Home Features Homeward Bound—Southern Irish Protestants and the British in India

Homeward Bound—Southern Irish Protestants and the British in India

Homeward Bound: Return Migration from Ireland and India at the end of the British Empire, by Niamh Dillon (New York University Press)

Southern Irish Protestants and the British in India—new insights into empire, migration and diaspora

Homeward Bound shines new light on a neglected aspect of twentieth-century migration history. It compares two groups of migrants—Southern Irish Protestants and the British in India—who “returned” to Britain from Ireland and India after independence in 1922 and 1947, respectively. 

Through interviews with those who experienced these events first-hand and the recently opened files of the Irish Grants Committee at the National Archives in Britain, this book offers new insights into the history of migration. 

An extract from Homeward Bound

by Niamh Dillon

I think my father was definitely very Royalist and very British. . .  His father had been a Sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary so I think that legacy of Protestant and British tied in, he never really changed. . .  He was born in 1906 and he was in service to the Bartons of Maynooth and of course society would have been British orientated for much of his life. So for him the War of Independence would have been an act of betrayal . . . he would have stoically put up with it, but he definitely was a Victorian man, not a new Irelander.[JAD1] 

Anne Hodkinson

I realise that packing up must have been very stressful for my father and mother because they were in their fifties and sixties, it must have been a tremendous upheaval. Compared to people in England we were living in some luxury and I acknowledge that. . . They knew Indian independence would come and should come, but certainly before the war we had no plans to leave India.

—Paddy Reilly

These quotes are from two people born fourteen years apart on different sides of the globe. Anne Hodkinson was born into a Protestant family in Dublin during the Second World War. Her mother’s family came from Antrim and had fought in the First World War; her paternal grandfather served as a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary. Her parents met while working in one of the most prestigious clubs in Dublin, the Kildare Street Club. Anne grew up at the same time as the Irish Free State.

The second quote is from Paddy Reilly, who was born in 1927 in Moradabad in the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh) in northern India. His family on both sides originated in Ireland, but his ancestors left in the 1830s and joined the East India Company army, fighting in the Indian Uprising in 1857–58 and remaining in the subcontinent until independence and partition a century later. Following independence, he lived in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)—until the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, when he moved to the United Kingdom.

Two imperial communities

This book examines the lives of these “ordinary” people—although in many cases their lives are extraordinary—who were part of the global imperial network that composed Britain’s empire. It explores two imperial communities—southern Irish Protestants and the British in India—and compares their experiences in the late British Empire, their decision to leave Ireland and India after independence in 1922 and 1947, respectively, and their “return” to Britain.

While these events occurred more than a generation ago, the implications of Britain’s empire persist and continue to affect the present. Public debates during the Brexit campaign and negotiations often centered on migration and belonging, and the British exit from the European Union will continue to affect Ireland as its borders, trade, constitutional relationships, and position of its citizens are impacted.

Not since the early years of the twentieth century have both countries undergone such fundamental changes with potentially far-reaching consequences.

At the same time, within Ireland, the centenary of the founding of the state has prompted fresh perspectives on this period. Within Irish history, the decade 1912–22 has understandably attracted much scholarship as the Irish Free State strove to establish a new nationalist narrative.[i]However, until very recently, there was almost no research on those who had been at the forefront of society during British rule, the Protestant upper, middle, and working classes, and they subsequently became forgotten by the historical record.

Living memory to recorded history

As Kevin Kenny has documented, research on Irish migration to the United States and Britain has focused predominantly on Irish Catholics, and as a consequence, Protestant migration has largely been overlooked,[ii] as scholars of the Irish diaspora have found it difficult to research this migration due to the paucity of material.

The Irish diaspora is a significant force in shaping not only the receiving countries but also Ireland itself, as migration narratives were presented to those at home, as stories of success or illustrations of the dangers present overseas. To fully understand Irish diasporic identity, it is important to investigate the motivation of all those migrating in this key period of Irish history. 

Homeward Bound is distinctive in that highlights the experiences of those who witnessed these events, at the moment when their adventures slip from living memory to recorded history.  Olive Stevenson recounted her parents decision to leave Dublin.

My father was a civil servant and he had worked for the British civil service until 1920 when the change of government meant he decided he didn’t want to stay any longer in Ireland. I think he was worried about the possibility of religious discrimination; he was a Protestant, and he transferred to what was then the General Post Office in England . . . well, I mean, probably there was a basis of truth in it, that when a situation had been so manifestly unjust that Protestants were favoured over Catholics, that when the change of government came the boot was going to be on the other foot and I think that was probably a fairly accurate perception on his part. 

Homeward Bound: Return Migration from Ireland and India at the end of the British Empire, by Niamh Dillon will launch at The British Library on 26 January 2023.