India and Ireland might seem vastly different. But there is a common thread: Both Ireland and India brushed up against British imperialism in their past. This gave the Irish and the Indians common ground… and subsequently, there are people of Irish descent living in India who have incredibly interesting backstories.
When it comes to the Irish settling in India, they had a good reason to roll up on Indian shores: The East India Company.
INDIA: THE ARRIVAL OF IRISH PEOPLE
When the British East India Company first arrived at Surat, India, their main goal was to trade various spices, cotton, dye, tea, indigo, and opium among other goods. At that time, a large number of Irish people also came to India, seeking their fortunes within the payroll of the East India Company.
In the 17th Century, India was considered one of the most lucrative places in the world to get a stake into. India became the most coveted site for merchants. While most people arriving in India in the 17th century were independent traders, a lot were British East India Company soldiers.
Irish-born Arthur Wellesley and Lord Charles Wellesley were two Irish men who carved out a name for themselves in India.
Both Lord Charles Wellesley and Arthur Wellesley were Irish Protestant. Charles soon worked his way up to the position of Governor-General of India, while Arthur became a war hero.
Arthur was born in 1769, in Dublin. He was the commander of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars and later prime minister of Great Britain (1828–30). But it all started in India: it is here that he first rose to military prominence. And he also made a mark on his personal fortunes while in India. Wellesley amassed a fortune of £42,000, which was a whopping amount at the time. When his brother’s term as Governor-General of India ended in March 1805, the brothers returned together to Europe on HMS Howe.
IRISH COMMUNITY GROWS
The British East India Company became obsolete in the 19th century. However, the Irish community of India increased in size. Throughout the 19th century, before India’s independence, the Irish community in India was mostly known for setting up educational, religious and healthcare institutions in the country.
Several Irish missionaries were responsible for popularising Christianity. Word reached home in Ireland that there were millions ripe for conversion to Catholicism. Today, there are still Irish Catholics that filter into India for missionary work, but the number pales in comparison to previous eras. The following Irish people helped in changing India’s course of history.
Annie Besant née Wood was one of the prominent activists for women’s rights and education in India. Her support for Indian and Irish self-rule made her famous across Ireland and India. Annie’s father was an Englishman who lived in Dublin and studied medicine at Trinity. Her mother was an Irish Catholic, from a poor background. Besant made a big deal of her Irish ancestry. She supported the cause of Irish self-rule throughout her adult life. (Interestingly, her cousin Kitty O’Shea had an affair with Charles Stewart Parnell, leading to his downfall.)
At age twenty, Annie married 26-yearold clergyman Frank Besant. He was an evangelical Anglican who seemed to be on the same page as Annie politically. Annie dug in with her politics and was known to have connections to the Irish Republican Fenian Brotherhood. But the marriage didn’t last as Annie grew more radical.
After 1890, Besant became increasingly interested in a new American religion called Theosophy. As part of this, she became a big believer in education to further her cause. Besant wrote: “India is not ruled for the prospering of the people, but rather for the profit of her conquerors, and her sons are being treated as a conquered race.”
She encouraged Indian national consciousness, attacked caste and child marriage, and worked effectively for Indian education. Besant set up a new school for boys, the Central Hindu College at Banaras which was formed on theosophical principles.
The aim was to groom kids to be future leaders of India. The students spent 90 minutes a day in prayer and studied religious texts, but they also studied modern science. It took 3 years to raise the money for the college, which mostly came from Indian princes.
When World War I broke out in 1914, Besant helped launch the Home Rule League to campaign for democracy in India, and dominion status within the British Empire. This led to her election as president of the Indian National Congress.
As World War I broke out, Britain asked for the support of its Empire. Like the Irish nationalist slogan, Besant declared, “England’s need is India’s opportunity.”
In 1916, Besant launched the All India Home Rule League, modelling demands for India on Irish nationalist practices. This was the first political party in India to have regime change as its main goal. Besant was jailed for a short time for her involvement. When she was freed, she was welcomed by crowds all over India.
Mahatma Gandhi spoke of Besant’s influence with admiration. In her own interpretation of Indian dress, she remained a striking presence on speakers’ platforms well after this. Besant was never far from controversy, however.
In the late 1920s, Besant travelled to the United States with her protégé and adopted son Jiddu Krishnamurti. She claimed he was the new Messiah and incarnation of Buddha. Krishnamurti himself rejected these claims in 1929. He did remain close to her however, despite their differences. Besant continued to campaign for Indian independence and for the causes of theosophy, until her death in 1933.
OTHER INFLUENTIAL IRISH
Born in County Tyrone, Margaret Elizabeth Noble, an Irish teacher, was a social activist throughout her life. Later she became the disciple of the famous Indian monk, Swami Vivekananda and moved to India to become a nun. From then, she was commonly known as Sister Nivedita.
As soon as she arrived in India, she started dedicating her time to educating Indian women. Her involvement with Ramakrishna Mission allowed her to help the impoverished people in the nation. She spent most of her time in Calcutta. Even though she died in 1911 at just 43, her influence over the nation is still engraved onto its people.
Charles Stuart might be one of the biggest embracers of the Hindu culture in the world. Even though he arrived in India as an officer of the British East India Company, he soon became a devout follower of Hinduism. He was commonly referred to as Hindoo Stew due to his love for the Hindu culture and traditions.
Stuart devoted his adult life to worshipping Hindu deities. Charles was so obsessed with Indian culture that he started wearing Indian attire wherever he went. Although he was born in Limerick, he never went back to Ireland until just before his death in India in 1928. Stuart was buried at South Park Street Cemetery in Calcutta, in a tomb which looks like a Hindu temple.
There are modern-day prominent personalities that are of Irish descent if you want to go down a Google rabbit hole. Check out people like Derek O’Brien, Prannoy Roy, S.M. Cyril, and James Cousins. Derek O’Brien is an Indian politician, television personality and quiz master. O’Brien can trace his paternal origins to an Irish soldier who came to India in the early 1860s. His descendants married into the Bengali community. O’Brien is based in Kolkata and speaks, reads and writes Bengali. O’Brien’s grandfather, Amos O’Brien, was the first Christian to serve as head of the Department of English, Banaras Hindu University.
INDIA: THE LIFE OF THE IRISH COMMUNITY
In India, more than 1 million people are considered to be Anglo-Indians (Irish and British people are lumped in together when it comes to the term Anglo-Indians). People of Irish descent in India are often known as Eurasians. Ever since the British East India Company arrived, marriages between Indians and Irish were a thing. Often, Irish officers had Indian wives. These marriages drove the expansion of the of the Anglo-Indian population in India.
Alas, their offspring had it rough. People with Irish-Indian lineage faced severe racism in the 19th and 20th centuries, from both the British and the Indian population. As a result, Irish-Indians started marrying other Irish-Indians or Anglo-Indians. If you visit any Anglo-Indian locality in India, you will see a clear distinction of culture between their community and the rest of India.
Over the years, the Irish people in India started forming segregated communities. Irish-Indians or Anglo-Indians often left India after 1947 to settle in different British Commonwealth nations like Canada, or Australia. And yet – some remained.
INDIA: IRISH FESTIVALS
Most Irish people live in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi, and Chennai, so most Irish festivals are celebrated in those cities. Among all the Irish festivals in India, St Patrick’s Day and Christmas are the most popular. Even though Christmas has become a global festival, the Anglo-Indian or Irish-Indian community in India celebrate it most grandly.
Unlike in other parts of India, the Irish communities start celebrating Christmas 60 days before December 25. After December 25, the Anglo-Indian community keeps on celebrating the merry festival.
The Bow Barrack region of Kolkata is one of the important sites of the Irish population in the country. If you visit the Bow Barracks any time in December, you will smell the delicious aroma coming from Irish bakeries throughout its lanes. All the streets of the Bow Barracks are decorated beautifully with traditional Christmas lights and ornaments. The prominent Christmas tree in the centre of the road connects the Irish community with its European roots.
In Bandra, one of the most affluent regions of Mumbai, the celebration of Christmas is enthusiastic. With a significant portion of the Irish population in India, Bandra becomes one of the most happening places at Christmas. Social get-togethers, dances, open-air concerts, home-baked cakes, and wine make Christmas in Bandra the place to be.
ST PATRICK’S DAY IN INDIA
Like any other country where descendants from Ireland live, India also celebrates St Patrick’s Day, and they have been doing this since 1875. The famous brothers from Tullow – Fintan, Paul, and Ignatius, started celebrating Paddy’s Day in India. Patrician churches can be found throughout India.
The St Patrick’s Church in Chennai, Bangalore, and Pune are famous. But St Patrick’s day is mainly celebrated in Mumbai. Several Irish pubs in the city organise fun events for everyone in the locality. The Irish House in Mumbai holds a twoday carnival in the streets of Mumbai every year on St Patrick’s Day. If you take part in the celebration, you will almost forget that you are not in Dublin.
Irish House and its surrounding walls are decorated in green lights, and several open-air concerts get locals into the Irish spirit of St Patrick’s Day. In 2021, the Foreign Affairs Department of India took the initiative to celebrate St Patrick’s Day beautifully. On March 17, all the hotels under the globally famous Taj Group in India were illuminated by green lights.
THE DISAPPEARING ETHNICITY
Over the years, the Irish community across India has been disappearing. When India got its freedom in 1947, the number of Anglo-Indian people was around 250,000. But now, the number of Anglo- Indian people is becoming fewer. Now, most people of Irish descent in India are part of core Indian traditions and cultures. Even though they used to speak mostly English, now they are capable of conversing in Hindi or other regional languages in India.
Irish-run schools are still prevalent in India. The Congregation of Christian Brothers runs the most Irish Catholic schools. These schools have been quite crucial to the Indian education system since 1802. Even though not many Irish people study in these schools, most teachers of these institutions are of Irish descent. Even though the Irish population in India is fading, the people who still live there make it a point to treasure their heritage.
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