Brushing Up: The Buddhist Shrine in St Patrick's Cathedral

It’s the last thing you’d expect to find under the ribbed vaults of a Gothic cathedral in Dublin’s city centre.

But there it is, carved in white marble in the north transept of St Patrick’s Cathedral: the onion dome of Burma’s Shwedagon Pagoda, which is said to be the world’s oldest Buddhist shrine and reputedly contains eight hairs from the Buddha himself.

The white marble bas-relief, the work of Longford-born sculptor Terence Farrell (1798-1876), shows troops from the 18th Regiment of Foot besieging the pagoda on 14 April 1852, early on in the second of the three Anglo-Burmese wars that brought what is now Myanmar into the British Empire.

While Irish soldiers like these travelled to Burma in a colonising army, Irish writers and patriots became an inspiration for a later generation of Burmese nationalists. In that sense, the monument underscores the complex relationship between Dublin and the former Burmese capital of Rangoon (Yangon).

National founding father General Aung San was an avid reader of books on Michael Collins, James Connolly and Eamon De Valera, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi said in a March 2000 interview on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

For almost 15 years, Suu Kyi languished under house arrest near Yangon’s Inya Lake, a Nobel laureate and prisoner of conscience, and in 1999, Dublin City Council honoured her by granting her the Freedom of the City. She collected it in 2012.

Only last December, amid mounting worldwide revulsion at the massacres and ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people taking place in Myanmar, which Suu Kyi now leads, the council voted to rescind that honour.

The Shwedagon Pagoda still dominates the skyline of Yangon. Glimmering in the sun, it appears much as it does in St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Storming the Steps

In March 1889, the writer Rudyard Kipling stopped off in Rangoon as part of a sea voyage from Calcutta (Kolkata) to San Francisco.

The “bard of empire” described the pagoda as “a golden mystery … a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple spire”. At that point, the third Anglo-Burmese war had recently ended. All of what is today Myanmar was incorporated into the Indian Raj.

The bas-relief by Farrell commemorates an earlier war to capture “Lower” Burma. It stands close to an old wooden pulpit in the north transept where Dean Jonathan Swift once preached. Nearby is another of Farrell’s sculptures, commemorating Irish soldiers who fought in Britain’s 1840-2 war in China.

The Burma monument includes the badge of the 18th Regiment, displaying crossed standards, an Irish harp with broken strings, a drum and a bugle. Carved into marble are the names of five officers, and the legend: “Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise.”

That war began on 5 April 1852. Worsening relations between the British and Burmese King Pagan Min culminated in a classic piece of gunboat diplomacy when a force led by Commodore George Lambert forced a naval blockade of Rangoon and captured a royal ship.

At 5am on 12 April, a force of around 5,700 British and colonial troops approached the Shwedagon, which was held by an estimated 18,000 Burmese. As the British-led force stormed the east wall gate, they came under artillery attack.

“The Burmese fought like furies,” wrote one eyewitness, quoted in the 1880 book Our Burmese Wars and Relations with Burma by W.F.B. Laurie, “the poor fellows had no alternative, their wives and children being held in security by their king for the fulfilment of their duties.”

At least five other monuments throughout Ireland commemorate the 1852-3 war in Burma. One of these, a marble and limestone plaque and framed urn in St Iberius Church, Wexford, is dedicated to Lt Robert Doran, one of the five officers named on the St Patrick’s Cathedral monument.

Aged just 24, Lt Doran was cut down by four bullets on the steps of the pagoda, according to Laurie’s book. Farrell’s carvings show a body prostrated outside the main gates.

Cathedral board member Albert Fenton is the author of Past Lives: the Memorials of St Patrick’s Cathedral. He says he’s not sure if the body is meant to be Doran, or just a bit of artistic licence by Farrell.

This part of the cathedral was out of use for generations prior to a restoration in 1860-5 funded by Benjamin Lee Guinness, of the brewing dynasty, Fenton says.

“The north transept is virtually a new thing. It had been there originally in 1192 but it was ruined. What’s there is Victorian. The war only ended in 1853 so I’m almost certain the [Farrell] monuments are post the restoration,” he says.

The war claimed the lives of 365 soldiers from the 18th Regiment of Foot.

Immediately opposite the Burma monument these days is the “Tree of Remembrance”. Five and half metres tall, it is a representation of a tree with 16 bare branches in forged and burnished steel.

Visitors may sign paper leaves with messages for any relations lost to war, and leave them around the tree.

While the monument ostensibly commemorated the Irish dead of the Great War, it really honours all war dead, says St Patrick’s Cathedral Education Officer Andrew Smith.

Irish Influence

When Suu Kyi received the Freedom of the City of Dublin in June 2012, it seemed inconceivable that the award would be withdrawn only a few years later. (It’s only the second time the honour has been revoked, the first being in 1915, when it was taken back from a German scholar named Kuno Meyer, due to wartime anti-German feeling.)

But, last year, Suu Kyi was vilified for her failure to even condemn, let alone curtail, the ethnic cleansing of over 700,000 Rohingya Muslims from western Myanmar by the military, which was supposedly under her control, and the honour was indeed rescinded. It was a sad turn in the long shared history of the two nations.

One early interesting example of Irish influence on Burma was Laurence Carroll, who was thought to have been born in Booterstown around 1856, and who worked on a San Francisco-to-Yokohama mail ship before to ending up in Rangoon in the 1880s after a dissolute and drunken youth.

He became the first westerner known to have been ordained as a Buddhist monk, and toured South-East Asia as U Dhammaloka in the early 1900s. He is today regarded as a major figure in Burma’s anti-colonial struggle.

In the 1930s, the establishment of the Irish Free State was seen as inspirational in faraway Burma. The Rangoon University boycotts of 1920 and 1936, focal points for anti-British sentiment, were believed to have been modelled on the 1913 Dublin Lockout.

According to an 2012 article in the Myanmar Times, after nationalists founded the Nagani (Red Dragon) book club in November 1937, it translated around 70 foreign titles into Burmese before being closed down in 1941. Works by and about Irish republicans were prominent among them.

When the congregation gathered for evensong in the cathedral on Thursday, the Shwedagon carving looked all the more incongruous as the voices of the choir rose and fell. Perhaps, as incongruous as Irish converts to Buddhism and translated Irish books must have once seemed in Rangoon.

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Tom Farrell: Tom Farrell is a freelance journalist based in Dublin who has written extensively on Asian politics for various publications in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere.

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