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Speech by President Michael D. Higgins Event to Mark the Centenary Anniversary of the Connaught Rangers’ Mutiny

Tubbercurry, Co. Sligo Tuesday 2nd November 2021

A dhaoine uaisle, ar an gcéad dul síos, is féidir liom a rá go gcuireann sé an-áthas orm a bheith anseo libh, agus tréaslaím libh as ucht an chaoi a d’fhreastail sibh ar na deacrachtaí éagsúla ó thaobh an ócáid seo a eagrú, ach go háirithe nuair a bhí sé pleanáilte agus ní raibh seans agaibh dul ar aghaidh toisc go raibh muid go léir I lár COVID. Ach, táimid anseo inniu, agus is mian liom buíochas a ghabháil le Mary Henry, Gerry Lundy agus Kevin Burke ón gCoiste Chomóradh Céad Bliain Cheannairc Chonnacht as ucht an cuireadh a sheol siad dom páirt a ghlacadh san ócáid inniu. Agus, mar a dúirt mé, tá mé fíorbhuíoch go bhfuil an ócáid ag tarlú faoi dheireadh. Dar ndóigh, is iontach an rud é agus aontaím go hiomlán leis an Leas-Cathaoirleach an tábhacht atá ag baint le hiarrachtaí deonach.

Dear friends, firstly I can say that I’m very happy to be here with you, and I congratulate you on the way you overcame various difficulties to organise this event, especially when it was planned and couldn’t go ahead because we were all in the middle of COVID. But we are here today, and I’d like to thank Mary Henry, Gerry Lundy and Kevin Burke from the Committee of the 100 Year Commemoration of the Connaught’s Rangers’ mutiny for the kind invitation to participate in today’s event. And, as I said, I’m very grateful that the event is finally happening. Of course, it is great, and I fully agree with the Vice-Chairman regarding the importance of voluntary work.

May I just say, as I have just been saying, what a great pleasure it is to be here and that you have managed to put on this event which came under such great difficulties because of COVID. An in addition to that as well, I very much agree, as I have just said with you Vice Chairman about the importance of voluntary work. 

I do want, as I have just thanked Mary Henry and Kevin Lundy and Kevin Burke for their invitation to be here today. Sabina and I are very pleased to join you.

So may I begin by expressing my deepest appreciation for having received a copy of the personal handwritten account of the Connaught Rangers’ mutiny by Joseph Hawes, one of the leaders of the mutiny. And I think he had been on leave in County Clare and he had witnessed particular actions which took place. I think as well I have got sent to me a typed version, courtesy of Catherine Millard, Granddaughter of mutineer Corporal Joseph O Donoghue. So mile buíochas [transcribe Irish]. Thank you very much for forwarding this to me.

I am very conscious of the many public representatives who are here. I salute you all. I think it’s very important that we recognise public representatives, but particularly this is such an important occasion for those who are related to the men whose names will be placed on the memorial. It is a special day. And also for all of those who worked on the committee over the years to arrive at this point. 

Our event here in Tubbercurry is an important event, marking as it does the centenary of the Connaught Rangers’ Mutiny. As we formally unveil this memorial stone, bearing as it does the four names of the famous mutineers, we recall their courage, their principled response to news of the abuse of their fellow Irish as they served the Empire far away from home in Ireland.  

And I think it has been shown again and again in the recent reworkings of our history that the perception of an event, and the reaction to it, becomes even more important than the event itself. I have been dealing with such issues through the Machnamh series and we will be resuming our Machnamh series on the 25th of November. We’re as far as number four and will be dealing with roughly the same period as your commemoration deals with. We’ll then go onto number five, number six which deal with the foundation of the State.

But the act of civil and military disobedience and defiance that the Connaught Rangers’ mutiny represents continues to resonate in twenty-first-century Ireland. Yes it has been the subject of books, radio and television programmes, plays and ballads, with the mutineers commemorated as Irish heroes in our struggle for independence. 

It is part of the Decade of Commemorations, but there’s such a lot of work to do. We don’t do so to make judgements, we look in fact to interpret and seek to understand the people in a particular context. And it is very interesting, I think the historical memories of the 1920 mutiny illuminate not only the politics of commemoration in a later independent Ireland, but they also reflect what was shared in both the experience of imperialism and indeed anti-imperial relationships by such countries as India, South Africa and many others. And all these issues really pose questions as to the uses of memory, as we make the movement from recollection to collective purpose and indeed iconic invocation. 

I’m very struck myself by the importance that attaches to we not imposing our context on their context. I was driving up and thinking of the people who took action in the Connaught Rangers. They are in a particular circumstance, and what they do is important in their lives and in their families’. 

And I think, while there is much speculation as to how much did they know this and how much they didn’t know, what they did know, and it is very interesting, may be one of the most significant events of that period was the murder of Mrs Eileen Quinn as she held her baby waiting for her husband to come home from the fair in Gort, tenants as they were on Lady Gregory’s estate. If you take the case of Mrs Eileen Quinn, it is one that is raised in parliaments and it is one that is very interesting that becomes known in India and it is that that I mean that the perception and news of an event becomes even more important than the event itself. 

It is clear that Mr Hawes for example would have known of Eileen Quinn’s death. What you place then, which I think is very important, is that the Mutiny is a fascinating story of an extraordinary act of defiance. It constitutes as I say both historical fact and symbol. The Connaught Rangers were one of eight Irish-line infantry regiments in the British Army, raised largely in Ireland, with its home depot stationed in Renmore Barracks, where my uncle served in the National Army 1922 to 1925 while at the same time my father was in Tintown 3 in the Curragh incarceration. 

News did not travel fast in the 1920s, but it is very clear from the Indian newspaper accounts of the time that the violence that had been unleashed in particular by the Black and Tans was available to Irish-born soldiers who were serving in the British army in India. 

And on this as we do the task of reconstruction as well, it is very important to bear in mind why these families were serving, and so many were, in the British Army and serving really in the task of empire. People were seeking to make a life from poverty, people were seeking to make a life of security for their family, something I will return to in a moment, and therefore we must understand all of that. It is of interest to know that of the 56,000 soldiers who would form the National Army, approximately half would have been people with military service, and certainly representative of a fifth of the officer class.

On the 28th of June 1920, a company of the Connaught Rangers, stationed at Jullundur on the plains of the Punjab in India, refused to perform their military duties as a protest against martial law, oppression and the atrocities of the British Army in Ireland, atrocities which included as I have just said the shooting of Mrs Quinn.

It is one of the great acts of reconciliation I think that Gerald Quinn, grandson of Eileen Quinn, and of the soldier who fired and shot at her have met and have talked about the significance of that event.

But the protestors, returning to them, were soon joined I think by other Rangers, including several English soldiers, who I say again it isn’t a case of sorting out anyone’s particular motivation, where at the time there was an abhorrence of the authoritarian and humiliating practices which had been reported very particularly by the serving soldiers and which were seen not only by them, but by newspapers in Britain and elsewhere as besmirching the reputation of soldiering and nation alike . And when by the following morning, a rebel muster took place, over 300 soldiers were involved in the mutiny.

On the 30th of June 2020, the mutineers sent two envoys to a company of Connaught Rangers stationed at Solon, 20 miles away in the foothills of the Himalayas. And it’s worth thinking about your people whose names are enscribed, that that is where they are in the foothills of the Himalayas, but they are still capable of acting on a moral moment of hearing of the news of what had happened in their home country. The soldiers took up the protest and, similar to their counterparts at Jullundur, they refused to carry out assigned duties, flew the tricolour of Ireland, wore ‘Sinn Féin’ rosettes on their British Army uniforms, and sang rebel songs.

While initially peaceful, the protests soon turned violent. And on the evening of the 1st of July, around 30 members of the company at Solon 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. 

In total, some 61 men were convicted for their role in the mutiny, with 14 sentenced to death by firing squad, but the only soldier whose capital sentence was carried out was that of Private James Joseph Daly, considered to be the leader of the mutiny at Solon and the man responsible for the failed attack on the magazine. On the morning of the 2nd of November 1920, Daly was executed in Dagshai Prison in Northern India.

Now shortly after the events occurred, the story of the Connaught Rangers’ mutiny began to take shape, and it has become understood as an anti-imperial protest, an act of Indo-Irish solidarity. The mutineers’ actions were really celebrated in song and story as actions of courageous republicanism. After all at that particular time they were from a country where the songsheet was very important and ballads were composed. And they became thus a part of a rich oral culture, with different balladeers writing their own version such as J.C. Keane of Tyrrellspass writing that the mutineers’ goal— called “the dream-light of freedom”—“shone red through their young leader’s blood”. And on he goes and he speaks of:

“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.” 

And it is very interesting to think in this way when we do history, is that we have to treat to understand it in all of its complexity. And while there is some contestation with regard, and this sometimes appears just a little tedious, as to what were the particular motivations and how much did they know, yes it is of interest, but it doesn’t take from the significance of their moral judgement on hearing what they had heard and they were prepared to act on it.

There is no doubt that the mutineers knew that their actions would have serious repercussions, including financial consequences for their families, and this indicates that their intentions were at the very least politically motivated and possibly for a variety of reasons. 

Proper exploration of our differences past and present will come after all when we can appreciate each other’s multiple motivations. For example, many of the Connaught Rangers were veterans of the First World War, I think many of them had joined not because they had advanced views of the importance of empire, but for reasons of income and ultimately earning a pension that could be spent on their families. Yes they were denied a military pension by the British government. And yes it is in 1936 that the Irish Government intervened and passed the Connaught Rangers (Pensions) Act granting a State pension to those sentenced by the British general court martial to death, penal servitude, or imprisonment for any term of not less than 12 months.

The 12 months’ requirement is interesting. It was reflective of something very important, and that is a kind of inherited notion of derservingness which would plague the new Irish state. The idea that you could exercise judgement on who was deserving and exclude others who were assumed not to be deserving and a bureaucratic flair takes off which will guide the operation of the 1934 Review of Pensions report and you will see that yourselves I think when you are reading these accounts. Calculation without purpose would start and we would get a kind of Kafka-esque investigation of the asking people to produce their papers, produce witnesses, give accounts and thus in the same way that you had to have 12 months service some people would not receive pensions until 25 years after their initial application. 

It is so important I think to try and encounter the texture, the human texture of all the people when we do these tasks of memory. It is important for us to try and put ourselves into the circumstances of the people with all of their contradictions. And it very important as well I think that the men and women who fought for Irish independence, that bureaucratic system of ‘34 to ’36 allowed some of them to sink into poverty and it allowed other to pack up and simply emigrate away from the country altogether.

And thus it is important when we work on this Decade of Commemorations that we do so with fullness and very particularly include the exclusion, including women. Any critical examination of the historiography of this turbulent time in our history must attempt to salvage back and put back those lost, authentic elements within Ireland’s rich and diverse nationalist tradition that are of most meaning for us today; elements from which we might draw a new knowledge emancipatory potential, might foster an ethical remembrance and an ethical progress which we so need. 

I think it is a proper investigation of our differences, past and present, will come when we can appreciate each other’s perspectives. Part of the key to this lies in understanding how we each view the past, for the history of Ireland must never be closed. It must be kept open. It is a history, after all, that comprises many different interconnected stories, whose exploration we engage. And I think I we are to achieve a sophistication in this, we need to usefully draw from the complexity as we craft some kind of shared future.

There is something about all of this commemoration which is very important. The words of our ancestors are their words and they in fact differed from each other and its from their world and their context that we must try and understand them. But we are responsible not for their words, we are responsible for our own words and for our own actions. And I think in taking responsibility for all our different options as to how we are in the present and the future, we are not required to develop an amnesia about what were important moral actions and words for people in their time, in their context. 

So the historical narrative of the period is complex and I think therefore, in the many perspectives and interpretations of the seminal events in our nation’s history, it is so important to try and achieve the gift of ethical remembering. 

I think that we should very particularly, and I’ve come into this as my final thought, what’s missing so far above all else is the view ‘from below’. If you are without work, if you have few options, no more for example than a life in the RIC in its time, it offered an opportunity of education, offered an opportunity of security, it offered an opportunity perhaps of a pension and whatever. How can we not seek to understand the attempts that people made, in the conditions to which they had been reduced in the absence of being an independent state. They exercised their choices trying to make a fist of life. We don’t abuse their experience and we don’t abuse their words or their actions. We have our responsibilities today and tomorrow, but we are not required to realise what Empire was, wherever it was, be it in India or South Africa or Malaya or Ireland or whatever. And we are not required to forget what it extracted and what it provoked and the assumptions it made and the differences it made and its terrible inability to see people living on this planet as equals. That is the reality, but it needn’t stop us from achieving any extra purpose either today or in the future.

The story of the Connaught Rangers Mutiny has not received enough attention in the official historiographical narrative of the revolutionary period. It is part of the neglect of social class in the history. People don’t like to hear of the people who did not inherit land, the people who earned, the shops, the trades, the people who emigrated, these others. There was something to go home to for many in the new State. There wasn’t anything for a great deal more who emigrated. There were many others that tried to reconstruct their lives in different ways. 

But we are now in 2021, when we should be able to put back all the stories of all of the people at different levels of class in our story of independence. And we should always remember we wouldn’t be here celebrating all of this if our independence had not been achieved, and that is something important, so we have the luxury if you like of entertaining ourselves with different versions of the motivations of people long ago. But we are still left with our own responsibilities.

Finally, it is a splendid day and I have said that we will strive for an ethical remembering that refuses any kind of conscious or unconscious amnesia. One that allows for us to be inclusive. For an ethics of narrative hospitality. I think an openness to others an attempt to nurture memory, to be able to put new facts and new stories into the thing and not feel we are betraying anything or somehow making a judgment of others. We must abandon that kind of a judgement and look for an open history that is inclusive of all the stories, including not just the achievements but the mistakes that we made.

On this island, and indeed across Europe, there must be an openness to others. And I often mention nowadays, look how different it would be in the world if all those great imperial adventurers of Europe acknowledged to the continents of Africa and Asia and Latin America and South America, about what the price was paid for imperialist madness.

So therefore I think it is very important for us to try and take on, if you like, a generosity in relation to a multiplicity of narratives. Allowing all narratives to be placed side by side, but also to be renovated and to be looked at, and I believe that that was John Hume’s vision for example of an agreed, share future. 

I think it’s wonderful to be out in the open air again talking about commemoration. One couldn’t be in a better place than in Sligo and this is a wonderful occasion.

Tréaslaím libh uilig as an méid atá bainte amach agaibh, bhur faighde agus an chaoi inar lean sibh ar aghaidh agus níor chuir an COVID as sibh. Beir beannacht agus gach beannacht don todhchaí. Míle buíochas as ucht an gcuireadh a bheith anseo.

May I thank you for the invitation to be here on this very important day and I congratulate you on having done it but also for your patience, which is in effect a defeat of the circumstances of COVID. History won!

Thank you very much.