Bridging Nations

Exploring the Legal Ties Between Ireland and India

23. Februar 2024

In the realm of comparative legal history, tracing the intricate transfer of legal and political structures from the British Empire to nations like Ireland and India can unveil historical and cultural connections often overlooked. From shared struggles for independence to constitutional inspirations, Martin O´Donoghue’s research higlights the rich historical and cultural connections often overlooked, shedding light on the resilience of democracies and the hidden bridges between nations. It was a visiting scholarship to the mpilhlt in the summer of 2022 that provided him with the canvas to juxtapose Ireland's upper house history with its counterparts across the British Empire. He joined our institute in October 2023.

What initially sparked your interest in the field of comparative legal history, particularly in relation to the transfer of legal and political structures from the British Empire to countries like Ireland and India?

I was trained as a historian in Ireland and all my postgraduate studies concerned the history of modern Ireland – its legislative structure, its politics (both parliamentary and grassroots) and commemoration. However, I had always been interested in more than Irish history, and as an undergraduate, I took modules which considered Ireland in European comparative context. When I published my first book on the legacy of the Irish Parliamentary Party, I began to think more seriously about some of the imperial (and post-imperial) contexts considered by party members and their successors. I also thought about how political and legal thought concerning Irish developments compared with other parts of the British empire. I was fortunate to get a visiting scholarship to the mpilhlt in summer 2022 which gave me the space to think about this in relation to the history of Ireland’s upper house. India has been a persistent case for comparison with Ireland in scholarship for some time with studies on exchanges and connections between the two countries – but no study had considered the parliamentary tradition in a comparative context.

How do you believe your research contributes to a deeper understanding of the historical and cultural ties between nations? Specifically in the context of Ireland and India's shared colonial past.

I believe historical and cultural ties between Ireland and India have always been quite strong really though that might be obscured from time to time. Nationalists in both countries shared affinities at various times in their respective struggles for independence (though many Irish people also served in the British army and administration in British India). Major leaders like Éamon de Valera and Jawaharlal Nehru shared ties and India’s constitution borrowed some features from the Irish document of 1937: Bunreacht na hÉireann. There is a road named after de Valera in New Delhi in fact. There are also roads and parks named after Annie Besant who was born in England but had Irish heritage and supported home rule in both India and Ireland. The current Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar is the son of an Indian immigrant and can trace his family roots to the village of Varad in Maharashtra. While the Irish community in India today is quite small, the Indian community in Ireland is also significant and growing.

So, in this sense, I think the connections are already quite substantial. It’s more about considering what can be learned from closely examining both cases side by side to ask how newly independent states were built, how political rights and structures were conceived, and how leaders, legal figures and citizens in both cases balanced the existing legal architecture with new ideas in creating their states. The directive principles in the constitution of India were influenced by the Irish document of 1937: Bunreacht na hÉireann”.

What do you find most challenging about conducting comparative research on legal and political systems across different cultural and historical contexts?

Handling the differences is probably the most challenging issue. While studies which compare India and Ireland to countries of comparable size or close geographic location have undoubtedly shed light on important topics, the next step is to consider two significant parts of the British empire with such different contexts to see how the legal inheritances of the Westminster model developed globally. Given the importance of Ireland and India to the British empire (in different ways) and the connections between the two, it has, I believe, rich potential. One has to consider the common challenges as well as the differences. In fact, I hope that’s the most rewarding aspect – thinking about both Indian and Irish legal histories in new contexts that are perhaps not as familiar.

Looking ahead, what are your next steps?

At the moment, I’m very much enjoying the opportunity to read, research and write in the surrounds of the MPI in Frankfurt! But, I am also looking forward to research trips to London, Dublin and New Delhi and in time presenting aspects of this research. In the short term, I am working on an edited collection on the Irish parliamentary tradition with Dr Emer Purcell of the National University of Ireland and an article on democracy, parliament and the people in the Irish Free State with Dr Andrew McCarthy (University College Cork). Thinking more long term, I am also interested in considering other aspects of interactions between India and Ireland - and what comparative histories can tell us about legal legacies and the resilience of democracies today.

More about the research project

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