- 2007 VANARSDEL PRIZE ESSAY"We Could Be of Service to Other Suffering People"1: Representations of India in the Irish Nationalist Press, c. 1857-18872
There has been a recent surge in interest in the connections between Victorian Ireland and the British Empire, but little research into Irish nationalist popular attitudes about Empire.3 Content analysis of Irish nationalist newspapers can help to correct that. Ireland had a somewhat ambiguous position in the Empire, as both forming part of the metropole and retaining some semi-colonial features, such that Irish people could be said to have been both colonised and colonisers.4 Recognising the disproportionately high level of Irish involvement in many imperial institutions, particularly the military, scholars have also been exploring the ways in which Ireland contributed to, and extracted both ideas and goods from, the Empire. Irish-Indian connections—political, religious, military, cultural and literary–have been a particular focus of study.5 However, there is still little known about popular Irish attitudes towards, or knowledge of, the Empire or India. Stephen Howe's claim that Irish nationalists took little interest in the plight of other nationalists in the British Empire has been refuted by Carla King in her recent work on Michael Davitt and in research by this author on Alfred Webb.6 Still, questions remain as to whether Irish nationalists were somehow disposed to be particularly sympathetic towards Indians. Did Irish nationalists see Indians as oppressed brothers, or colonised others? Did they see themselves as racially superior to mutinying Indians, or as equals who were engaged in the same anti-colonial struggle? Did Irish nationalism in fact have any anti-imperial position, or any interest in imperial matters? [End Page 61]
Newspapers are an excellent starting point to begin to answer these questions. It is reasonable to assume that most Irish people would have learnt about foreign affairs and other cultures through reading (as opposed to first-hand experience), and the most popular and accessible written form was the newspaper or news/literary magazine. In the mid-nineteenth century Ireland enjoyed a surge in literacy and a corresponding boom in the newspaper business. In a comprehensive study of the nineteenth-century Irish newspaper industry, Marie-Louise Legg has counted 218 provincial titles in print between 1850 and 1892 that could be described as nationalist. Many of these were extremely short-lived.7 Dublin, however, offered several papers with great longevity. Two of the largest and longest-running Irish newspapers, both based in Dublin, were the daily Freeman's Journal and the weekly Nation. These two papers will form the basis on this study.
The Freeman's Journal was owned in the 1850s by a Protestant sympathetic to the political goals of the Catholic Church, and it generally represented the interests of the Irish middle-class. Over the next thirty years it gradually came to support the constitutional Home Rule movement and accept the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell. The Nation was established as pioneering literary magazine by the romantic leaders of Young Ireland but was banned in 1848. It reappeared in 1850 and was owned by A.M. Sullivan, a nationalist MP, from 1855 to 1874, minus the literary emphasis but full of the fervent nationalism of the original publication. Both newspapers can be considered nationalist publications for their general attitude towards Irish self-government and their eventual connection with the Irish Home Rule movement, although they represented different constituencies and took very different editorial viewpoints.
Taking these two major newspapers, a thirty-year period serves to begin to probe these questions, starting with 1857, the year of the so-called Indian Mutiny, and continuing up to 1887, just after the failure of the first Home Rule bill.8 It would be extremely time consuming, and probably ineffective, to read every single newspaper over the thirty-year period. Practical considerations dictated a certain methodology. First, important events in Indian Imperial history were considered, particularly events in 1857, 1872 (the assassination of Lord Mayo, the Irish-born viceroy), and 1885 (the foundation of the Indian National Congress). In between, one year was chosen every five years. The result was that at least...