Although details were scarce, Irish newspapers carried reports from India during 1920 detailing remarkable news regarding the Connaught Rangers. As can be seen in this excerpt from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (5 July 1920), the news also caused a sensation in the British press.
In this edition, we take a break from our series on developments in Westmeath and welcome our first guest contributor, Dr John Gibney of the Royal Irish Academy. In November 1920 James Daly, a soldier in the Connaught Rangers regiment of the British army, was executed in India. Daly, who spent much of his youth in Tyrrellspass, was a central figure in a series of events that have since entered into folklore. Over the next few weeks, we will examine those events and we begin by discussing the reaction of newspapers to Daly’s death. For most people at the time, whether in Westmeath or elsewhere in Ireland, it was through newspapers that they first learned of what was happening in India. John Gibney continues the story.
In November 1970 James Daly was reinterred in Tyrrellspass, where his parents resided at the time of his death, having been executed half a century earlier on the other side of the world. Daly was deemed to be the ringleader of the ‘mutiny’ that members of the Connaught Rangers, the unit of the British Army in which he served, had embarked upon in the Indian town of Solon in June 1920.
They were following the lead of other members of the regiment based in the Punjab, who had refused to obey orders in protest at British repression in Ireland during the War of Independence. Daly, on 2 November 1920, was the only soldier executed for his involvement. Initially buried in India, his remains were eventually repatriated to Ireland following a lengthy campaign. The fact that his final resting place is in Westmeath drives home a local connection with an event that has acquired an almost iconic status.
But regardless of what one thinks about the Connaught Rangers’ mutiny in hindsight, how was it seen at the time? Some answers are to be found in how it was reported in the press during 1920. The ‘mutiny’ was undeniably eye-catching, and while many of the initial reports in the Irish papers relied upon official accounts and details provided by the Press Association and Reuters, the press was quick to grasp the significance of what had happened in India. The first spate of reports on the mutiny came on 5 July 1920 (a week after the mutiny began). The Freeman’s Journal prefaced its account by flagging the mutiny as ‘one of the most sensational events of Irish interest’, which had been ‘stirred by the news the latest mails brought them from Ireland’. The Irish Independent (also 5 July 1920) noted of the mutineers that ‘their sympathies were with their friends at home’.
Such were the views of the mainstream nationalist press. Unionist opinion was less enthused, with the Irish Times (5 July 1920) observing that ‘The whole affair is regarded as being entirely due to political causes and the Sinn Féin agitation’, and that ‘it is to be hoped that the prompt measures already taken by the authorities will prove successful in causing the men to settle down’. The Belfast Newsletter (5 July 1920) concurred, with its report being headed ‘Result of Sinn Fein propaganda in India’ (5 July 1920). The ubiquity of agency reporting was seen when the Freeman’s Journal and Belfast Newsletter published the same report on 13 July 1920 (‘“Times telegram” Per Press Association’) stating that the mutiny was ‘engineered from Ireland’, and that ‘Sinn Fein colours and rosettes’ featured prominently.
The details as reported were straightforward, but the significance of the events in India was soon being assessed in editorials. Some drew a pointed parallel from recent memory. The Connacht Tribune (10 July 1920) stated that:
There must be no bloody assize on this occasion; for even a war-hardened world would grow sick at the sight of rebels of the woolsack and in high places dealing out punishment to humble Irish soldiers who had dared to imitate the example they had set … The seed sown at the Curragh and tended with such zealous care by the Coalition ever since has come to fruit in a tropical land.
Within days the Freeman’s Journal (14 July 1920) drove the point home: ‘The Connaught Rangers must get the benefit in this matter of the principles proclaimed by Mr Bonar Law, applied at the Curragh, and condoned by the King, Sir John French and the Liberal War Secretary’ (French was, by this time, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland). The soldiers in India should be shown the same forbearance granted to those who had taken part in the Curragh ‘Mutiny’ of 1914, ‘unless the fact that a soldier or a citizen happens to be Irish puts him on a lower grade under the palladium of the British Empire’.
The Freeman’s Journal had, in a previous editorial (12 July 1920), already namechecked the mutiny in India as it observed how some in England were becoming more aware of the brutality of British rule in Egypt and India, as well as in Ireland. There was no comment, however, on whether Irish troops in the British army were helping to uphold the British Empire, in India or anywhere else. The ambiguous reality of Irish service under the British colours was hinted at when the allocation of a lease on a cottage in County Galway came up for discussion at Loughrea Rural District Council in July 1920, as reported in the Connacht Tribune (17 July 1920).
Christopher Braiden, who worked for the Midland Great Western Railway, had vacated the cottage on being redeployed to Mullingar but was now being sent back to Loughrea, and wanted to move back in. His main rival for the cottage was Martin Shaughnessy, who ‘had a brother in India who laid down his arms when he heard how his countrymen were being treated at home, while Shaughnessy himself fought against German militarism in the last war’. Debate ensured about whether the latter amounted to defending or opposing British militarism (it was pointed out that ‘at the time they had a leader, Mr Redmond, who bamboozled the youth’) before the matter was put to a vote and Shaughnessy was granted the lease.
This seemingly trivial incident shows that locally, in Loughrea, there was knowledge of what had happened in India some weeks previously. It would have been discussed and the accounts offered up by the press would have been parsed and debated. And this is bound to have been true of every locality that had a connection to the Connaught Rangers and the mutiny. Tyrrellspass, where James Daly grew up, could hardly have been an exception.
On 25 November 1920, the Freeman’s Journal reported on the punishments handed out to the mutineers, including the execution of a single unnamed soldier. The details of the dead man were soon revealed in the Westmeath Examiner on 11 December 1920, when it reported on James Daly’s execution in India ‘in connection with a mutiny some months ago’. His father, also James, a baker, had supplied two ‘pathetic letters’ to the press, and their contents were now being published. One was Daly’s final letter to his family, and the other was from a regimental chaplain, with details of his final hours and death: ‘His courage at the last moment was marked by coolness and greatness of soul’. As reported here, the personal now took precedence over the political.
Belfast Newsletter; Connacht Tribune; Freeman’s Journal; Irish Independent; Irish Times; Westmeath Examiner.
John Gibney is Assistant Editor with the Royal Irish Academy’s Documents on Irish Foreign Policy (DIFP) series, which publishes archival material relating to Ireland’s foreign relations since 1919. The documents published in the DIFP series for the years 1919-1948 are freely accessible at www.difp.ie.
Content Last Updated/Reviewed: 14/10/2020