Commemoration:Nationalism, empire and memory: the Connaught Rangers mutiny, June 1920

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2010), Revolutionary Period 1912-23, Volume 18

Members of the 1st battalion of the Connaught Rangers in India. James Daly is bottom right. (King House Museum, Boyle)

Members of the 1st battalion of the Connaught Rangers in India. James Daly is bottom right. (King House Museum, Boyle)

On 28 June 1920, a company of the Connaught Rangers stationed at Jullundur on the plains of the Punjab refused to perform their military duties as a protest against the activities of the British Army in Ireland. On the following day, the mutineers sent two emissaries to a company of Connaught Rangers stationed at Solon, about twenty miles away in the foothills of the Himalayas. The soldiers there took up the protest as well and, like their counterparts at Jullundur, flew the tricolour of Ireland, wore ‘Sinn Féin’ rosettes on their British Army uniforms and sang rebel songs.

The protests were initially peaceful, but on the evening of 1 July around 30 members of the company at Solon, armed with bayonets, attempted to recapture their rifles from the company magazine. The soldiers on guard opened fire, killing two men and wounding another. The incident effectively brought the mutiny to an end, and the mutineers at both Jullundur and Solon were placed under armed guard. Sixty-one men were convicted for their role in the mutiny. Fourteen were sentenced to death by firing squad, but the only soldier whose capital sentence was carried out was Private James Joseph Daly. Daly was considered the leader of the mutiny at Solon and the man responsible for the failed attack on the magazine. On the morning of 2 November 1920 he was executed in Dagshai prison in northern India.

With the exception of one man (who died in prison at Dagshai), by the middle of the following year all of the convicted mutineers had been transferred to prisons in England to serve out the remainder of their sentences. The Connaught Rangers, along with three other Irish regiments, were disbanded in June 1922. Following negotiations between the Irish Free State and the British government, the mutineers were released from prison and returned to Ireland early in 1923. Some enlisted in the National Army, others joined the Garda; many struggled to make a life in post-independence Ireland. Although the mutineers in many cases received rapturous welcomes in their home town, they quickly vanished from the public eye.

Yet the Connaught Rangers’ mutiny continued to resonate in twentieth-century Ireland. It has been the subject of books, radio and television programmes, plays and ballads, and the mutineers have been commemorated as Irish republican heroes. Historical memories of the 1920 mutiny not only illuminate the politics of commemoration in independent Ireland but also Irish imperial and anti-imperial relationships with India.

Indian nationalist reaction

One of several drawings produced by mutineers while prisoners in Dagshai. (National Library of Ireland)

One of several drawings produced by mutineers while prisoners in Dagshai. (National Library of Ireland)

Many Indian nationalists nonetheless interpreted the mutiny as a gesture of anti-imperial solidarity. The Fateh newspaper of Delhi praised the Jullundur mutineers’ actions as an adoption of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles of civil disobedience and an illustration of ‘how patriotic people can preserve their honour, defy the orders of the Government, and defeat its unjust aims’. In November 1920 the Independent Hindustan, a publication of the Gadhar Party in North America, featured an editorial praising the mutineers for their expression of ‘sympathy with the gallant Sinn Féiners who are sacrificing their lives for the cause of the Republic of Ireland’. The magazine also published a short story in which an Irish soldier named Shane O’Neill deserts his regiment, exchanges his British Army uniform for a ‘native costume’ and becomes a leader of an Indian revolutionary cell. ‘What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander,’ he concludes. ‘If freedom is good for Ireland, it ought to be good for India.’

Thus, shortly after the events occurred, a mythology of the Connaught Rangers mutiny began to take shape: the mutiny was presented as an anti-imperial protest, an act of Indo–Irish solidarity. Later, some of the mutineers, particularly those with strong republican convictions, emphasised this aspect of their protest. Stephen Lally, one of the leaders of the Jullundur mutiny and later a member of the IRA, recalled: ‘I thought we might as well kill two birds with the one stone, and if we could get the Indian National Movement with us it would mean a great victory not alone for Ireland but India as well . . . we could have officered the Native ranks and in a very short time India would have gained her freedom.’

Glasnevin Cemetery memorial, 1949

A life-size representation of James Daly praying in his cell the night before his execution at King’s House Museum, Boyle. The display stresses the concern of the mutineers for their friends and family at home rather than for an abstract republican ideal. (King House Museum, Boyle)

A life-size representation of James Daly praying in his cell the night before his execution at King’s House Museum, Boyle. The display stresses the concern of the mutineers for their friends and family at home rather than for an abstract republican ideal. (King House Museum, Boyle)

The commemoration of the Connaught Rangers in Ireland similarly elided some of the more complex elements of the protest. While the mutineers’ patriotic motivations are clear, many of the soldiers did not have a well-developed understanding of Irish republicanism until they served prison sentences in England. Even then, a number of them petitioned for their release in order to serve the Irish Free State rather than the republican cause during the Civil War. ‘I wish to show my loyalty to the Empire by giving my service to the Free State Army of Ireland,’ wrote Thomas Devine, one of the Solon mutineers. Nonetheless, by the 1930s the mutineers had been embraced as republican heroes. The Fianna Fáil government granted them pensions in 1936, and the National Graves Association helped to establish a memorial in the Republican Plot of Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery. The memorial was unveiled on 26 June 1949, a few months after the establishment of the Irish Republic. Adorned with a harp and Celtic-patterned border, it honoured the members of the Connaught Rangers ‘who gave their lives during the mutiny and subsequently for Irish freedom’.

The presence of an honour guard of veterans of the Easter Rising at the 1949 ceremony emphasised the identification between the Connaught Rangers and republican heroes. Increasingly, the commemoration of the mutineers also came to emphasise their sacrifice on behalf of the Irish nation, and in particular the sacrifice of the one soldier who had been executed for his role in the protests: Private James Joseph Daly. Over the following two decades, annual commemorations were held at the cenotaph at Glasnevin Cemetery, not on the anniversary of the outbreak of the mutiny in late June but on the anniversary of Daly’s execution in November 1920. The cenotaph itself was also sometimes referred to as the ‘James Joseph Daly memorial’.

Daly was clearly a complex and charismatic individual, influenced by both Irish republicanism and a family tradition of British Army service. Yet he was quickly transformed into a stereotypical republican martyr. His statement of regret for his role in the mutiny was often omitted when his final letter to his mother was reproduced, and one year after his execution he was portrayed in a poem in the Westmeath Examiner as the ‘Martyr of Jallandor’. J.C. Keane of Tyrrellspass wrote that the mutineers’ goal—‘the dream-light of freedom’—‘shone red through their young leader’s blood’:

His ashes—alas! he lies sleeping—

Afar o’er the ocean’s wild tide;

But his memory green we are keeping

In the old land for which he has died;

And Ireland’s true sons and true daughters

A prayer for Jim Daly shall breathe,

Who sleeps by the Ganges’ dark waters,

So far from his own loved Westmeath.
Daly’s remains repatriated

By the 1960s, the surviving Connaught Rangers, joined by republican organisations such as the National Graves Association, called for Daly’s final resting place to be moved from beside ‘the Ganges’ dark waters’ to Ireland. The return of the bodies of the Irish revolutionaries buried abroad was seen as a national imperative. As the Irish Press put it in 1954, ‘A nation possesses in the graves of its dead an assurance of its own permanence’. The return of several Irish revolutionaries buried in England, notably Sir Roger Casement, whose remains were re-interred in Glasnevin Cemetery in 1965, further spurred calls for the return of what one newspaper called ‘Ireland’s Loneliest Martyr’ from his grave in Dagshai. When Daly’s remains were returned to Ireland in 1970, along with those of the two other Connaught Rangers who had been killed at Solon, his sacrifice became connected with contemporary politics: the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland.
A crowd of more than 6,000 attended the return of Daly’s body to Tyrrellspass in October 1970. The ceremonies, held shortly before the 50th anniversary of his execution, elevated Daly to an equal of the greatest heroes of the republican movement. The Irish flag that draped Daly’s coffin had previously lain on the coffin of Terence MacSwiney, the lord mayor of Cork who died on hunger strike in October 1920. In a speech at Daly’s graveside, Old IRA representative Thomas Malone identified Daly’s sacrifice with the republican goal of a 32-county republic:

‘It was in the words of Pearse who said the seeds sown by our martyrs of all generations fructify in the hearts of future generations . . . The purpose for which James Daly died had not yet been achieved and much still remained to be done before the republic of Pearse, Tone, Connolly and James Daly was achieved.’

Masked members of the IRA later fired a volley in the presence of members of Daly’s family.

On the stage

Daly’s reburial in Ireland helped to stir public interest in the Connaught Rangers mutiny. While some press accounts told a straightforward story of British oppression and Irish heroism, two dramatic treatments of the mutiny attempted to grapple with the ambiguities of the protest. Glyn Jones’s The 88, which premiered at London’s Old Vic Theatre in 1979, conveys considerable sympathy for the mutineers, but also portrays the soldiers as contemptuous of Indian servants. Daly refers to an Indian barber (who in the play brings news of the mutiny to Solon) as ‘that poor skinny little black bastard I’ve kicked up the arse so often my foot hurt’, while another soldier complains ‘God, he stinks of curry’. The 88 also attracted criticism from the conservative British press in the midst of the Northern Irish conflict. The Financial Times commented in a negative review of the play that ‘this hardly seems like the most discreet time to put on a play about Irish disaffection in the British Army, when the British Army is trying to keep the peace, with great hardship and difficulty, in Ireland today’.

John Kavanagh’s 1994 play No comet seen captures to an even greater degree the ambiguous nature of the mutiny. The soldiers in the play express sympathy for Indian nationalism, drawing parallels between the 1919 Amritsar Massacre and British Army attacks on Dublin civilians, but also express their fear of falling victim to an Indian revolt. ‘God knows what the Indians will try when word gets out—we could have a full-scale uprising on our hands,’ warns Daly. Kavanagh’s play also portrays an important reality of the mutiny: not all of the Connaught Rangers at Jullundur and Solon were willing to cast their lot in with the mutineers. A soldier named Browne from Boyle, Co. Roscommon, argues that he cannot join the protest ‘because this is where I belong—the Army. Like me father and his before him. And me uncles too. It’s what we Brownes do, you know. My people come from Boyle, the barracks is there—it does a lot for the town . . . I can’t be part of this—I just can’t.’

King House Museum

The Connaught Rangers barracks in Boyle that Browne refers to now houses the King House Museum. The galleries in this restored eighteenth-century Ascendancy mansion include an exhibit on the history of ‘The Fighting Men from Connaught’. The displays feature artefacts of the Connaught Rangers and chronicle the experiences of the soldiers who fought in the regiment during its 120-year history. It concludes with a room devoted to the mutiny, which features a life-size representation of James Daly praying in his cell the night before his execution. A display stresses the concern of the mutineers for their friends and family at home rather than for an abstract republican ideal: ‘Many of those in the ranks of the Connaught Rangers could not reconcile the idea of an army, of which they were a part, being mobilised against their own families and friends’.

The Connaught Rangers mutiny demonstrates how Irish imperial relationships cannot always be neatly characterised as anti- or pro-imperial. Soldiers of the British Empire, they staged a protest against the British Army in Ireland. The mutineers feared falling victim to an Indian uprising in the Punjab, but nonetheless inspired Indian nationalists as well as Irish republicans. Various and sometimes conflicting interpretations of the mutiny over the past 90 years demonstrate Ireland’s multifaceted relationship with India, as well as the complexities of commemoration in the Irish republic.  HI

Michael Silvestri is Assistant Professsor of History at Clemson University, South Carolina

Further reading:

A. Babington, The devil to pay: the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers, India, July 1920 (Barnsley, 1991).

T. Bartlett, ‘The mutiny of the Connaught Rangers’, History Ireland 6 (1) (Spring 1998), 5–7.

B. Hanley, ‘The strange story of Stephen Lally: Connaught Rangers mutineer’, The Irish Sword 22 (89) (2001), 337–41.

M. Silvestri, Ireland and India: nationalism, empire and memory (Basingstoke, 2009).



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