Ireland and India: Making history

Connections between Ireland and India are the focus of temporary exhibitions in Dublin’s Trinity College Old Library and Chester Beatty Library in 2010. The July/August special issue of Ireland’s history magazine is dedicated to Ireland and India with a number of articles and archival images dovetailing the current exhibitions.
The issue contains stories of prominent people who came from India to visit or settle in Ireland and those who became established and well respected who settled in India. Articles explore nationalist parallels and the strategic political relations between Ireland and India. Book reviews cover political, social, religious and cultural aspects of a shared identity in the common struggle for independence from a colonial British Empire. W. B.Yeats’ enthusiasm for the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore makes a literary connection.
Long Room, Trinity College
The exhibition Nabobs, Soldiers and Imperial Service The Irish in India (27 May-30 October) was officially opened by the Ambassador of India to Ireland. There has been a long standing connection with India as part of the British presence there, living and working in the sub-continent as soldiers, administrators and missionaries. Most supported the British regime while a few strove to undermine it.
The exhibition explains the links by looking at various aspects of the Irish presence in India up to 1947. It showcases some of the historical connections and details the links between Trinity College, Ireland, Britain and Europe and the extraordinary links between Ireland and India developed over the centuries. It concentrates on the wealth of printed books and other related material from the nineteenth to the early twentieth century that is held in the Library.
Themes include the influential East India Company, trade and territorial expansion, the Indian mutiny, Christian missionaries, civil service, big game hunting of tigers, sport of capturing wild boars known as pig-sticking, and the road to independence. Featuring the lighter side of life in India, the exhibition has illustrations of tiger-shooting and pig-sticking. According to Robert Baden-Powell, who later founded the scouting movement, pig-sticking was a ‘sport second to none and invaluable to our prestige and supremacy in India’.
The work of missionaries became a more prominent feature of the Irish presence after 1840, with Roman Catholic priests and nuns setting up schools in Madras and other cities. Anglican graduates of Trinity College established the Dublin University Mission to Chota Nagpur at the end of the nineteenth century.
A stated aim of the exhibition is to entertain and stimulate Ireland’s links with India. Trinity College is rapidly expanding its South Asia Studies programme aimed at developing research in Ireland into the history, literature and culture of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The links with South Asia and Trinity College are very old reaching back to the Chair of Oriental Languages in 1762 (ref. article on the career of Mir Aulad Ali (1832-98) ‘The Mir’ of India in Ireland, History of Ireland, Volume 18, No. 4).
Chester Beatty Library
Chester Beatty Library at Dublin Castle was named Irish Museum of the Year in 2000 and awarded the title European Museum of the Year in 2002.
It houses a great collection of manuscripts, miniature paintings, prints, drawings, rare books and some decorative arts assembled by the American-born mining tycoon, Sir Alfred Chester Beatty (1875-1968). Of Irish ancestory, most of his donated collection was devoted to sacred texts, although a significant part of it came from the Indian Mughal court of which the miniatures are considered among the finest in the world.
The Library collection opens a window on the artistic treasures of the great cultures and religions of the world. Its rich collection from countries across Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe offers visitors a visual feast. Egyptian papyrus texts, beautifully illuminated copies of the Qur’an, the Bible, European medieval and renaissance manuscripts are among highlights of the collection. In its diversity the collection captures much of the richness of human creative expression from about 2700 BC to the present day.
Imperial Mughal Albums Named by the Art Newspaper as one of the top ten Asian exhibitions worldwide for 2008 and back home after a four month venue tour of America, the Murraqqa’, Imperial Mughal Albums, is on temporary display (25 June-3 October). The exhibition has a fully illustrated multiple award-winning catalogue.
It focuses on a group of six albums (murraqqa’) compiled in India between about 1600 and 1658 for the Mughal emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal). Each album folio originally consisted of a painting on one side and a panel of calligraphy on the other within beautifully illuminated borders. Many of the paintings are exquisite portraits of emperors, princes and courtiers in the finest costumes and jewels, as well as images of court life, Sufis, saints and animals.
A Sikh Face in Ireland A Photographic and Life History Project is also on display. The key themes of the exhibition include issues of culture, experience and identity. It is the first systematic exploration of the Sikh presence on the island of Ireland, providing both a profile of the present and social cultural history of Sikh immigrants and their descendants.
Through its Intercultural Education Services the Library offers a wide variety of programmes designed to foster better understanding of its European, Middle Eastern, Asian and East Asian collections. It hosts a number of events ranging from workshops, music performances, art and cookery demonstrations and family days. Through World Cultural Days, the Library celebrates important dates in the calendars of different cultures. It has recently participated in a two-year project (2007-2009) working with European museums. There is a publication Museums as places for intercultural dialogue selected practices from Europe (available on-line).
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to Exhibition sources and July/August History of Ireland, Vol.18, No. 4, to prepare this text. It follows a visit to Dublin, August 2010.