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The Irish Buddhist who resisted empire in a faraway place

The forgotten Dubliner fanned the flames of freedom in Burma and stoked the ire of the British overlords before faking his own death, writes Ian Kilroy


Heroic figure: Dhammaloka, pictured here in 1902 aged about 50, fought the endemic sexual exploitation of Burmese women by colonial officials

Heroic figure: Dhammaloka, pictured here in 1902 aged about 50, fought the endemic sexual exploitation of Burmese women by colonial officials

Heroic figure: Dhammaloka, pictured here in 1902 aged about 50, fought the endemic sexual exploitation of Burmese women by colonial officials

The story of Ireland has for long been the story of Catholics and Protestants. It's a deeply rooted binary in the Irish mind. But the truth has always been much more complex, not only in today's multi-religious and increasingly multiethnic society. Alicia Turner, Laurence Cox and Brian Bocking remind us of this in The Irish Buddhist.

Part detective work, part academic study, this book is, first and foremost, a cracking good story well told. It pieces together the tale of a famous Irishman from the very start of the 20th century. While this newspaper reported on his exploits in 1911, he was later forgotten. Yet he was a hero in southeast Asia in his day: an anti-colonial activist and Buddhist monk, who, as the book's subtitle suggests, "faced down the British Empire" with bravery and flair.

The challenge in writing this amazing story was in fitting the various parts of his life together. He toured Asia widely, attracting audiences of many thousands in his time, but his identity proved elusive, because of the lax approach to keeping records in the early 1900s.

So, probably his name was Laurence Carroll, and probably he was born in Booterstown, Dublin, in 1856. He would become one of the first westerners to be ordained a Buddhist monk. Long before that, he had travelled to Liverpool, setting sail for the US, where he lived as a wandering tramp and alcoholic. But then he gave up the drink and travelled to Rangoon via Japan and received ordination in Burma in 1900.

Under his Buddhist name, U Dhammaloka, he would become one of the most famous figures in early 20th century Asia, with his activities reported in the international press. The colonial police investigated him; and he faced charges of inciting rebellion against the empire in 1911.

Maybe all this was forgotten because he did not fit the stereotypical image of the Irish freedom fighter. Not only did he non-violently resist empire in a faraway place, but he did not fit the Catholic-nationalist mode that was expected of such heroic figures. He lived the life of a simple Buddhist monk among the ordinary people of Rangoon. But he was far from ordinary himself.

We can only speculate about most of his life's journey. Was he involved in radical politics in the US? Was his working-class, Dublin-born and Catholic background the source of his hatred for empire? The authors have spent a decade putting the pieces together, and what emerges is an important part of the story of the Irish diaspora, of the rise of independence movements in Asia and of the break-up of the British empire.

Unlike most monks, Dhammaloka stood out. Not only was he a European, but he openly criticised the corrupting influence of Christian missionaries in Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia and Cambodia. He travelled to all these places from his Rangoon base, attracting thousands with his public talks, in which he called on the people to resist the corrupting influences of alcohol, colonialism and Christianity - the three intertwined threats to their native culture and way of life, as he saw it.

He set up schools in numerous countries, offering free education; he fought the endemic sexual exploitation of Burmese women by colonial officials; and he saved children from being sold into slavery. He accused missionaries of bringing nothing but addiction and exploitation to the people. Through his Buddhist Tract Society, he printed and distributed millions of leaflets and pamphlets. As you might expect, he made many enemies in powerful places.

As his speaking tours grew, he began to be seen as a threat. While back in Ireland the seeds of rebellion were stirring, at the other end of the empire, Dhammaloka was openly criticising Asia's British overlords at mass meetings. His supporters were drawn from many ethnicities and strata of society. He was against empire, but was no xenophobic nationalist. Maybe he was forgotten in part because, later, Burmese nationalism had no use for a white European Irish monk. Today's xenophobic expressions of Buddhist nationalism had yet to arise.

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Contributing to the amnesia around Dhammaloka is also the fact that there is no record of his death. Facing charges of sedition, he fled from Burma and spent some time in Australia, before returning to Singapore. After the authorities went after him, he faked his own death and went quiet. He also seems to have been in and out of hospital with an unknown illness.

In an Irish context, Dhammaloka reminds us that our own story is much richer than is widely recognised. Although the book is called The Irish Buddhist, singular, in truth there are many: 10,000, according to the last census. I am one myself. There are also many Irish Muslims and Irish Jews; Irish Sikhs and Irish Hindus. And, increasingly, there are many Irish atheists.

Yet the myth persists that to be Irish is to be, first, an Irish Catholic or, second, an Irish Protestant. The authors of this book have done us a great service in challenging this viewpoint.

But our greatest indebtedness must go to Dhammaloka, the Booterstown Buddhist. His gift to Burma was to keep the flame of freedom and self-respect alive. His gift to us is a richer and truer understanding of who we really are.

Ian Kilroy lectures at the TU Dublin School of Media. He is a Zen Buddhist priest, teacher and founder of Zen Buddhism Ireland, and founding president of the Irish Buddhist Union.

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