Roughly five years ago, Shabnam Vasisht tagged along with her sister on an outing to take photos of graves at Deansgrange Cemetery.
In new cemeteries, you don’t usually see any fancy tombstones but many at Deansgrange were different, she says. “These old ones were beautiful with huge angels, and really lovely.”
Her sister suggested documenting a few before they toppled over, says Vasisht – and after a while, walking around and pulling back the ivy from inscriptions, her sister called out to her.
One, she had noticed, mentioned the “Indian Mutiny”. “That’s what triggered my investigations,” says Vasisht.
In the years since, Vasisht has returned many times to the cemetery, working with its superintendent, John McCann, to track down mentions on epitaphs of exploits in India, and tracing the histories of those who lay there – going so far even as to reach out to a modern day maharaja.
For Vasisht, her work – which has now been published in a book, Digging Up The Raj – is about remembering a neglected strand of Irish history: the stories and lives of the many Irish who served as part of the colonial administration in India.
Just to the right inside the gates of Deansgrange Cemetery is a sleek grey memorial to those buried in the graveyard who fought in the Easter Rising of 1916.
Deeper inside, there are Commonwealth war graves, too, dedicated to soldiers who fought in the two world wars. Those “have been well documented but not those who served in the British Raj in India”, says Vasisht.
That first gravestone, with mention of the Indian Mutiny, turned out to be that of Captain James William Vaughan C.B.
His marble tombstone is ornate, a broken cannon at the foot and an anchor and chains at the top – a metaphor for the time that he spent at sea.
Vaughan – whose family home was a short walk away from Deansgrange – had joined the navy at 13 years of age, the epitaph reads.
He fought at the battle of Sevastopol, and later ended up in India, in a naval brigade which led him into battles and campaigns at the time of what some call the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and others call the First War of Independence.
Among the rows of tombstones, she and her sister also quickly found the grave of Major General Robert Beatty, who had joined the Madras Native Infantry.
After her initial discoveries, Vasisht returned to the cemetery and met with the superintendent John McCann. “I was loitering with intent, as I say.”
They started to work together, she says. “I call him my partner in grime, because we went into all the dirty areas and neglected areas, tearing at ivy and brambles and looking for graves.”
McCann says he had clocked that there were several headstones that mentioned India. But “actually, myself, I didn’t think there was as many as there was”, he says.
Walking among the more than 70,000 graves, he searched for any notations to do with India, catalogued them, and sent them on to Vasisht, he says.
They found 76 graves and biographies before the book was published, but that isn’t all of them, says McCann.
Not everybody would have their colonial service etched into their gravestone. “The original cemetery was divided into two”, says McCann, “a Catholic side and a Protestant side”.
Protestants were more likely to put their affiliations to the British Army – or Indian Civil Service, or East India Company’s military forces – on their headstones, he says. While some Catholics did, it was less likely.
McCann’s interest in the British Army in India lies not just in the lives of the officers, he says, but also in the ordinary privates who went over and fought: “The vast majority of the men from Ireland that went over were just ordinary Joe Soaps.”
Most of those listed in Digging Up The Raj are officer class because the ordinary guys wouldn’t be so well marked, he says.
“Even the ones that came home, they wouldn’t have put headstones up, so there’s no mention of them anywhere, you know?” he says.
Still, those biographies and stories of the more elite officers from the area are interesting in the way they tie back to the Dún Laoghaire area, and to addresses in the south Dublin suburb, he says.
“The majority of places that they came from, they’re all still … it’s actually the same as it was,” he says. “There are areas in Dún Laoghaire that are still called after some of these people, you know.”
McCann still stumbles across old gravestones with mentions of service in India in Deansgrange, he says. “Even now, I come across more and more, more and more.”
A really, really thorough examination, and historical research, would undoubtedly throw up more, he says. “I would say we’re probably looking at hundreds of men that were involved.”
For Vasisht, some of the names they came across were familiar and striking to her. Like Lieutenant General George Wheeler.
That name “Wheeler”. It rang many bells. “Anybody who studied the Indian Mutiny will know that Wheeler was synonymous with the Cawnpore Massacre,” she says.
That George Wheeler, buried in Deansgrange Cemetery, turned out to the son of Hugh Wheeler, the British general at Cawnpore. “He’s huge in the Indian Mutiny,” says Vasisht, of the father.
She recognised the name John L. Giddings too, she says – from the diary of Lady Julia Inglis, who recorded a daily account of the Lucknow mutiny.
“I seemed to remember that name Giddings from her account, and I thought, I wonder is this the same guy? And it was,” says Vashist. “It was the same guy buried in Deansgrange.”
To find graves and fill in the personal histories, she went through cemetery records, and regiment records, genealogy websites – and asked for help from museums and other organisations too. Like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and the Imperial War Museum.
Eileen Hewson’s book, The Forgotten Irish: Memorials of the Raj, was another aid, she says. “I found some graves through the book. Her book is very useful.”
One day, McCann showed her an old tombstone, toppled over on its face. A sword was carved in the bottom of the base – and it looked like an old Indian sword, he said. A big Punjabi sword, she agreed.
Some of McCann’s colleagues helped heave the tombstone up, and on the inscription for Colonel Henry Frederick Donnelly, it said that he worked for a maharaja. But there was no regiment mentioned.
“So I contacted the maharaja directly. The present maharaja directly,” says Vasisht.
The present-day maharaja of Kapurthala said that Donnelly, who now lies in Deansgrange, had once been in his great grandfather’s army. The trail ran cold there – but it helped fill in one piece of his life.
The Irish in India
Most of those mentioned in Digging Up The Raj were in India in the 19th century – although one person is also mentioned who died as recently as 2000, says Vasisht.
This tallies with the highest points of Irish involvement in the colonial administration in India, but also mirrors the continuation of that presence until much more recently.
There was some Irish involvement in India in the late 18th century, but it really kicks off over the course of the 19th century, says Michael Silvestri, an associate professor of history at Clemson University in South Carolina.
Most of the Irish in India were soldiers, he says, particularly in the years before the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849, when Ireland’s population was around 8 million.
There was heavy Irish representation in both the British Army and the East India Company – which had its own military forces, he said.
At that time, around 40 percent of British Army soldiers in India were Irish, and closer to half of the East India Company soldiers, he says. “This is something that declines after the Famine but there’s always Irish military service.”
Those who went weren’t just rank-and-file. Irish Protestants served as officers in the 18th century, and – after Catholic emancipation in 1829 – you begin to get Catholic officers as well, he says. “Though those numbers are smaller.”
Across the 19th century, you also begin to see the Irish in civil positions, says Silvestri, including in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). “The Steel Frame, as it’s often called, of the Raj – if I can use these kind of archaic terms.”
In 1855, when the ICS began to hire through competitive exams, Irish universities and students, both Protestants and Catholics, heeded that call, he says.
In 1857, the year of the Indian Mutiny, also called the Indian Rebellion – which some of the figures in Deansgrange Cemetery fought in in bloody battles – about a third of recruits to the ICS came from Irish universities that year. “So it’s quite high,” he says.
But the rules around recruitment changed later in the 19th century – revealing just one of the complexities around hierarchies and identities within empire.
At that time “there are concerns about how many Irishmen are in the ICS”, says Silvestri. They were trying to limit numbers.
Also, “more generally, the recruits coming from Britain and Ireland are not as ‘gentlemanly’ – quote, unquote – as the British government would like. So, kind of like more this Oxbridge man is the ideal,” he says.
Even after the percentages dip, though, in the 1880s, about 15 percent of the ICS officers are Irish, he says. “It’s quite significant.”
That service didn’t end with the birth of the Irish Free State, either, he says. “The spigot doesn’t get turned off in 1922. This service decreases, but it doesn’t stop.”
Why They Served
Why did people join up? “That’s something, it’s hard to generalise about,” says Silvestri, the historian.
But – whether they were a soldier signing up to the British Army in the 1830s, or an Irish university graduate sailing off to join the Indian Civil Service in the 1860s – opportunity was likely a key part, he says.
“The economic opportunities in Ireland, before and after the Famine, are limited,” he says. Family traditions and networks played a role too, he says.
(Others have researched networks to other outposts of empire, he says – pointing to Patricia O’Sullivan’s Policing Hong Kong: An Irish History, which documents how men from Newmarket in County Cork ended up in Hong Kong from the late 19th century into the inter-war period.)
There are also thorny questions of how those who served in India as part of the colonial administration squared that involvement with a consciousness of British rule back in Ireland.
That’s complicated and different for different characters too, says Silvestri.
Fenians with strong republican convictions probably wouldn’t have found service in India appealing, he says. “But you could be a unionist, you could be a more moderate nationalist, a home-rule nationalist and not see this as incompatible with imperial service.”
“I think there always would have to be an acceptance at a certain level, that you’re part of the imperial project,” he says.
The Irish were in a variety of roles that changed over time, says Silvestri. But, also, he says, there was “a general trajectory” from traditional imperial involvement to the growth of an awareness of empire and critiques of empire – as Irish nationalism became a stronger force in the late 19th century.
“These nationalists, they often take pride in the achievements of Irish people in the empire, feel they’re sometimes not being treated as well and recognised for their contribution – but also make critiques of the empire,” he says.
How Did Irishness Come Into Play?
“It’s a tough thing to get at, but I think it’s an important thing,” says Silvestri. “How much did their Irishness matter?”
For some, it seems, not much. “You can look at some people and say, well, you really can’t discern much different between their outlook and that of a British imperial administrator,” he says.
Then, there are striking examples of others where it does seem to affect them, he says. Take Charles James “CJ” O’Donnell, brother of the eccentric home-rule MP Frank Hugh O’Donnell.
“Even though he was an ICS officer, he was someone who was part of the imperial project, he was very critical of aspects of empire,” says Silvestri. In particular, famine relief and land-tenure policies.
India had devastating famines in the 1870s and 1890s, he says. “I think there is certainly an awareness among Irish imperial administrators … of Ireland’s own experience, of the inadequacies of famine-relief policies.”
O’Donnell went as far as publishing anonymous critical pamphlets about it, he says.
But then there’s the “famous and notorious” Michael O’Dwyer – an Irish Catholic from a gentry family, a unionist, and governor of Punjab at the time of the Amritsar massacre of 1919, he says.
Empire was “not always this rigid binary division between white and black, between the coloniser and the colonised, you have all these things together”, he says.
Racial hierarchies meant an Irish soldier could be a subaltern, in a subordinate position, yet through their “race” a part of the elite, he says.
Irish university graduates might have scrambled to apply to join the elite of the Indian Civil Service, yet the British government might then also try to limit their numbers partly out of anti-Irish prejudice, he says.
Soldiers in the East India Company might have had so tough a time thathistorian Linda Colley has called them “captives in uniform”. But “you know you got paid relatively well, and you had a certain status”, he said.
Navigating the Past
Vasisht – whose mother was a historian who graduated in India in the 1940s, and whose father served as an officer in the Indian Army – says she has consciously chosen with her book not to express any opinions about the involvement of those she writes about.
“I’m just writing what people did. It’s not for me to express an opinion,” she says. “It’s just what people did, it’s bare facts that’s all.”
They led amazing and interesting lives, she says. “They lived in an age we don’t understand. They rode horses instead of tanks when they went to war.”
Then they came home and died quietly here, and nobody knew about them, what they had done, she says. “They always spoke about that old crusty general in that big house in Killarney,” she says.
McCann, the cemetery superintendent – who served in the British Army in the 1980s when jobs were scarce in Ireland, he says, and got to travel to places he never would have been – is more critical of shades of this history.
“We’ve sort of been ever-present since the British went,” he says. “Which is a little bit shameful if you think of what was done in India.”
Soldiers aren’t in places to do good, he says. “They’re not there to do good things, you know what I mean. They’re really not.”
“I’m certainly not proud of our history in India,” he says. “But listen, fellas went because they needed a job, needed to feed their families. Different circumstances, different times, you know.”
In recent times, McCann has noticed a growing curiosity in military history, he says. “A hugely growing interest.”
Each summer, he does tours of the cemetery and this coming summer he plans to do some around Digging Up The Raj and Vasisht’s research, he says.
Says Vasisht: “When our generation dies, nobody will know about these people and nobody will care. It’s important that they care about these things.”