‘Had We Englishmen in Their Places…’: Sir Michael O’Dwyer and Amritsar.

As we head towards the centenary of the Amritsar or Jallianwala Bagh Massacre (which took place on 13 April 1919), Seán Gannon presents an insight into Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab at the time of the massacre, and how his Irishness may have influenced him and the views of others.

‘No man in the whole history of British rule in India has done such great disservice to the British Empire and hasbrought such disgrace on the good name of the British nation’.[1] Thus was Sir Michael O’Dwyer denounced by the president of the Indian National Congress, Lala Lajpat Rai, in September 1920, and he remains an infamous figure in Indian nationalist historiography. O’Dwyer was not in fact the cartoon villain that Indian histories sometimes present. But his career as lieutenant-governor of Punjab certainly ranks highly amongst what Maurice J. Casey calls ‘the unsavoury moments in [the] history of the Irish abroad’.[2]

Born in Barronstown, Tipperary in 1864, O’Dwyer was one of fourteen children of a prosperous Catholic landowner/farmer who made it clear to his sons that a good education was the extent of the financial support that could be provided to advance them in life. Thus, after a Jesuit secondary education at St Stanislaus College, Tullabeg, O’Dwyer applied for the Indian Civil Service (ICS), a coveted career effectively opened to the Irish (upper)-middle class in the mid-1850s when patronage appointments gave way to recruitment through competitive examination. Competitive recruitment was also introduced by the Indian Medical Service at the same time, resulting in an upsurge in Irish representation in British India’s professional class. Together with Irish ‘Anglo-Indians’, religious missionaries, and soldiers, these civil servants and doctors formed a transient Irish diaspora which endured well into the interwar period.

Assisted by six months’ preparation in Wren & Gurney’s famous London crammer, O’Dwyer successfully sat the ICS examination in 1882, after which he completed the required two-year probationership at Balliol College, Oxford. A redoubtable scholar, he stayed up another year to take a degree (covering a three-year course in jurisprudence in just three terms and achieving a first) and arrived in India in 1885. He there served with distinction in a series of administrative roles, before assuming the lieutenant-governorship of Punjab in May 1913. O’Dwyer took the reins during one of the more turbulent periods in the province’s history, as the return from North America of radicalized Sikh emigrants in the early months of the Great War saw local political-nationalist protest exhibit distinct revolutionary hues.

A self-declared believer in the principle of ‘checking the stream of sedition before it has grown into the river of revolt’, he instituted an approach so repressive that the situation was quickly contained. However, tensions once again reached a tipping point in early 1919 when the anger aroused by a raft of anti-colonial grievances, not least O’Dwyer’s ruthless approach to provincial British Army wartime recruitment, crystallised around opposition to the Rowlatt Acts. O’Dwyer’s typically hardline response this time led to violent anti-government protest in turn, most notably on 10 April in Amritsar, where rioters murdered five Europeans and brutally assaulted the female superintendent of the city’s Christian mission schools. The atmosphere of British paranoia and spite in which this violence resulted set the stage for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre three days later.

O’Dwyer did not send (temporary) Brigadier-General Dyer to Amritsar, nor was he apprised of his intention forcibly to clear the Jallianwala Bagh. But he quickly, albeit hesitantly, accorded the operation retrospective sanction, and steadfastly defended it thereafter as a necessary sacrifice to stem what he insisted (an acknowledged absence of evidence notwithstanding) was a dangerous revolutionary tide. He stoutly took Dyer’s part before the subsequent Hunter Commission of inquiry and briefed Irish unionist leader Edward Carson who led his defence in the House of Commons. This support for Jallianwala Bagh, not only irrecoverably compromised O’Dwyer’s reputation, but resulted in his assassination by Udham Singh in Caxton Hall, London in March 1940.

At a time when the Raj was attempting to contain Indian nationalism through constitutional reform, O’Dwyer’s kneejerk recourse to repression was seen by contemporaries as largely responsible for bringing Punjab to a dangerous pass and, for some of his critics, his ‘Irish temperament’ was a central contextual concern. For example, the secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu, dismissed him as ‘a little rough Irishman’ whose preference for what O’Dwyer himself termed ‘fist force’ (and Montagu, ‘O’Dwyerism’) when dealing with political protest was essentially an Irish ethno-cultural trait, while others saw his Irish ‘quick temper’ and ‘impetuous nature’ as informing decisions which inflamed Punjabi unrest.[3] Similarly, in respect of Jallianwala Bagh. 

The massacre was viewed as quintessentially British in nationalist Ireland, where predictions of an inevitable ‘Irish Amritsar’ throughout 1920 were seen to be fulfilled in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday, 21 November. However, the lieutenant-governor of India’s United Provinces, Sir Harcourt Butler, attributed it to the Irishness of O’Dwyer and (as he mistakenly saw it) Dyer, an Anglo-Indian who had merely been educated in Midleton College, Cork: ‘Had we Englishmen in their places the trouble would not have arisen, or would not have reached anything like the same dimensions’.[4] This type of anti-Irish ethnic stereotyping had in fact been recurrent in British India since the ‘Company’ days, when Irishmen were greatly over-represented in the army. As late as 1907, secretary of state for India Lord Morley had bemoaned the appointment of O’Dwyer’s predecessor in Punjab, fellow Irishman Louis Dane, on the basis that ‘Irish gentlemen … are not always accurate or sure-footed’ and ‘subject to attacks of “impetuous ideas”’.[5]

Although thus unsurprising, Butler’s appeal to Victorian stereotypes in explaining Amritsar was axiomatically absurd. That said, O’Dwyer’s Irishness did, on another level, contribute to the creation of the climate in which the atrocity occurred. He opened his 1925 apologia pro vita suaby observing that ‘early environment, as a rule, colours all one’s subsequent outlook on life’, and his approaches to India were manifestly informed by his Irish squirearchical roots.[6] On the Indian land question, for example, he self-identified with the Muslim ‘gentry’ and viewed the peasantry as a paternalist charge. More importantly from aspect of Amritsar, he early imbibed his father’s antipathy towards the Fenians, and his family’s targeting by agrarian agitators during the Land War (to which he partly attributed his father’s untimely death) left him with a deepfelt aversion to revolutionary violence. O’Dwyer initially supported the constitutional campaign for Home Rule. However, he came to believe that it had ultimately served only to embolden Ireland’s rebellious element. He deplored what he described as the ‘terrible … tragic course of events’ of 1916/22 through which Southern Irish independence was won, and he remained thoroughly unreconciled to the new dispensation.[7]

While O’Dwyer’s iron-handed approach to what he persisted in terming ‘the Punjab Rebellion of 1919’ was defined by his resolve that a second ‘Indian Mutiny’ would not take place on his watch, it was also informed what he perceived as the experience of Ireland, the lessons of which he consciously applied. Mindful of the manner in which the Irish Home Rule movement was being terminally eclipsed by insurrectionist republican separatism, he bitterly opposed the ‘diabolical’ Montagu-Chelmsford reforms, setting himself at odds with the government he served. O’Dwyer feared that India’s constitutional struggle for self-rule, which he saw as the province of a tiny corrupt educated elite, would not only exacerbate the country’s endemic ethnic/sectarian strife, but stir up ‘the dying embers of [anti-colonial] revolutionary fires’.[8] Viewed under this aspect, satyagraha would inexorably result in rebellion by a people who, he told the Hunter Commission, being too politically unsophisticated to appreciate Gandhi’s ‘spiritual ideals, …would translate Passive Resistance into an Active Resistance movement’.[9] Meanwhile, the more radical element amongst Indian nationalists was, he believed, being influenced and inspired by the incremental success of the separatist movement in Ireland.

Whether O’Dwyer was aware at the time of Amritsar of the Soloheadbeg ambush (perpetrated three months previously a few miles from his Tipperary family home) is unclear. What is certain is his determination that the Irish political gun’s reintroduction after 1916 would not be replicated in Punjab. His contempt for the ‘Birrellist’ policy of spineless conciliation he believed facilitated the Easter Rising defined his approach to unrest in Amritsar, an approach which centred on the dispatch there of a Dyer-like military strongman unafraid to act and make an example. Yet O’Dwyer’s opposing policy of resolute coercion led directly to Jallianwala Bagh, a Rubicon moment for Indian nationalism which, in some respects, marked the beginning of the end of the Raj.


Dr Seán William Gannon is an independent researcher, whose work focuses on Twentieth-Century Ireland, the British Empire, and their intersections. He is the author of The Irish Imperial Service: Policing Palestine and Administering the Empire, 1922-66, recently published as part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies series. seanwgannon@yahoo.ie; @swgannon

[1]‘Congress Presidential Address of Lajpat Rai’ in S. R. Bakshi & Rashmi Pathak (eds), Studies in Contemporary Indian History, vol. 3: Punjab Through the Ages (New Dehli: Sarup, 2007), 227-258, at 234.


[3]Edwin S. Montagu, An Indian Diary (London: Heinemann, 1930), 14 November 1917, 32; S. D. Waley, Edwin Montagu: A Memoir and an Account of his Visits to India(New Delhi: Asia Publishing, 1964), 267.

[4]David Gilmour, The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience(London: Allen Lane, 2018), 97.

[5]Ibid.; British Library, Asian and African Studies, John Morley collection, MSS EUR D573/12, Morley to Minto, 12 June 1907.

[6]Michael O’Dwyer, India as I Knew It, 1885-1925 (London: Constable, 1925), 1.

[7]Ibid., 9.

[8]Ibid., 13.

[9]Kim A. Wagner, Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear & the Making of a Massacre (London: Yale UP, 2018), 63.

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