Irish Nationalist, British Imperialist: The Uncomfortable Identities of Sir Michael O’Dwyer

“No man in the whole history of British rule in India has done such great ...

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20th CenturyOxfordPolitics & PowerRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

Irish Nationalist, British Imperialist: The Uncomfortable Identities of Sir Michael O’Dwyer

“No man in the whole history of British rule in India has done such great ...

return to all posts

20th CenturyOxfordPolitics & PowerRace & EmpireResearch & Opinion

No man in the whole history of British rule in India has done such great disservice to the British Empire and has brought such disgrace on the good name of the British nation”.

Thus was Sir Michael O’Dwyer denounced by Lala Lajpat Rai, President of the Indian National Congress, in the aftermath of the Amritsar Massacre.

Born in 1864 to a middle-class Roman Catholic landowning family in County Tipperary, Ireland, after a (fee-paying) public school education at the Jesuit St Stanislaus College in County Offaly, Michael O’Dwyer set off to join the Indian Civil Service (ICS).

The ICS was a coveted career path only opened to the Irish middle class since the mid-1850s when sponsorship and patronage were replaced with recruitment on ability through competitive examinations. The result was an influx of Irishmen into Britain’s colonial service. So many joined, in fact, that the Secretary of State for India, Sir Charles Wood (Viscount Halifax), who had himself introduced the competitive exams as an instrument of meritocracy, brought in extra measures to curtail the number of Irish graduates gaining entry to the colonial administration, admitting privately to his racial prejudice against the Irish “competition wallahs” (civil servants recruited via the competitive exams) who, he claimed, lacked the “manners and conversation” of his preferred British candidates.[1]

Side by side black and white portraits of two men in suit.
Sir Michael O’Dwyer (left) and Sir Charles Wood (right)

Wood had a longstanding contempt for the Irish. A graduate of Oriel College, as a laissez-faire Chancellor of the Exchequer in the late-1840s he presided over the British Government’s Malthusian response to the Great Famine, when one million people were left to die and another two million forced to emigrate to escape starvation in Ireland.

Yet, towards Indians, Wood was remarkably progressive for his time. He successfully lobbied his government colleagues for vernacular languages to be used in primary schools throughout the Raj; for the establishment of Indian universities open to indigenous students in an era when Oxford colleges would not admit more than two Indians at any one time; and for the education of indigenous Indian women at a time when it was not common for white British women to receive formal education in the UK.

It was a result of the rule Wood introduced requiring Irish graduates to pass a further two-year probation at Oxford University’s Indian Institute – something most Irish families could not afford – that Michael O’Dwyer ended up a student at Balliol College.

Until then, admissions to the Indian Army, Civil, and Medical Services had been dominated by graduates of Ireland’s Queen’s Colleges and Trinity College Dublin. Their curricula were designed to favour future employment in the British imperial administration. The teaching was based on a manual by Joseph Allen Galbraith, an Irish Home Rule nationalist who wanted graduates to prove Ireland’s readiness for independent self-government.

Wood’s protectionist measure helped stifle competition and ensure Oxford University’s monopoly on British public and political training that has a legacy which continues to this day. The introduction of the merit principle was supposed to open the colonial service to the masses. In practice, however, it raised the bar for enrolment by allowing imperial recruiters to staff their administrations with what one contemporary called “the picked men” of Oxbridge[2].

O’Dwyer “stayed up” at Balliol another year to take a degree, successfully completing a three-year jurisprudence programme in just three terms, and graduating with a first.

Photograph of a sand coloured stone building with a tower and carvings.
The Indian Institute building in Oxford, which was still under construction during O’Dwyer’s studies

Arriving in India in 1885, he rapidly rose up the ranks to assume the lieutenant-governorship of Punjab in May 1913.

The outbreak of the First World War in the following year induced an atmosphere of paranoia among the British administration that set in train the events which would lead to the horrific Amritsar Massacre. As the British-Punjabi author Sathnam Sanghera has written, that massacre was “one of the key events of the 20th century, arguably marking the moment Britain lost its grip on the largest colony in human history. After it the momentum for Indian independence became unstoppable”[3].

O’Dwyer didn’t order the shootings, but he was responsible for the troops who killed between 300 and 1,500 peaceful protestors (depending on whether one believes the Indian accounts or the official British version).

His role in the massacre was listed by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer in her Oxford University James Ford Lecture Series last year as an example of how Ireland has yet to come to terms with its imperial past. Stories like Michael O’Dwyer’s, she said, “challenge the master narrative of the Irish as victims of empire, not active perpetrators of it”[4].

That Ireland was both a colony and coloniser in the British Empire is a fact of history but what Professor Roy Foster has called the “varieties of Irishness”[5] which resulted from Ireland’s ambiguous status in the Empire have yet to be fully accounted for by historians. O’Dwyer has rightly gone down in infamy as a notorious British imperialist. Yet I uncovered a previously unknown archive detailing O’Dwyer’s meetings with two leading Irish nationalists of the early twentieth century: Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Éamon de Valera and Uachtarán (President) Douglas Hyde. These documents make clear that Sir Michael O’Dwyer also considered himself an Irish nationalist.

Brick wall with bullet impacts circles with chalk.
Site of the Amritsar Massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, with bullet holes from the shooting highlighted

Indeed, shortly before the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 he declared that Home Rule – the Irish quest for political independence – was “a lofty and generous ideal” which Ireland deserved but one that India was not yet “fit” to enjoy. The difference, he argued, was that self-government was a status “which in one form or another Ireland had for centuries enjoyed”, whereas Swarāj (Indian home rule) was beyond the intellectual capabilities of the ordinary Indian people, the majority of whom, he believed, had been “groping blindly through all stages of civilisation from the fifth to the twentieth century”.

British imperialism and colonial nationalism were not then the mutually exclusive binaries many now suppose. As historians are increasingly demonstrating, nineteenth and early-twentieth century political ideologies were a spectrum rather than a polarity, on which ideas offensive to modern sensibilities existed at both ends.

Not that O’Dwyer’s views were unknown to the Irish President who, as the archive shows, was briefed on O’Dwyer’s reputation before their meeting in 1938. That didn’t stop President Hyde inviting O’Dwyer to meet the Irish Prime Minister Éamon de Valera. O’Dwyer wrote glowingly afterwards of his delight at meeting de Valera, a hero of Ireland’s War of Independence against British rule, for whom he had the utmost admiration. The two had shared a friendly conversation about Irish history and current affairs, Sir Michael seemingly unaware that de Valera’s Irish Republican Army (IRA) had once planned to assassinate him in solidarity with Indian nationalists.

O’Dwyer followed up after the meetings with a letter to President Hyde in which he attached a copy of a book he had written, The Fusion of the Anglo-Norman and the Gael (1938), which the President had expressed an interest in reading. Thus began a back-and-forth correspondence during which O’Dwyer and Hyde agreed on many criticisms of British rule in Ireland.

A man of many seeming contradictions, despite his unapologetic imperialism Sir Michael O’Dwyer published several books critical of Britain’s colonisation of Ireland. The Fusion of the Anglo-Norman and the Gael is a remarkable, eugenicist, interpretation of Anglo-Irish history, replete with references to blood lines, miscegenation, and racial degeneracy. In it, O’Dwyer wrote that the Irish Free State’s new self-governing status was the ideal constitutional settlement for the country because it gave the Irish people the independence he felt they long deserved while retaining access to the benefits of the British Empire. His Indian career, he suggested, embodied the opportunities of the British Empire now being afforded to the previously oppressed Irish Catholics. He hoped that the new Irish Free State was ready to take co-ownership of “her Empire”, and prove that the British Empire would be better administered if the Irish were given more influence in running it.

O’Dwyer believed revolutionary nationalist violence in Ireland had deterred investment and consequently held the Irish economy back and he considered the threat of Indian militancy in the Punjab as analogous to his Irish experience. Yet coming from an Irish farming background he was a supporter of the agricultural co-operative movement in rural India and strongly in favour of indigenous ownership of the land. In one letter to President Hyde, he even offered policy advice on economic and land reforms to the Irish government, based on his experiences in the so-called Punjab School of paternalistic British Raj administrators who claimed to see themselves, especially in agrarian matters, as “looking to the happiness and welfare of the masses”[6]. Whether O’Dwyer’s suggestion had any influence on Irish government policy is unknown, albeit unlikely given the largely ceremonial powers of the president in the Irish Free State’s constitution. That is perhaps just as well. The transformation of Punjabi farmland during O’Dwyer’s term of office encouraged monocultural production of cash crops and diverted water systems in a way that is today known to have caused famines and drought in the region.

History is complex and, as many other stories from this website prove, sometimes uncomfortable. By placing a convinced Irish nationalist at the heart of perhaps the most appalling atrocity committed in the name of the British Empire, the discovery of this new archive demands a re-examination of much of the received wisdom that underpins our understanding of modern British and Irish history. Michael O’Dwyer’s life is another dramatic example of the need to develop more nuanced, comprehensive, and honest accounts of our imperial past.

Written by Séamus Nevin


[1] Barry Crosbie, Irish Imperial Networks: Migration, Social Communication and Exchange in Nineteenth-Century India (2011), p. 210.

[2] David Gilmour, The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience (2018), p. 81.

[3] Sathnam Sanghera, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (2021), p.19.

[4] Jane Ohlmeyer, ‘Ireland has yet to come to terms with its imperial past‘, Irish Times (29 December 2020).

[5] R.F. Foster & Maurna Crozier (eds.), Varieties of Irishness (Cultural Traditions in Northern Ireland) (1989).

[6] Nivi Manchanda, Imagining Afghanistan: The History and Politics of Imperial Knowledge (2020), p. 121.