Book Review: Homeward Bound, Return Migration from Ireland and India at the End of the British Empire

By Niamh Dillon

Published by New York University Press, 2022

Reviewer: Sean William Gannon


Niamh Dillon’s new book Homeward Bound compares the experience of the British who departed India after the dissolution of the Raj in 1947 and Irish Protestants who left Ireland following the establishment of the Irish Free State after 1922.

She contends in the preface that the success of the Indian and Irish independence movements proved ‘cataclysmic’ for both groups in terms of demographic decline, but this is questionable. In India, the domiciled community – those living there permanently through generations – was very small, consisting largely of the families of British soldiers who, for various reasons, had remained.

Most of the British resident there in the mid-twentieth century were ‘home-born’ imperial servants, military personnel, or other sojourners whose return to Britain was accelerated rather than actuated by Indian independence. In addition, a not inconsiderable number of British citizens afterwards stayed on: the British High Commission recorded 28,000 British residents in 1951, 14,000 in 1961, and 6,500 in 1971.

This book compares the experiences of British citizens who left India after 1948 and southern Irish Protestants who departed the Irish Free State after 1922.

As regards Ireland, Dillon cites the fall in the number of Protestants in the twenty-Six counties that became the Irish Free State from approximately 313,000 in 1911 to 208,000 in 1926. However, studies by Andy Bielenberg, David Fitzpatrick, and Barry Keane have provided a more complex picture of this depopulation – research with which Dillon does in fact later engage. The ‘cataclysm’ paradigm is further problematised by the fact that many Irish Protestants quickly accommodated themselves to the new dispensation after 1922, either feeling duty-bound to accept the new state’s lawfully constituted authority, or simply resigned to the fait accompli.

But there were others, who disgusted at what Lord Midleton described as ‘one of the most deplorable desertions of their supporters of which any [country] has ever been guilty’, refused to so do. While some of this cohort opted for a type of internal exile within the ruins of the old ‘County Set’ or in other largely urban-based Protestant micro-societies, many voluntarily left Ireland for Britain, where they joined others who felt themselves forced out because of threats to their safety, real or perceived. These are the focus of Dillon’s Irish research.

‘Little Englands’

A British official in India.

For Dillon, the resettlement of these migrants in Britain was a form of repatriation broadly akin to the ‘return migration’ of the British from India in the late 1940s.

She uses author-conducted interviews, existing oral and written testimonies, and state records to make her case, which centres on both groups’ understanding of their place within the empire, particularly their conceptualization of the idea of ‘home’. For British Indians, this concept was enshrouded in ambivalence, their sense of belonging in the subcontinent problematized by so deep a psychological affinity with Britain that it (and not India) was regarded as home.

This ambivalence was exteriorized in the creation of what Dillon terms ‘an idealized space redolent of an imagined home in Britain’ (bungalows furnished in the Home Counties style, often complete with English flower beds and lawns, and social lives centred on the local colonial ‘club’) and her interviews complement the considerable literature on the creation of these ‘little Englands’ overseas, which were a feature of British colonial life across the dependent empire.

This performance of Englishness, described by the Indian critic Rama Kundu as ‘simultaneously pathetic and absurd’, provided a haven of comforting familiarity within what was often perceived (even by the domiciled community) as an alien, refractory world – Dillon highlights the ‘often-adversarial relationship’ they had with the natural environment in this regard.

Many British officials and their families in India had little real attachment to the country, whereas southern Irish Protestants, including loyalists, had long standing and multi-layered connections to Ireland.

Indeed, many never fully breached this haven’s confines and had little to no engagement with India per se, particularly women whom, as she notes, very rarely had roles outside of their homes – some witness testimonies call to mind the remark of Juanita Carberry the self-described daughter of ‘a renegade Irish peer’, who said of her stepmother’s social set, in inter-war Kenya, that ‘for all they got out of [Africa] they might as well have been in Surrey’. However, ‘by recreating an image of Britain in a colonial context’ British Indians also ‘sought to assert their cultural separation within a foreign environment’, maintaining the broad distinction between colonizer and colonized on which the British Empire’s legitimacy and sustainability depended.

Irish Protestants, Dillon argues, displayed more ‘multilayered identities and understandings of home’. For some, their British familial links and broader religio-cultural affiliations ‘created a barrier to identifying Ireland as home’, their sense of belonging further undermined by a majority Catholic population which questioned the authenticity of their Irish identity.

As one of her interviewees put it, ‘I felt more British because people reminded me all the time. You don’t belong here”’. Their decision to relocate after Irish independence ‘demonstrated their continued loyalty … to Britain over the lands in which they had lived’, the idea of ‘return’ being ‘inbuilt in their imperial consciousness’. However, others felt unambiguously Irish, possessing a ‘close, almost emotional link’ to the land where their families had lived for generations; ‘home was linked to a physical space and place’ in Ireland, albeit within a broader imperial conceptualization.

The historian Linda Colley has noted in a ‘Britishness’ context that ‘[self]-identities are not like hats. Human beings can and do put on several at a time’, and that one could be simultaneously of Ireland, Britain, and empire was for most Irish Protestants a self-evident article of faith. Their accounts of ‘return’ contrast with those of British Indians which present an understanding of home ‘as located in the metropolitan center rather than the [colonial] periphery’, which speaks to a psychological detachment from the subcontinent that made easier their repatriation.

Imperial values

Dillon highlights the way in which education was used in both Ireland and India ‘to implicitly and explicitly encourage an imperial set of values in pupils’. In respect of Ireland, this is well travelled research ground. Those whose families could afford it were educated in the English public school and university system which fostered an imperial mindset, as did their equivalent institutions in Ireland. The replacement of patronage appointments with recruitment through competitive examination for India’s civil and medical services in the 1850s saw Ireland’s elite education infrastructure enthusiastically exploit the employment opportunities that it afforded.

The appointment of alumni to the prestigious Indian Civil Service in particular became coveted by the country’s expanding network of fee-paying intermediate colleges (Catholic, as well as Protestant) while its universities reoriented their curricula to cover the subjects examined.

The second half of the nineteenth century also saw increasing Irish interest in the employment opportunities provided by the emergent British Colonial Service and elite educational institutions there too played a pivotal role, cultivating a pro-empire outlook and an ethos of imperial service. This continued into the mid-twentieth century when student journals were still proudly reporting on the colonial careers of ‘old boys’ and the careers’ offices of Irish universities promoted imperial employment.

While British schools in India performed the same function, the preferred option was education at ‘home’ in the English public school and university system, the curricula of which inculcated the imperial ethos and outlook required to create the next generation of administrators in India. More importantly perhaps, a ‘home’ education instilled in them ‘the values of metropolitan Britain’ and ‘verified their access to indisputable British status’, this despite the fact they were sometimes othered by their English classmates.

Both groups found it difficult to be fully accepted on ‘return’ to Britain itself.

Recalling comments on his sun-tanned skin and ‘foreign background’, one of Dillon’s interviewees remarked that while accepted as British in India, his Britishness was questioned in Britain itself, echoing the proverbial lament of the Anglo-Irish that they were dismissed as English in Ireland and as Irish in England.

Indeed, Dillon concludes that Irish Protestants ‘found their link to Ireland reinforced … by a British boarding school education’ as they found their Britishness challenged by their English classmates and experienced a growing sense that, as Lionel Fleming put it, ‘we were not quite of the same crowd as the rest of the boys there’. But it was also borne of a disillusionment with the reality of mid-twentieth-century Britain, which bore little resemblance to what Dillon terms the idealised, ‘imagined view of England’ with which they had been reared which in turn cultivated ‘a closer sense of affiliation with the land of their birth’.

Returning ‘home’

Dillon then turns to the repatriation itself and assesses the extent to which the transition from a colonial to a postcolonial environment in Britain challenged or confirmed the two groups’ sense of British identity and belonging. While both encountered difficulties in adjusting to the realities of life in the economically austere Britain into which they arrived, the situation of British Indians was more stark.

First, unlike Irish Protestants, they faced a ‘landscape, climate, and environment far removed from the one to which they were accustomed’, memorably described by one interviewee as ‘like walking out of a colour photograph into a black and white one’. Second, and more significantly, they also found their social status entirely changed, as they were effectively stripped of the privileges of a ruling imperial caste including, at the most basic level, several servants and superior housing.

As another interviewee recalled, her mother ‘went to pieces quietly; she couldn’t get used to the fact that there was nobody to do anything for her’. Furthermore, Irish Protestants who migrated to Britain in the aftermath of Irish independence were treated as political refugees, ‘widely supported both within and outside Parliament as “kith and kin”’, and made eligible for state aid under various compensation schemes.

Irish Protestants who migrated to Britain in the aftermath of Irish independence were treated as political refugees, ‘widely supported both within and outside Parliament as “kith and kin”’, and made eligible for state aid under various compensation schemes.

In the case of British Indians, there was a relatively low level of public interest in their plight and all but those who had been directly employed by the imperial state (who were provided varying amounts of recompense) were expected to remake their lives in Britain at their own expense. In addition, as David Gilmour has documented, many former imperial servants were taken on by the Foreign, Home, and Colonial offices or offered teaching posts in Britain’s third-level sector, while military personnel transferred to the British home forces.

However, as Dillon demonstrates, the situation of neither group was black and white. For Irish Protestants of the old landed class, resettlement in Britain was marked by a loss of social position and readjustment to urban environments, while many female ‘returnees’, hitherto ‘limited by the social constraints in India and Ireland’, found 1950s Britain a liberating space, full of new possibilities in terms of education, employment, and social life. Dillon then assesses the extent to which events such as the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the coronation of Elizabeth II two years later impacted on the returnees’ sense of British identity.

The coronation in particular struck a chord, her interviewees expressing a deep respect for the monarchy as a focus for national loyalty and allegiance and the new queen as ‘the physical embodiment of certain values that they associated with imperial service’, viz. ‘national duty and sacrifice’. For Irish Protestants returnees she was also the head of Anglican Communion and ‘this affirmation was important in validating their experience and political choice’. Most interesting, perhaps, Dillon explores the ambivalent attitudes of both subject groups to non-white migration from the Commonwealth in the wake of the British Nationality Act of 1948.

She examines its impact on their British identity, concluding that ‘faced with the “otherness” of these migrants, their position within the heart of the metropolitan British community was strengthened’. She also considers how Indian and Irish migrants responded to the decolonization process of the 1950s and 1960s and whether their return altered their view of the empire or caused them to reassess their own former roles as imperial agents. She observes a ‘fluid, shifting sense of belonging’ in both subject groups which saw their relationship with Britain reframed over time.

Homeward Bound demonstrates that the experiences of the ‘returnees’ were as much defined by contrasts as commonalities

British Indians, she maintains, tended to move from ‘a national/imperial framework to a more personal one’ which prioritized family relationships over the British state, although Gilmour has found that most repatriates chose not to live in their British ‘home’ places, even if they had family there; ‘living in the south of England was the general preference for repatriates’ on account of its proximity to London and its ‘warmer climate and lighter winters’, and Berkshire was ‘sometimes known as “the English Hindoostan”’.

According to Dillon, Irish Protestants ‘often moved from a framework that referenced British and imperial connections to one that acknowledged their Irish antecedents’. Some in both groups, however, felt ‘neither entirely rooted in their country of origin nor part of metropolitan Britain’, but rather existed ‘in a diasporic space’.

Dillon’s claim in her preface that the post-1922 southern Irish Protestant experience has ‘been largely ignored’ by historians is difficult to sustain given books and essays by R. B. McDowell, Kurt Bowen, Ian d’Alton, Caleb Richardson, and Deirdre Nuttall, and edited collections by d’Alton and Ida Milne, and Brian Hughes and Conor Morrissey. As the first comparative analysis of certain elements of this experience, Homeward Bound represents an original, an important addition to this literature and opens a path to further research on Irish Protestant migrants as an imperial diaspora.

The first three chapters are especially stimulating reads, the interviews at their heart providing insights into the complexities of British imperial diasporic identity and the manner in which these identities informed real life decisions as they were reshaped by historic events. Dillon’s exploration of the gender dimension to the experience of both British Indians and Irish Protestants is a primary strength of the book. In the final analysis, Homeward Bound demonstrates that the experiences of the ‘returnees’ were as much defined by contrasts as commonalities and leaves us with much to consider. I look forward to Dillon’s future research.

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