An Irishman's Diary

There was a good turnout recently for a talk in Trinity College, Dublin by Palagummi Sainath, a journalist famous in India for…

There was a good turnout recently for a talk in Trinity College, Dublin by Palagummi Sainath, a journalist famous in India for his writings about the poorer inhabitants of that huge country, and the effects of globalisation on farmers, writes Colm Keena.

I went along - not least because Sainath and I share some mutual friends, and I had met him 14 years ago during a visit to Bombay. I was a reporter at that time with the Irish Press group, and Sainath surprised me with his interest in the newspapers' founder, Eamon de Valera. I was even more surprised when he told me his grandfather, Varahagiri Venkata Giri, had met de Valera when studying in Dublin in the years before the 1916 Rising. Giri had returned to India, engaged in politics and had eventually become president, just like Dev.

During his trip here Sainath had with him a chapter from his grandfather's book My Life and Times, published by Macmillan in Delhi in 1976, which I use for most of what follows.

Giri arrived in Dublin in August 1913, having been sent to Ireland to study law at King's Inns so he could follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He also studied literature, economics and political science at the National University, where his lecturers included Thomas MacDonagh, one of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation. "His classes were very popular and his cottage at the foot of the Dublin mountains was a centre of literary and revolutionary thought," Giri wrote in his memoir.


Indian students preferred to study in Ireland rather than England "because there was neither a colour bar or racial prejudice of any kind among the Irish, probably due to the adverse circumstances of their history". He was drawn towards Irish politics and the struggle for independence, and found that the "Irish patriots" accepted him and his Indian colleagues as friends.

He and another Indian, Shri Unnava Lakshminarayana, formed the Anarchical Society, which was dedicated to the use of violence in the struggle for Indian independence - though this "was not to be so, for we all came under the magic spell of Mahatma Gandhi and decided to follow only the path of truth and non-violence for winning political freedom".

He also helped to organise the Indian Students' Association in Ireland. He and others wrote a pamphlet about the racism suffered by Indians in South Africa, a topic that was censored in India, and used a Dublin printer to run off about 100,000 copies. The pamphlets were sent to India, where they came to the attention of the authorities, who in turn notified London. A police inquiry was launched in Dublin but the printer would not disclose Giri's name, and Giri managed to dispose of all incriminating evidence before the police tracked him down and raided his rooms.

Of all the political activists he met, he was most impressed by James Connolly: "I remember vividly meeting Connolly on several occasions as I was regularly invited to their meetings. . . I resolved that as soon as I returned to India, I would give a graphic account of these struggles to inspire our own people. I also felt that, at the earliest opportunity, I would take up the organisation of the transport workers in the country" - so that when conflict arose, they could play a part in disrupting the movements of British troops.

He was struck by Connolly's concern for the working class, whose living conditions at the time shocked Giri: "The plight of workers in Ireland at that time was miserable. I saw grinding poverty and squalor in the areas of Dublin inhabited by the working class." Houses with as many as 90 people living in them would have a tap in the yard and two toilets. The enforcement of public health laws was lax, and it was reported that some members of Dublin Corporation owned substantial tenement houses that had been classed as "unfit for human habitation".

De Valera made less of an impression. He "was more of a dedicated intellectual than an active revolutionary and had remained a relatively unknown figure. . .When I met him in Dublin I did not imagine that this soft-spoken and humane teacher of mathematics was so endowed with a gift of leadership that enabled him to dominate the Irish scene for more than half a century." Gandhi, he wrote, was influenced by some of Arthur Griffith's ideas on economics.

About a week before the 1916 Rising Giri and his friends met some leaders of Irish nationalism, including Desmond FitzGerald, who said: "Let us meet again at Easter for some hot tea." But instead of taking tea at Easter, Giri witnessed the Rising: "I can still remember the sound of the bullet that whistled past my ear!"

Dublin Castle and the India Office in London were suspicious of him, believing he might be involved with the Irish rebels. On June 1st, 1916, an order was served directing him to leave "the UK" by July 1st.

Back in India, Giri rose to the top of the railwaymen's union and served twice as president of the All India Trade Union Congress. He became independent India's fourth president, in 1969, and served until 1974.

Sainath has childhood memories of his grandfather, after his retirement, corresponding with de Valera. The main topic of their letters, he says, was the state of health of the two men.

Sainath seems to have been influenced by his grandfather's politics and therefore by Connolly. When I first met him he was reporting on daily life in the most remote and neglected parts of India, for the Times of India. In recent years he has been writing about the wave of suicides in agricultural India as poor farmers struggle to survive in a global economy where the US and the EU (including this State) subsidise their own agricultural produce.

His talk in Trinity was on the topic of inequality and journalism of conscience. The greatest journalists in history engaged with the great processes of their age, and were journalists of dissent, he said. Newspapers and broadcast organisations were businesses, but journalism was a calling.