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Ireland’s Imperial Elites

Seán William Gannon

Irish Military Elites, Nation and Empire, 1870-1925, by Loughlin Sweeney, Palgrave Macmillan, xvii + 301 pp, ISBN: 978-3030193065

They say the British Empire owes much to Irish hands
That Irish valour fixed her flag o’er many conquered lands
And ask if Erin has no pride in those her gallant sons
Her Wolseleys and her Lawrences, her Wolfes and Wellingtons.

Ah these were of the Empire ‑ we yield them to her claims
And ne’er in Erin’s orisons are heard their alien names
But those for whom her hearts beat high and benedictions swell
They died upon the scaffold or pined within their cell.

The Irish poet Francis A Fahy (1854-1935) is best remembered as a composer of sentimental come-all-yes. But he also produced what, three years after his death, the Republican newspaper the Wolfe Tone Weekly described as more “robust verse that throbbed with the uncompromising spirit of his true Irish heart”. This was exemplified by his poem “The British Empire”, which the newspaper then published on its front page. Written in the 1880s, the poem was a searing condemnation of Britain’s overseas expansion, an expansion which, under the guise of a “God-commissioned” civilising mission, actually employed “every art by which the weak are crushed out by the strong” to maintain its “onward march through wreck and waste and gore”. Fahy, who went on to serve as president of the Gaelic League of London from 1896 to 1908, took particular pains to present British imperial values as antithetically un-Irish and, in the above-cited stanzas, he rejected the idea that true Irishmen had contributed to the empire’s ascent. Ireland’s “imperial heroes” such as Garnet Wolseley (who had by this point served with distinction in India, Canada, and Africa) and John Lawrence (who played a pivotal role in suppressing the 1857 Indian Mutiny and served as viceroy in 1864/69) were not in fact authentically Irish, but Anglo-alien sons “of the Empire”.

Little is known of Lawrence’s personal sense of his Irish identity, although his brother and fellow Indian administrator, Henry, was reputedly roused to violent fury by derogatory remarks about his home country. However, as Loughlin Sweeney details in his stimulating and insightful new study, Wolseley maintained an ambivalence towards his, even an antipathy. For Wolseley, Ireland was “this dirty Paddyland”, his native Dublin (to which he periodically returned over the course of his overseas career and resided as Ireland’s commander-in-chief in 1890/95) “entirely a foreign town” where “I seem surprised to hear [the] people speak English”. Meanwhile, the Irish with and among whom he worked were “an amusingly, provokingly, inconsequent people … untidy and unpunctual”, indolent and over-emotional, the overwhelmingly Catholic majority additionally encumbered by an absence of Protestant virtue. And while Wolseley acknowledged the bravery of the Irish in battle, he attributed this to a certain childlike credulity which he himself shared as a soldier: “I was always very impressionable which I owe to my Irish education and early Irish surroundings.” Sweeney contrasts Wolseley’s attitude towards Irishness with that of his fellow “imperial hero” and professional rival Frederick Sleigh Roberts. Born in India into a family with strong Tipperary and Waterford roots, Roberts seldom remarked on the Irishness of his officers and men and uninhibitedly embraced his own. For example, he reciprocated St Patrick’s Day greetings from Irish officers in Burma in 1900 by tendering “hearty thanks to brother Irishmen Rangoon … on behalf of all Irish soldiers here and myself”.

Sweeney argues that the attitudes of Wolseley and Roberts were defined by differences in their family circumstances and social conditioning and the subliminal associations with Ireland to which they gave rise. Thus, Wolseley’s “complex and contradictory” perspectives derived from “a sense of inferiority about his family’s early poverty”. He was, by his own account, the grandson of a “typical spendthrift Irish landlord”, the son of a “poor major in a marching regiment”, and this denied him both the English public school education received by his army peers and the ability to purchase a home commission. (Socialisation through public school old boy networks was generally critical to army career success.) Day-schooled locally in Dublin, Wolseley had to abandon his education aged fourteen to undertake paid employment while, in common with other impecunious compatriots, he attained his commission through the Indian Army back door. Roberts, on the other hand, was financially secure. The son of a Bengal European Regiment commander, he was educated at Eton and Sandhurst; and while he too forged his career as an officer in India, he attended the East India Company Army’s Addiscombe Military Seminary and was commissioned into the Bengal Artillery in December 1851. Moreover, Roberts’s associations with Ireland were positive. He spent much of his early childhood on his family’s Irish estates and, unlike Wolseley, he found the Irish command (to which he succeeded Wolseley in 1895) a “congenial post”. He was, as Sweeney notes, “welcomed [to Ireland] with an enthusiasm that he graciously reciprocated” and he maintained a prominent and popular presence during his four-year stint in the role.

Sweeney’s insights into the Irishness of Wolseley and Roberts form part of what is fundamentally a socio-political study of the British army’s Irish officer class in the second half of the long nineteenth century. Based on a prosopographical dataset of six hundred such officers, it is primarily concerned with issues of personal and public identity. Like other historians of Ireland and empire, Sweeney has devised his own criteria for defining Irishness, prioritising self-identification and demonstrable ties to the country: the overwhelming majority in his dataset “resided in Ireland for an extended period or had familial links to Ireland”, Wolseley and Roberts being respective cases in point. The Irish officer corps to which they belonged was an integral component of Ireland’s establishment and represented the heterogeneity of contemporary Irish socio-cultural identities ‑ what Roy Foster in an early modern context termed “varieties of Irishness”. These varieties, shaped by the social, religious, and political milieu into which an officer was born, or with which he later aligned, were occasionally so complex as to defy the type of simple categorisation in which Fahy indulged, and Sweeney coins the term “military Irishness” to “encapsulate the totality of the social and cultural experience of Irish military officers”, extending “across the seemingly rigid boundaries of religion, culture, and class”. Among Irish officers, “Irish”, “Anglo-Irish”, “English” and “British imperial” were seldom understood as mutually exclusive identities, and that one could be simultaneously of Ireland, Britain, and empire was for most a self-evident article of faith. Consequently, “deeply held Irish cultural and political nationalism was not incompatible with holding a commission in the British Army” during this time.

That said, the Irish officer corps was of a predominantly Ascendancy cast. This Protestant aristocratic-gentry estate, particularly its core landed element, provided the mainstay of eighteenth and nineteenth century enlistment to such a degree that the corps appeared a hereditary caste: at best, Irish Protestant peers saw military service as the fulfilment of a class commitment to “duty, honour, imperialism, and an aristocratic vision of gentility”, at worst as a means of gainfully occupying their waiting heirs. However, a review of the army’s efficiency in the wake of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny raised questions about aristocratic command. This resulted in institutional reform in the 1870s and 1880s which aimed at increased professionalisation, including the abolition of the purchase of commissions and the introduction of admission through competitive examination. Such reforms did facilitate some broadening of the socio-economic base from which British army officers were drawn. In Ireland, which provided around one-fifth of officer enlistments, they stimulated increasing interest among the Protestant and Catholic professional and mercantile classes, not just in the military as a career, but in the opportunity for social advancement through “elite socialisation” that army officerships could afford. However, the extent of middle class encroachment on this traditional aristocratic preserve was limited by the financial burden that acquisition and maintenance of a commission potentially imposed. For example, entry examination success was essentially dependent on an expensive elite education: the English public schools patronised by swathes of the Irish Ascendancy ran extracurricular “army sides” which prepared pupils for the exams, while costly grind schools (or “crammers”) provided intensive, focused tuition. Moreover, the fact that officers’ salaries were entirely inadequate to the lifestyles they were compelled to maintain meant that an independent income was generally required. Even those who acquired commissions through back doors such as militia regiments and imperial service, and/or who served long periods in the colonies where living costs were substantially lower, struggled financially. Indeed, Wolseley’s lack of private means gave him money worries his whole life. Therefore, Sweeney argues, Victorian-era army reform “produced [but] a small demographic widening” of the Irish officer corps, the period between 1870 and 1914 being marked by “social and cultural continuity”. And although the recruitment of so-called temporary gentlemen during the Great War transformed the social composition of the British officer corps and “called into question the long-held narratives of gentility and aristocratic character which … had been integral in the nineteenth century”, few remained on after 1919. So, throughout the period in question, the typical member of the Irish officer corps “had close family connections with the landed gentry … belonged to the Church of Ireland, attended a major English public school, and then went on to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst”.

In 1993, Donald Akenson challenged the idea of Irishmen as “anti- imperialist in general and anti-British Empire in particular” and criticised what he saw as the reluctance of Irish historians to address the uncomfortable reality of Irish collaboration in Britain’s imperial project. Three years later, Keith Jeffery published An Irish Empire? Aspects of Ireland and the British Empire. This ground-breaking edited collection did much to stimulate academic interest in the subject and there is today a large and ever-increasing body of research interrogating Irish imperial past. Jill Bender recently noted that “the archetypal Irishman in the empire was a soldier” and, for Sweeney, the role of Irish officers as “imperial practitioners, members of an elite network with first-hand experience of life in the overseas empire, made them fairly unique in Irish society”.

Yet the overseas adventures of Ireland’s military elite formed part of a wider Irish engagement with empire, firstly through missionary activities, and secondly, and perhaps more importantly, through civilian colonial service. Irishmen had been serving as colonial governors since the late 1700s. However, significant Irish civilian participation in British empire-building began only in the mid-1850s when, in an attempt at increased professionalisation, patronage appointments gave way to recruitment through competitive examination in the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and Indian Medical Service (IMS). Ireland’s elite educational infrastructure was quick to respond. Protestant and Catholic fee-paying intermediate colleges began steering their students towards the examinations and crammers were established in Belfast and Dublin. Irish universities, necessarily more vocational in focus than their British equivalents, ran courses in the subjects examined such as Indian history and languages, sanitation and tropical disease. Even the Catholic University made adaptations, believing that student success in the ICS examination in particular would assist in validating its status. As Dublin’s Daily Express snidely put it in 1862, “a place in the annual Indian competition will secure [it] more respect than all the processions of all the ragamuffins in the world in favour of a charter it will never get”. The sudden influx of Irish entrants indeed so alarmed the India Office that it quickly instituted measures designed to disadvantage examination candidates from Ireland. Most notably, it reduced by one-quarter the points allocated to subjects in which they were seen to excel (such as Arabic and Sanskrit), while increasing those in which English public-school-educated candidates were considered to have the edge, such as classics. Ireland’s elite education infrastructure also played an important role in promoting Irish enlistment in the emergent British Colonial Service (BCS) at the same time and, by the turn of the twentieth century, Irishmen could be found serving as administrators, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and policemen across the dependent empire. In terms of enlistments, the Protestant Ascendancy maintained an observable presence in the empire’s civilian services. Unlike the British army, they afforded good pay and cost-free prospects, making them especially attractive to those Horace Wyndham pithily described as being “of gentle birth and small bank accounts” and they became, in Alvin Jackson’s equally pithy phrase, “a form of outdoor relief for impoverished Irish gentlemen”. But the importance of Irish elite education meant that the great majority was drawn from the Protestant and Catholic middle classes, individual decisions to enlist usually informed by a confluence of contributory factors, including secure pay, career prospects, social advancement, endo-recruitment, and the quest for less ordinary lives.

In his introduction to An Irish Empire?, Jeffery urged historians of Ireland and empire to move beyond chronicling the exploits of Ireland’s imperial “Great Men”: the outputs often belonged to “the ‘just fancy that’ school of history’ and did not “materially advance our understanding” of Irish involvement in British empire-building. Instead, he argued, “what needs persistently to be addressed” in studies of the Irish contribution to British empire-building is “the question of whether the Irishness of Irish imperial servants … both individually and as a group, made any specific difference to their experience and service”. Sweeney meets Jeffery’s challenge head on, eschewing narrative accounts of Irish officers’ military feats in favour of assessments of the influence of their “varieties of Irishness” on outlook and action. He finds that while some such as Wolseley greatly engaged with their own and others’ Irish identities, for most it was “little more than a superficial characteristic, not an integral or problematic aspect” of their everyday lives. But when compelled by events to confront it, they “displayed a sensitive and deeply felt Irish identity” that appears “fundamental and very important”. This was particularly true of events in Ireland itself, very much the metropole’s internal colonial space. While some unionist officers demonstrated a level of understanding of nationalist grievances, the great majority was opposed to political concession as their roots in and relationship with the Protestant-aristocratic landed class gave them a personal stake in the game. For them, the Land War and Plan of Campaign was an attack on their economic interests, and they feared the political and socio-cultural consequences of “Catholic” Home Rule. This saw the pride traditionally taken in what Virginia Crossman terms the army’s “impartial image” irrecoverably compromised, a situation exacerbated by the fact that it was routinely deployed to enforce the British government line. The polarisation of Irish politics in which the Home Rule campaign ultimately resulted ended any pretence of professional disinterest and, driven by what Sweeney terms “the animating strength of their Irishness”, officers from both sides of the political divide began openly assisting the volunteer militias established in 1912/13, most on the unionist side. The politicisation of unionist officers culminated in the Curragh crisis of 1914, when it became clear that, at least for some, “an intact Ireland, within the union and the empire, was an ideal held so deeply that they would jeopardise their careers” to preserve it.

Sweeney also turns his spotlight on India, where a plurality of Irish officers served, both in home regiments stationed there or in the British Indian Army itself. Surviving personal testimonies such as letters, diaries, and memoirs certainly provide evidence of the normative racism that defined life in the Raj, as well as the “violence and cruelty of the colonizer, which lurked behind an officer’s mask of gentility”. Yet the cruder racism of Irish imperial servants could also be moderated by the colonial encounter; familiarity could leach out contempt. And Sweeney does find that Irish army officers generally maintained good, if paternalistic, relations with their Indian colleagues. Shared service could “create a sense of loyalty to Indian colleagues in a prejudiced [colonial] society” and in fact some, such as Roberts, long championed the cause of equal status for Indian officers. When it came to Indian nationalism however, there was little meeting of minds and “even officers with sympathy for Irish nationalism had little time for its Indian counterpart”. For while the anti-imperial rhetoric of late nineteenth century Irish nationalists occasionally analogised Britain’s subjugation of Asian and African peoples with the Tudor conquest, there was near-consensus that (as the furore over Lord Salisbury’s 1886 Hottentot comparison demonstrated) Ireland’s case for self-determination was a very different matter from those of non-whites. And although Indians presented an increasingly less qualified exception for Irish nationalists at home, those serving in India generally saw things differently. To their minds, the overwhelming majority of Indians among whom they worked lacked the evolved national consciousness that legitimated self-rule. In the words of Punjab’s Irish lieutenant-governor, Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Swaraj was the province of “a small but ambitious English-educated” elite, and so beyond all understanding for the 99 per cent “groping blindly through all stages of civilisation from the fifth to the twentieth century” that any move in its direction was akin to placing “a bomb loaded with dynamite” within Indian society. As late as 1935, retired Irish IMS surgeon Eugene O’Meara was dismissing Indian demands for self-government as “the self-interested clap-trap of a small [educated] minority … who are alone politically-minded”. Notwithstanding their camaraderie and occasional companionship with Indian colleagues, Irish nationalist officers took a similar view.

In the case of the majority Irish unionist cohort, Sweeney suggests that “soldering in India” might have “predisposed [them] to be more intolerant of Home Rule and Irish nationalism than otherwise” as the (generally superficial) comparisons they drew between India and Ireland centred on “imperial disintegration”. Yet in this they proved prescient. The immediate postwar period saw concurrent upsurges in nationalist agitation in what the Irish chief of the imperial general staff, Sir Henry Wilson, called the “storm centres” of the empire (viz India, Ireland, and Egypt) which appeared to pose a challenge to overall imperial stability, particularly given what Deirdre McMahon describes as “the clear interplay between each theatre as events moved to a climax”. By mid-1920, Ireland was in the throes of a republican anticolonial insurgency, the limited victory of which would irreparably hole its imperial connection: the South’s consequent secession from the UK opened a path to the incremental constitutional retreat from the empire that culminated in formal withdrawal in 1949. This insurgency (against which several Irish officers, most notably Frank Crozier, helped form the front line) and the subsequent 1922/23 civil war saw a plurality of Irish unionist officers facing “multifaceted political, social, confessional, generational, and class challenges to their existence and identity”, challenges which many simply could not overcome. This was particularly true of those drawn from the landed element, who frequently found themselves and/or their families directly placed in the IRA’s crosshairs. Those who weathered the republican storm slowly adjusted to the new dispensation, some as active citizens of the Irish Free State, others in self-imposed purdah within the ruins of the old “county set”. Those unable, or oftentimes simply unwilling, to remain on in Ireland remade their lives in Britain or the empire. As Sweeney acutely observes, for such officers “Irishness was not an abstraction, but a fact of life”. Their variety’s delegitimisation by the Irish Revolution was dislocating in the extreme, its marginalisation post-independence illustrating the extent to which this revolution became “a civil contest between an Irishness based on membership of a multi-ethnic empire with an aristocratic and hierarchical worldview” and a localised, (ostensibly) more democratic, and essentially confessional conception. Given the sense of “inhabiting an Irishness that no longer existed” to which this gave rise, the imperial attachment was central to the stability of “their worldview and their sense of self”. This was evidenced by a continuing commitment to imperial service.

But Ireland’s Protestant landed gentry provided but a small minority of Irish imperial servants post-1922. In the interwar years, the Protestant middle class provided the mainstay of ICS, IMS, and BCS recruitment, while Catholic recruits were drawn mainly from the remnants of the old “loyalist class”, the sons of former unionists and erstwhile Home Rulers, representatives of “varieties of Irishness” which, to varying degrees, still supported the imperial connection. This allowed those maintaining a Fahyite mindset to present Irish imperial service as a continuing Anglo-alien preserve. However, the enlistment of almost two hundred Irishmen in the Palestine Police in the late 1930s marked the beginning of significant demographic change: most were Catholics from the small “r” republican backgrounds that constituted mainstream nationalism in independent Ireland. The Wolfe Tone Weekly’s frontpaging of “The British Empire” in October 1938 was, in fact, a response to this change, the poem’s condemnation of imperial service as inherently unIrish deemed “singularly appropriate to the present time”. But Fahy’s view became even more untenable in the years after the Second World War, when hundreds of Irish Catholic nationalists took up BCS positions and, by 1956, Sinn Féin’s official organ, the United Irishman, could say only this of Irish imperial servants: “We reared them … They are ours and we can neither deny them nor explain them away.”


Seán William Gannon is a historian of Ireland, the British empire, and their intersections. His The Irish Imperial Service: Policing Palestine and Administering the Empire, 1922-1966 is published by Palgrave Macmillan.



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