In August last year commentary began to appear across Irish media concerning the controversial removal of listed statues from the front of Dublin’s Shelbourne Hotel. The American owners had suddenly, and without planning permission, ordered them to be taken down in the mistaken belief that the two Nubian-style sculptures were depictions of black slave women.
The ensuing debate was Ireland’s first entry into the growing discussion about the politics of memory, colonial legacies, and demands to confront uncomfortable aspects of our past.
As this debate was unfolding, a previously unknown record about another uncomfortable aspect of Ireland’s colonial history was being uncovered just a short walk away at the National Archives.
The formerly uncatalogued files I discovered contain accounts of meetings and letters of correspondence from August to October 1938 between one of the most notorious exponents of British imperialism, Sir Michael O'Dwyer, and two leading Irish nationalists of the early 20th century, former taoiseach Éamon de Valera and former president Douglas Hyde. The letters were in O'Dwyer's file.
In April 1919, O'Dwyer, the lieutenant-governor of Punjab in British India and a Catholic from Co Tipperary, was responsible for the troops who perpetrated the Amritsar Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh.
Between 300 and 1,500 peaceful demonstrators were killed (depending on whether one believes the British or Indian accounts) at the holy city of Amritsar.
British imperialism and Irish nationalism were not then the mutually exclusive binaries many now suppose
O'Dwyer didn't order the shootings, but he achieved infamy as a belligerent apologist for Reginald Dyer, the Cork-educated general who did, even maintaining his support after fuller information became available.
O’Dwyer’s culpability was confirmed by a notorious missive sent in the aftermath approving Dyer’s actions, and by his ordering of the aerial bombing and machine-gunning of men, women, and children “to restore order” at nearby Gujranwala two days later.
A Westminster parliamentary inquiry unanimously condemned Dyer who was then relieved of his command but O’Dwyer, who had been due to stand down that year, postponed his retirement and ultimately stayed on until 1925.
The horrific Amritsar Massacre was one of several examples listed by Trinity College Dublin Prof Jane Ohlmeyer in an article she wrote in this paper last month, arguing that Ireland has yet to come to terms with its imperial past. Stories like O'Dwyer's, she said, "challenge the master narrative of the Irish as victims of empire, not active perpetrators of it".
Since publication, Prof Ohlmeyer’s article has triggered a plethora of splenetic blog posts, condemnatory letters to the editor, and a swarm of venomous attacks on her across social media. Her critics counter that in choosing to be an accomplice of the British Empire, men like O’Dwyer, by implication, did not consider themselves to be Irish.
Echoing this view, the most recent published account of his life and assassination by the Indian nationalist Udham Singh in 1940, Anita Anand's The Patient Assassin (2019), describes O'Dwyer's supposed "loathing" of Irish nationalists and his Catholic co-religionists.
Such assumptions permeate much modern understanding of Irish imperial history. The truth, however, is far more nuanced.
For, as the newly uncovered archive makes clear, Sir Michael O’Dwyer considered himself an Irish nationalist.
Indeed, shortly before the Amritsar Massacre he declared that home rule was “a lofty and generous ideal” that Ireland deserved – but one that India was not yet “fit” to enjoy. The difference, he argued, was that self-government was a status “which in one form or another Ireland had for centuries enjoyed” whereas Swaraj (home rule) was beyond the intellectual capabilities of the ordinary Indian people, the majority of whom had been “groping blindly through all stages of civilisation from the fifth to the twentieth century”.
British imperialism and Irish nationalism were not then the mutually exclusive binaries many now suppose. Nor were Irish nationalists impervious to racist world views. As historians are increasingly demonstrating, 19th and early-20th century political ideologies were a spectrum rather than a polarity, on which ideas offensive to modern sensibilities existed at both ends.
Not that Sir Michael’s views were unknown to the president who, if he wasn’t already aware, was briefed on O’Dwyer’s notoriety before their meeting on August 5th, 1938. The information is contained in a file of O’Dwyer’s letters.
That didn’t stop Hyde inviting O’Dwyer to the RDS for the Dublin Horse Show that day where he introduced the former lieutenant governor of Punjab to Taoiseach Éamon de Valera.
The British India veteran wrote afterwards in glowing terms of the “pleasure of meeting Mr de Valera, whom I had never met” but for whom he had the utmost personal and professional admiration.
The Taoiseach and he shared a lengthy conversation about Irish history and politics and O’Dwyer told of how welcome de Valera had made him feel, seemingly oblivious that Dev’s anti-Treaty IRA had once planned to assassinate him in solidarity with the Indian independence struggle, during a trip home to visit family in December 1923.
He thought that Dominion status was the ideal constitutional settlement for this island because it gave the Irish people the independence they long deserved, while retaining access to the opportunities of the British Empire
On his return to London, O’Dwyer followed up with a letter to President Hyde on September 18th in which he attached a copy of a book he had written, The Fusion of the Anglo-Norman and the Gael, which the president had earlier expressed an interest in reading. Thus began a back-and-forth exchange of newspaper clippings of mutual interest, with O’Dwyer and Hyde agreeing on many criticisms of England’s historical treatment of the Irish.
The Fusion of the Anglo-Norman and the Gael is a remarkable interpretation of Anglo-Irish relations, replete with references to blood lines, miscegenation, and racial degeneracy. Displaying elements of the eugenicist ideology that explains O’Dwyer’s flirtation with British fascism .
He thought that Dominion status was the ideal constitutional settlement for this island because it gave the Irish people the independence they long deserved, while retaining access to the opportunities of the British Empire and, referring to partition, he hoped that “the way has now been cleared for a free and voluntary union of North and South”.
The book highlights how O’Dwyer believed the most successful periods of British and Irish history were when “the Anglo-Norman and the Gael” were united. His Indian career, he suggested, embodied the opportunities of Empire now being afforded to Irish Catholics who had, since the Flight of the Wild Geese, a proud tradition of imperial service.
More than that, he thought, the appointment of the Protestant Douglas Hyde as president was “a signal proof” that a confident newly self-governing Éire, no longer “depleted of the flower of its manhood”, was ready to take co-ownership of the Empire. “England, which in the past blocked the way by opposing the fusion of Gael and Anglo-Norman, would now favour such a union”.
A man of many seeming contradictions, Sir Michael O’Dwyer – despite his unabashed imperialism – published several books critical of British actions in Ireland. These included a genealogy of his own family, The O’Dwyers of Kilnamanagh.
O’Dwyer believed the “extremist” Fenian violence of the Land League had deterred investment and consequently held the Irish economy back.
In his pugnacious biography, India as I Knew it 1885-1925, he made clear that he saw the threat of Indian nationalist Ghadr “terrorism” in the strategically important Punjab province as analogous to the militant Fenian attacks he had witnessed in his homeland.
Yet coming from a rural Irish farming background he was a supporter of the co-operative movement in India and strongly in favour of peasant ownership of the land. In a letter dated August 25th, O’Dwyer even offered policy advice on economic and land reforms to the Irish government, based on his experiences in the so-called Punjab School of paternalistic British Raj administrators who saw themselves, especially in agrarian matters, as “looking to the happiness and welfare of the masses”. The result of these reforms, he wrote, “was that the value of land in the Punjab rose in my time… from £5 to £16 per acre”.
Hyde’s secretary sent a polite initial thank you for the advice on August 29th but a few weeks later, at the request of the president, O’Dwyer was forwarded from Áras an Uachtaráin a review of The Last Lords of Ormond by O’Dwyer’s fellow Tipperary-born historian Dermot F. Gleeson.
There is increasing pressure for a more comprehensive, nuanced, and honest reckoning with history
These documents show that O’Dwyer’s views were not as black and white as some would like to believe. By placing a convinced Irish nationalist at the heart of perhaps the most appalling atrocity committed in the name of the British Empire the discovery of this archive demands a re-examination of much of the received wisdom that underpins our understanding of modern Irish identity.
The documents suggest that early-20th century Catholic Irish nationalists were not necessarily anti-imperialist.
Sir Michael O’Dwyer isn’t the only figure whose story complicates our national picture. Ireland had a variety of intricate relationships with the Empire, as recent work on the Connaught Rangers Mutiny of 1920 or the sending of remittances by Irish East India Company soldiers to pay for the first Catholic churches built after Emancipation in 1829, show.
A hate figure whose 1940 assassination is still celebrated by some in India today, O’Dwyer’s record challenges the hierarchy of Irishness that has come to dominate the popular view of our past.
History is complex and sometimes uncomfortable. It is as much about what we choose to forget as what we choose to remember, and Michael O’Dwyer’s dramatic example sheds new light on the often paradoxical ways Irish national consciousness has been shaped.
His life story furthers the still controversial truth that even in the aftermath of the Irish Revolution, deeply held Irish cultural and political nationalism were not always incompatible with holding a strong and simultaneous sense of Britishness too.
As Ireland’s decade of centenaries progresses, and movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Rhodes Must Fall campaign continue to grow, there is increasing pressure for a more comprehensive, nuanced, and honest reckoning with history.
Séamus Nevin is a DPhil candidate specialising in Irish and imperial history at the University of Oxford