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Laois, Ireland and Empire

Laois Local Studies > Articles > Laois, Ireland and Empire

Colonel Sir Robert Warburton

By Terry Dunne, Laois Historian-in-Residence

In 1922 twenty-six counties of Ireland left the United Kingdom, they did not however leave the British Empire. As a Commonwealth Dominion the truncated Ireland did not achieve formal legislative independence until several years after the Treaty. That came about for all the Dominions with the 1926 Imperial Conference leading to the Statute of Westminster of 1931.  Kevin O’Higgins, Stradbally-born and sometime T.D. for Laois-Offaly, played a significant role in the 1926 conference. It would be naïve though to think that London’s political influence in the Dominions ended at this point —interventions continued for much later, as soon as 1932 for instance a bankrupt Newfoundland state gave up on self-government altogether and was returned to London rule for sixteen years (merging with Canada in 1948).   

Between 1926 and 1933 the Empire Marketing Board sought to integrate these far-flung economies, producing artistic advertising but perhaps little real-world impact.  The British Empire Economic Conference in Ottawa in July 1932 created ‘imperial preference’, a system with more teeth. All of this was considerably undone under the pressure of the Second World War, an increasing American influence and new trade agreements from 1944. In any case post-1922 so-called southern Ireland remained, in economic terms, integrated with Britain, exporting often unprocessed agricultural products, and supplying labour to the neighbouring industrial metropolises.

Empire Marketing Board Advertisement

In this article we will explore some Irish, and more specifically Laois, connections with that wider world of the British Empire. The Empire can be principally divided into two types of colonies — the temperate colonies of settlement, like New Zealand, peopled in part by a white flux of settlers from the Old World; and the tropical colonies of exploitation (sometimes named ‘administration’), like India, where one would find small numbers of European officials, plantation owners, soldiers and missionaries like a white crust on an otherwise indigenous society. Obviously there are cross-overs between these two kinds, and different ways we can conceptualise and categorise the outposts of Empire, but nonetheless this is one useful way we can think of it all. We’ll look at some of the traces and threads of the very different Laois connections to these very different types of colony. Then we’ll look at connections from a different perspective, focusing on anti-colonial solidarity expressed during the Irish Revolution. There are other connections that could be drawn — missionary efforts; depiction of the colonies in popular culture and entertainment industries; and tropical products like the ubiquitous cup of tea.

A Farm in the Empire.

Each of the major settler-colonies of the British Empire had, c.1900, a disproportionately Irish population — that is to say more Irish people as a proportion of their populations than the fraction of the population of the United Kingdom constituted by Ireland. Or to put it more plainly the Irish were a bigger share of the population of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and, to a much lesser extent, Cape Colony (now part of South Africa), than the Irish share of the population of Britain and Ireland.[1]      

Local Laois newspapers carried advertisements encouraging migration to the settler-colonies, often with various forms of free, assisted or nominated passage on similar lines to the now better remembered ‘Ten Pound Pom’ scheme of 1945 to 1972 (the latter seems to have been more generous than what was typical earlier in the 1900s). Nominated passage was where someone already out in the colonies would put up some of the money to bring you out, free or assisted was where a charted company or local government did likewise.  Publicity frequently offered up the prospect of land and its concomitant social mobility. For instance, from the Leinster Express of 1906:  

New Zealand possess a pleasant climate and fertile soil, not excelled by any other country in the world, for the profitable production of every description of grain, fruit and for the rearing of sheep, cattle, and horses. New Zealand is eminently fitted, therefore, for small farming, and one of the results of the Government’s policy is that every year a number of wage earners take up land for farming and become their own masters.[2]

In 1842 an expedition from Dublin to Nelson, in the South Island of New Zealand (an island briefly known as New Munster), was advertised by the ultimately unsuccessful New Zealand Company, with a Mr. John Dunphy of Mountmellick as its local agent. Here one could directly purchase Antipodean land in Mountmellick or in Dame Street, Dublin, and receive subsidised travel out for yourself, family or employees.[3] The next year the environs of Nelson saw the Wairau massacre of settlers, one of the perils of buying land which prior occupants were still in possession of, and the beginning of a period of intermittent violence known as the New Zealand Wars.[4] 

In the 1870s free passages were being offered to carpenters, bricklayers, masons, plasterers, tinsmiths, coopers, wheelwrights, tailors and agricultural and railway labourers and to single female domestic servants. Anyone paying for their own travel was given a land order warrant which they could use to purchase property in Australia. Agent for the government of South Australia was shopkeeper Pat Meehan, of main-street Maryborough.[5] That is the same Pat Meehan whose political and ballad writing activity has featured in an earlier article. The aforementioned New Zealand article with its allure of a small farm was simply looking for “good pick and shovel men”. A 1910 Australian advert carried in the Leinster Express offered “A Farm in the Empire” and advised “Get in early. Secure the land while it is there on terms which make a little capital go a long way.”[6]

Leinster Express, 3rd December 1910

The peopling of the settler-colonies was a much more popular and even plebeian process than we might perhaps like to think now.  The context is that what were conceived as white men’s countries were based on the violent dispossession of the indigenous populations and the exclusion of migrants regarded as non-white. Included among the excluded were British subjects from much closer to Australasia than far away Britain or Ireland.  We might be happier to think of this as something dreamed up by a Toad of Toad Hall type but it just wasn’t. Often the foremost advocates of a White Australia were people of decided labour, democratic and Irish nationalist sympathies.  Daniel Henry Deniehy for instance, descendant of Cork convicts, influenced by Young Ireland, and still positioned today as part of Australia’s republican heritage. He put it plainly:  

In consequence of the discovery of gold in the country, we were threatened by an overwhelming influx of barbarians, men of low social and mental development, and given to the indulgence of vices unfit to be named by a decent man. If this immigration continued on a large scale it would impart to the country a barbarous and degraded aspect, and the colonial descent would be of decidedly inferior caste.[7]

Being part of settler-colonisation in Australia, New Zealand or Canada did not preclude people from supporting Irish self-government. On the contrary the success of Irish politicians in the governments of these new white democracies was pointed to in arguments for Irish self-government.[8]  

From Portarlington to Pakistan.

For sure direct Irish involvement in the administration of the colonies of exploitation had a different class character (and as a corollary a different confessional background —plainly more Protestants).  But that was the nature of the roles in those colonies —there was little opportunity for North Atlantic “pick and shovel men” in the Indian Civil Service. Nonetheless local involvement can be traced in the local newspapers. Firstly, private fee-paying schools such as Blackrock advertised themselves by their record in turning out successful candidates for prestigious careers in the likes of the Indian Civil Service.[9] Secondly, the high-status and comparative rarity of such positions made for occasional coverage of appointments and marriages and mentions in obituaries, both before and after 1922.

Major-General George Grant Tabuteau was the son of Dr. Joseph Tabuteau, who was the dispensary doctor in Portarlington – the then public service, and who also had “a large and lucrative private practice” as well as being attached in a medical capacity to both the Royal Irish Constabulary and the railways.[10] In 1937 the younger Tabuteau became the director of all British military medical services in India, before that he had been in charge of various military hospitals in both India and Burma and what later became Pakistan.[11] He died in 1940 and is buried in Delhi War Cemetery.[12]

Another Portarlington man, also, like Tabuteau, of Huguenot descent, was Lieutenant General Sir Charles Hamilton Des Voeux.[13]  Des Voeux was famously in command of 175 men of the 36th (Sikh) Bengal Infantry in a siege on the north-west frontier on the night of the 12th and 13th of September 1897.  There was a Pathan revolt along what was then the border between British India and Afghanistan after the border had been moved thereby annexing autonomous hill country.  As Indian Army officers could bring their families with them, also present was the pregnant Mrs. Eleanor Des Voeux, their four children, and two nurses. One of the nurses, Teresa McGrath, was awarded a medal for her conduct in tending to the wounded.  The new child was named Violet Samana, Samana being the mountain range within which the besieged fort was located.[14] The almost simultaneous last stand at the adjacent fort of Saragarhi is commemorated by the Indian Army to this day. Incidentally previous to this time a major British administrator along the frontier was Colonel Sir Robert Warburton, the warder of the Khyber Pass, the son of Lieutenant Colonel Robert Warburton of Garryhinch and an Afghan woman (who remains nameless in her son’s autobiography), the couple having met during the first Anglo-Afghan war (1838-42).[15]

Des Voeux Family

In 1939 the death of Henry Marsh was recorded. Marsh, formerly of Springmount House, Shanahoe, was a graduate of the Royal Indian Engineering College at Cooper’s Hill in Surrey. Marsh went on to be chief engineer to the government of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh, more or less), and then, after retirement, a consulting engineer for irrigation works in central India.[16]  Also to die in 1939 was Lieutenant Colonel B.J. Fagan, a one-time resident of Ballybrittas, also formerly of the Indian Army and educated at Clongowes and Sandhurst. Fagan retired to farming in Ballybrittas, where he was keenly involved in the sugar beet industry and the Agricultural Society.[17]

For sure none of these positions in Empire offered much, if any, opportunity for women, but women travelled out to Nigeria and India to find, or follow, husbands. In 1916 we could read of a marriage due to take place in Bombay in November, between Eileen, only daughter of Rev. and Mrs. H.B. Hewson, Clonaslee Rectory, and Captain Bertram Evelyn Hickson, 27th Light Cavalry, Indian Army.[18]  Similarly, on the 12th of November 1920 the death took place in a hospital in Kaduna, northern Nigeria, of Irene Traill, daughter of the Duckworths of Donaghmore House, Ballybrophy, and wife of Captain H.L. Norton Traill, of Grattan Lodge, Stradbally, who was a Resident Officer (aka political officer), a sort of local colonial official in Kontagora, northern Nigeria.[19] Perhaps something like District Commissioner Gregory Irwin in the conclusion of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (that is set in an altogether different part of Nigeria though).

The green banner of Mahommed?

But there were other relationships with that wider world of the British Empire. Especially in times of heightened political contention in Ireland the Empire was sometimes seen through the lenses of solidarity and subversion. Shortly after the Truce in the summer of 1921 the Nationalist and Leinster Times editorialised “there is strong unrest in India. There have been ambushes in that country, and there has been a rebellion in Egypt, and a re-action in Mesopotamia and Arabia. General Smuts, who fought against British Imperialism up to the treaty of Vereeniging has been acting as an intermediary [i.e. between Irish republicans and London].”[20] The paper went on to speculate that General Smuts and South Africa would go for complete separation when the opportunity was right. We could debate how much this was a clear-cut conscious and consistent anti-imperialism. Certainly South Africa’s separation in 1948 was hardly good news for its majority, and the same editorial favourably details various rival imperialisms too. Nonetheless it was certainly a different way of looking at the Empire. The same newspaper editorialised a few months later specifically on the situation in India regarding the Malabar revolt (which has featured in an earlier article in this series)

It is truly significant that the Moplahs have adopted the green banner of Mahommed as their war standard, and their rising in rebellion seems to be an appeal to Mahomedeans all over the world. Whether the rebellion be successful or not remains to be seen, but one things seems fairly certain. The Mahomedan people of the Turkish Empire, Persia, Afghanistan, Egypt, and South Africa are alive to the fact that the day has come when no European power has any right to dominion over either Asiastic or African nations, and that every opportunity will be availed of to shake off that galling dominion. In these days such opportunities come rapidly. As we has said the progress of education the world over has created a new spirit in every race, and one of the chief phases of that spirit is the ready appeal to the sword.[21]

This is of interest as the contemporary idiom of imperialism is being drawn on to articulate an anti-colonial message – Indian Muslims, and Muslims in general, seem to be posited as a martial race —a central way in which the peoples of the sub-continent were classified. Here we see the trope turned around and the hope is that the martial race will overthrow the Empire. The following year the Nationalist denounced ‘aerial policing’ – the use of the Royal Air Force to bombard rebellious territories into submission.[22]

Whatever about the now curious seeming ways that wider world was thought about the paper was absolutely correct to foreground the international context to Ireland’s revolution. The impacts of that context were not at all straightforward though. It might have delayed a settlement – it is notable the British cabinet was little engaged with Ireland in these years, engrossed as they were with post-war re-ordering and world revolution, on the other hand it may have necessitated a settlement as there were not enough troops.  The Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements in India were reaching their highpoint simultaneously with Truce and Treaty in Ireland.   

It is instructive to pause for a moment with considering connections and turn to considering comparisons, because a quick glance at the agitation in India and the tactics adopted there underscores how little attention we pay to the broadly similar process of civil disobedience and insurgent administration in Ireland. Historian of South Asia, David Arnold, outlined it thus:

The programme advanced by Gandhi in 1920 and adopted by the Congress at Calcutta and Nagpur [meetings] involved an ascending scale of measures that were intended to put increasing pressure on the government and, ultimately, paralyse British rule in India. The initial stage was one of boycotts. Indians were called on to withdraw from all aspects of their cooperation with the British – to renounce any titles or honours they held from the British, to boycott and destroy foreign cloth, leave government schools and colleges and set up ‘national’ educational institutions instead, abandon the law courts in favour of arbitration councils, and to boycott the elections to the new legislatures created under the 1919 Government of India Act.

A further stage was to ask government servants to resign from their posts, and, from October 1921, to ask Indians to leave the police and the army. Finally, if these measures failed to secure redress for the Punjab and Khilafat ‘wrongs’ [i.e. The Amritsar massacre and the overthrow of the Ottoman caliphate], there would be mass civil disobedience, with open defiance of the law and a refusal to pay government revenue or taxes. At this point, it was anticipated, the British would either have to concede Indian demands or swaraj [self-government] would already, in effect, have come into being.[23]

After the Chauri Chaura incident in early February 1922, when a demonstrating crowd set fire to a police station and thereby killed 22 policemen, Congress stepped back from mass mobilisation. In response a dissident left-wing strand of Indian nationalism moved in a different direction. Some of the radicals eventually coalesced into the Hindustan Republican Association (later Hindustan Socialist Republican Association). One might surmise from the name an Irish influence and one would not be wrong.[24] Another group chose Easter 1930 to launch an insurrection in Chittagong, Bengal, a deliberate allusion to Easter 1916, and as it turned out a problem because there were less potential hostages in the European Club on abstinent Good Friday. But in the aftermath some of the insurrectionists were rounded-up by police chief Sir Charles Augustus Tegart, Derry-born but of Meath-extraction.[25] Today we like to remember the rebels and forget the policemen, but, however one might have sympathies with the former, to understand the past we have to consider both. 

[1] Timothy McMahon, Irish Actors on an Imperial Stage: Grappling with the Legacies of Empire, Louth Library Service, 6 January 2022

[2] Leinster Express, 10 March 1906.

[3] Leinster Express, 21 May 1842.

[4] James Belich, The New Zealand wars and the Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict (Auckland, Aukland University Press, 2015); Danny Keenan, Wars without End: The Land Wars in Nineteenth Century New Zealand (Aukland, Penguin, 2009). 

[5] Leinster Express, 15 July 1876.

[6] Leinster Express, 3 December 1910.

[7] Speech On Mr. Cowper’s Chinese Immigration Bill, April 10th, 1858, University of Sydney, Australian Digital Collections,;;toc.depth=1;;database=;collection=;brand=default

Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[8] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 18 September 1897.

[9] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 31 August 1907.

[10] Leinster Express, 19 December 1914.

[11] Leinster Express, 15 May 1937.

[12] Commonwealth War Graves Commission,

[13] Leinster Express, 28 October 1911; Diss Express, 4 February 1898.

[14] Illustrated London News, 25 September 1897; SBS Punjabi, ‘My family’s deep connections with Sikhs, Battle of Saragarhi and India’

[15]  Robert Warburton, Eighteen years in the Khyber, 1879-1898 (London, John Murray, 1900).

[16] Leinster Express, 29 April 1939.

[17] Leinster Express, 7 January 1939.

[18] Leinster Express, 30 September 1916.

[19] Leinster Express, 1 January 1921.

[20] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 30 July 1921.

[21] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 8 October 1921.

[22] Nationalist and Leinster Times, 14 April 1923.

[23] David Arnold, Gandhi (London, Routledge, 2001), p. 118.

 [24] Kama Maclean, A Revolutionary History of Inter-War India: Violence, Image, Voice and Text (London, Hurst, 2015); Interview with M. Gupta, 1974, in University of Cambridge Centre of South Asian Studies Archive

[25] Michael Silvestri, “An Irishman is specially suited to be a policeman”, History Ireland 8:4 (Winter 2000).