It was Rudyard Kipling’s novel ‘Kim’ that got me thinking that in our youth there was a collection of 12 houses, all in one compound on Masson Road, that all had Anglo-Indian residents, an off-shoot of the Empire. Come to think of it they all had Irish names.
Unlike most old Anglo-Indian families of Lahore who had Portuguese names like D’Silva, D’Souza, Almeda, De Mello, D’Oliveria and so forth, but then the fair-skinned Anglo-Indians had names like O’Brien, O’Sullivan, O’Neill, O’Reilly, Burke and such surnames. In our school, St. Anthony’s High School on Lawrence Road (Lawrence was Irish too) our teachers, known as brothers - all Irish priests - were O’Keely, O’Leary, O’Keefe and such names. All these names in their own right have a history to them, but my interest in this piece is about the Irish and the Indian sub-continent.
Ireland and the Indian sub-continent, both under British rule, had one thing in common. Both suffered extreme famines and both shared exceptional poverty. That is why Kipling’s ‘Kim’ character in the book was born Kimball O’Hara: “a poor white of the very poorest” to an exceptionally poor Irish nursemaid of Lahore, a virtual slave who died of cholera, and an Irish army sergeant who, so the writer claims, was naturally inclined to strong drink and opium, and who died as “all poor whites in India do, penniless”.
These lines made me feel for my Irish-origin friends and neighbours of years gone by. To me they are as much Pakistani as we are, but only, slowly, they began to disappear, heading for Australia, or the USA or the United Kingdom. The common factor for both in the early 19th century was the famines that left million starving to death in both countries. The only historian of note who has tackled this connection was the late Sir Chris Bayly of Cambridge. His research showed that in Victorian India more Irishmen came to Bengal than the Scots, who led in the jute and tea trade.
But most interesting, from our point of view was that of the British soldiers who joined the army of Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the number of Irish outnumbered others. The Sikh ruler termed them as “maathay gooray” or poor whites, but they still had a colourful character by the name of Gordana Khan, real name Alexander Gordon, an Irishman with alleged Scottish extraction (though never proved) who moved to America during the Great Famine and then returned to Ireland and then headed towards Punjab. He allegedly saved the Lahore Fort in 1841 during the fight for the throne. He served in the Sikh army till the end and this six-foot soldier’s character was used for the novels ‘Flashman’ and also for ‘The Man who would be King’. He died in Kashmir in 1877.
But after some research I was shocked to learn that our neighbours in the 1960s on Masson Road were all of Irish origin. Most of them were railway employees and the ‘white’ (no insult to non-whites) Anglo-Indians were employed and specially trained to be train drivers. The sub-continent was being opened up by the British trains running from Landikotal to the Burmese border and from Kashmir to the edge of South India at Kanyakumari. It was a strategic decision to employee ‘white’ Anglo-Indians only, racist as it might sound now, but the railways ‘needed to be in secure hands’.
Once the British left in 1947 both India and Pakistan had such railway employees. Naturally, all that changed and the status of the Anglo-Indians changed to normal Pakistanis, though they were still addressed by common people as ‘goora sahibs’. But then as I explored the origin of the names of my neighbours it emerged that nine out of 10 were of Irish extraction. Why was this so? It was a question that needed a rational answer.
The first to break away from London-rule were the Irish who fought a bloody war and gained partial Independence in July 1919 after the British partitioned the Island on communal grounds. The Catholics got freedom and the ‘Protestants’ remained with Britain. On the same communal pattern the sub-continent was partitioned between Muslims and non-Muslims 38 years later after the Second World War drained the rulers of their resources and British India had nothing left to give.
But the Irish Famine of 1845-49 saw the population of Ireland fall by an unbelievable 25 per cent, which saw over a million known deaths and the rest escaped abroad. The majority left for America – US Presidents Reagan and Kennedy were both of Irish extraction - with the remaining opting to come to British India. The cause of the famine was their crop failures, especially potatoes, which faced a blight. For four years the rulers in London were unaware of what was happening, only for a parliamentary delegation to land at Dublin port to find bodies all over the city.
At the same time the sub-continent of British India, especially Bengal, saw a famine from 1945 to 1850, when crops faced a blight. Added to this was crop failures in middle India and in Punjab. In Punjab the exceptionally low crop yields and the confused conditions created by the Anglo-Sikh Wars with various armed groups stealing crops, led to extreme famine conditions. In Lahore itself there were cases of cannibalism.
Such conditions as the Irish faced saw thousands of them joining the East India Company. They joined any job they could find and in the Sikh Army they joined in very low-paid jobs. No wonder when Kipling wrote about his character Kim being Kimball O’Hara - “a poor white of the very poorest”, a virtual slave” who died as “all poor whites in India do, penniless”, he was reflecting the reality of the victim of the Irish Famines. It is a history that none of us delve into, while a majority of us continue to disbelieve it. Colonialism comes in very ugly forms. A good example of current day colonialism is the forced occupation of Palestine by European immigrants whose cruelty knows no end.
But then luckily the Anglo-Indian of Lahore either merged into the local population, and very well for that, while most of them, however, further migrated to faraway lands to make for themselves a better life. It is ironic that today the ‘prime minister’ or the ‘Taoiseach’, of Ireland is an Indian-Irish origin man by the name of Leo Varadkar. Maybe, maybe, in the near future a person from the sub-continent might be the British Prime Minister, just as today Boris Johnson is with 15pc Turkish genes.
But then both these people, especially the Irish, have been through suffering of a magnitude that few can imagine. They have reached great heights, and that our Lahore Irish-origins friends are doing well all over the world is a matter of immense satisfaction.
Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2019