Cauvery Madhavan: How an Irish mutiny in India inspired my novel

The Mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in 1920 had a tragic outcome

The former British soldiers of the Connaught Rangers became Irish nationalist heroes following the mutiny in 1920.  This memorial, which is located in the republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, was unveiled in 1949. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

The former British soldiers of the Connaught Rangers became Irish nationalist heroes following the mutiny in 1920. This memorial, which is located in the republican plot in Glasnevin Cemetery, was unveiled in 1949. Photograph: Ronan McGreevy

 

Twenty years ago, at an event in the Indian Embassy in Dublin, I overheard a conversation about the Mutiny of the Connaught Rangers in India in 1920. Intrigued, I looked up references to it the next day and was immediately drawn to the complex story and its tragic outcome.

In the following years, I travelled several dozen times to India, as well as to various locations in Ireland and the UK, in order to research and understand the lives of three different sets of people – Irish soldiers in the ranks who were Catholic, their Protestant Anglo-Irish officers and the much-maligned mixed-race Anglo-Indians.

The Tainted is a fictionalised account of that mutiny in 1920 and the fall-out for three families in its aftermath, taking the story right up to the 1980s.

The novel explores issues of identity and belonging, as well as the terrible repercussions of race, class and religious prejudice in India and Ireland in the 1920s and in the present, modern day.

The story delves into the minds of people whose lives and loyalties are caught in a social and historic limbo: Irish Catholic soldiers in the British army, the Anglo-Irish officers who commanded them and the Anglo-Indians, as they are known in India, children that these soldiers fathered in marriages and liaisons with Indian women and who they, more often than not, abandoned.

At the time of the mutiny, Irish Catholic soldiers were despised in Ireland for serving the crown. Their officers, Anglo-Irish Protestants in the main, were never fully accepted as true Irishmen clubbed, as they were, with the ruling English.

And in India, Anglo-Indians, with their mixed blood, were shunned by Indians and not socially accepted by the colonisers either.

1920: The War of Independence

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I wanted to find out why Irish Catholics enlisted in the first place. Life was so very hard for soldiers in the ranks – they had none of the many social and sporting diversions their officers had, to keep their minds off the heat, dust and discomforts that came with military life in India.

There were more questions – why did the men in the ranks depend so much on their regimental chaplain? Unlike the soldiers, why did so many officers love India? How did Anglo-Indians cope with the relentless prejudice from all sides? The research turned up some very interesting insights, including this startling one that had far-reaching consequences for generations – soldiers serving in the regiments of the British Raj believed sexual abstinence in the tropics was dangerous!

Glorious regimental history

The Mutiny of the Connaught Rangers is well-documented as the only blip in an otherwise glorious regimental history of battle honours and valour.

My material was gleaned from books, memoirs, letters and manuscripts in both the Irish and British public and military libraries, as well as from private collections. Several weeks were spent in many mountain towns in India where Irish regiments of the Raj were garrisoned, trekking and walking the valleys and forests with a guide.

I visited old army barracks, parade grounds and many a famous regimental mess, with their amazing collections of regimental silver.

I researched military chaplaincy for a good six months, including the Capuchin order in Ireland, as they were the regimental chaplains to the Connaught Rangers. I was particularly struck by the fate of the mutineers who, after Irish independence in 1923, had their sentences commuted and who then returned home to Ireland.

They were denied a British army pension for having been dishonourably discharged, and only after 1936 did the Irish State step in to give them pension.

In later years, long after most of them had died, they were rehabilitated into the Republican fold.

I was contacted by an amateur historian who took me to Castlehyde, near Fermoy in Co Cork, to see the grave of one of the mutineers, a Catholic who, shunned by his own, ended up buried, unmarked for many decades, in the paupers section of the Protestant graveyard.

That day, I drove back home and sat down to write the first pages of my novel, The Tainted.

Cauvery Madhavan’s third book, The Tainted, from HopeRoad Publishing UK, will be out April 2020

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