An Irishman's Diary


IRISHMEN have been at the centre of some notorious legal trials. Charles Stewart Parnell, Oscar Wilde and Roger Casement feature prominently in history books but, thanks to the unlikely “rediscovery” of a Dublin-born campaigner against colonial rule in Burma, we can add another name to the list: Dhammaloka.

A century ago, almost to the week, a Buddhist monk by this title went on trial for sedition in Rangoon. His crime was to have spoken out against Christian missionaries in the country, and by extension western imperialism. In a series of lectures in the southern city of Moulmein in 1910, he accused Europeans of bringing “the Bible, the Gatling gun and the bottle” in equal measure to Burma.

His politically-charged trial on January 31st, 1911 drew regional attention and it cemented Dhammaloka’s place as “a global celebrity”, according to Dr Laurence Cox of NUI Maynooth. One of Burma’s leading magistrates represented the accused in court.

But who was this shaven-headed rabble-rouser? The real name of U Dhammaloka (to give him his full title) is unknown, but he is believed to have been born in Booterstown, Dublin in the 1850s. At early age, he emigrated to the United States where he lived as a “hobo”, or migrant worker, travelling on railcars and frequently falling foul of the law. He worked his way across the Pacific and wound up in Japan, before arriving in Rangoon around 1880.

Here he encountered Buddhism and after a five-year novitiate became a fully ordained monk, and began teaching.

“Like many working men of the period, he was fiercely anti-clerical and a fire-breathing atheist,” says Cox, who uncovered new detail about Dhammaloka while researching a book on the history of Irish Buddhism. “I was looking for the first Irish Buddhists and thought they would be from around the 1970s. It turned out I was out by about 100 years.” Tracing Dhammaloka’s ancestry has been complicated by the fact that he gave multiple names to officers of the law and travelling writers. He variously called himself Laurence Carroll, William Colvin and Lawrence O’Rourke. The latter he used when interviewed by American author Harry Franck who depicted the yellow-robed “son of Erin” as an argumentative but intelligent anti-Catholic, a man who “knew the Bible by heart” and then used that knowledge to roundly dismiss Christianity and “that champion faker Jesus”.

Cox says Dhammaloka seemed to have been more angered by the impact of colonialism on Burma than Christianity per se. Openly criticising British rule, however, would have been perilous so instead he focused his comments “on the missionary effort”.

As well as holding preaching tours, Dhammaloka ran the “Buddhist Tract Society”, which reprinted Thomas Paine and other American and British atheist authors, in large print runs. He was also very active in Singapore and travelled to Cambodia and China to help stir up support for the anti-colonial “Buddhist revival” of the early 20th century.

Simultaneous to Cox’s research, a Canadian-based Burma expert, Alicia Turner, recently uncovered new records relating to the Irish monk. The two have now teamed up with Brian Bocking, Professor of the Study of Religions at UCC, to try to piece together the missing links.

They point out that the first western Buddhists have traditionally been identified as gentleman scholars but, in truth, they were more likely to have been “beachcombers” or drifters like Dhammaloka who “went native”. Dhammaloka is also significant for predating the Englishman Allan Bennett (1872-1923), who is often thought to be the first western Buddhist monk.

“Dhammaloka was basically dropped out of history because he did not fit into established stories of Irish religion, or for that matter Buddhist religion,” says Cox.

His trial for sedition is believed to have been prompted by complaints from either American Baptists or a group of Irish priests who were staffing the local St Patrick’s School. “They were particularly hot under the collar” about a young Buddhists’ association which challenged the school’s De La Salle ethos, says Cox. And there is a further Irish connection to the case. The presiding judge was Mr Justice Daniel Twomey of Carrigtwohill, Co Cork, a Catholic who was later knighted for his services to the crown.

From records, the outcome of the trial is unclear. Shortly afterwards, his death was announced in Sri Lankan and Indian papers only to be refuted by the man himself turning up in a newspaper office in 1912. After 1914, there are no confirmed sightings of the Irish monk.

Dr Cox notes scholars are “not 100 per cent certain” about anything to do with Dhammaloka. “He did spin stories but most of the time we have been pleasantly surprised to find they check out.”

To try to fill in information gaps, as well as raise further awareness about him, an international line-up of scholars has been invited to speak at “Dhammaloka Day” on Saturday February 19th, 2.30pm-6pm at Boole Lecture Theatre, UCC. Admission is free and all are welcome – especially anyone who knows of a “great uncle Larry” who was ordained a Bhuddhist monk in Rangoon around 1889. Nothing will surprise Cox at this stage. “We are hoping someone will tell us he retired in Ireland.”