American woman, “I shall stay with a private friend”.

Dr Clara Neary is a lecturer in stylistics at Queen’s University Belfast