Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Irish Lord Who Converted to Islam - And Built a Mosque In Kerry

* He would have been the first Muslim to sit in British Parliament, had he claimed the birthright due to him as an Irish peer of the British realm and a Baron of the County Of Kerry in Ireland. 

But Rowland Allanson-Winn was concerned with matters of a higher order than just politics. 

Today, there are many questions being asked about the Muslim community in Britain, their place in society, cultural diversity, integration and the shadow of extremism.

The story of Rowland Allanson-Winn points to a different era, when, right back at the start of the 20th century, in what we might consider less progressive times, a pillar of the British establishment could embrace Islam and the Muslim community.  

He lived and travelled all over the world - from Killarney to Kashmir. He rejected Christianity and embraced Islam as a religion of tolerance. And his story has long fascinated me......

** (and by the way - if anybody wants to commission a radio or TV doc about this guy, feel free to get in touch and send me money) 

                                                              Rowland Allanson-Winn

* Rowland Allanson-Winn was a lot of things in his lifetime. A pillar of the British aristocracy & Empire, a boxer, fencer, martial-arts nut, explorer, engineer, author and road-builder.

He also came very close to being crowned the King of Albania (he was offered the throne twice). And was a Baron of the County Kerry in Ireland.

But above all, this son of the British peerage was a Muslim, who choose the name Shaikh Rahmatullah al-Farooq. And he built one of the first mosques in Britain or Ireland, a private prayer space at his ancestral home in Aghadoe, Co Kerry.

Allanson-Winn With His Great Friend Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din

*** Rowland Allanson-Winn was born in London on January 19th, 1855 and was educated at Westminster and Trinity College, Cambridge, in mathematics. After graduation, he had a range of professions, including (for a time) editor of a regional newspaper in Wiltshire.

However, it was in the early 1890s, when he travelled to Kashmir to become an engineer for the British administration in India, that Allanson-Winn first encountered Islam, in the beautiful, mountainous regions of Kashmir. 

He was, by all accounts, a fascinating, accomplished and open-minded man. A bit of an eccentric in the best sense of the word. One Irish writer described him as 'a man of many parts, a champion middlewight boxer in his day at Cambridge, a distinguished globe-trotter, an editor and excellent raconteur'.

He was also a keen amatuer boxer and one of the earliest exponents of what we know today as "martial arts". In 1890 he co-wrote one of the earliest manuals about self-defence, the classic "Broad-sword And Singlestick", before going on to write one of the first great books about the art of boxing. 

He inherited the title of Baron Of Headly on the death of his cousin in 1913. He could have sat in the House of Lords but did not seek election as an Irish representative. 1913 was also the year that he announced his conversion to Islam, having first encountered the religion in India.

Allanson-Winn had been brought up as a protestant, before studying Roman Catholicism while living in Ireland. But he saw the Christian religions as having what he called a "believe this or be damned" attitude. 

He came to know Islam as a religion of tolerance. 

“It is,” he said on one occasion, “the intolerance of those professing the Christian religion, which more than anything is responsible for my secession. I was reared in the strict and narrow forms of the Low Church party. Later, I lived in many Roman Catholic countries, including Ireland. The intolerance of one sect of Christians towards other sects holding some different form of the same faith, of which I witnessed many instances, disgusted me. …”

A British Peer announcing that he had converted to Islam today would raise some eyebrows (to say the least). We can only imagine what it must have been like in 1913, when the British empire still held sway over millions of Muslims.  

But Allanson-Winn, in his characteristically pugnacious style, made no apologies.

As he said at the time of announcing his conversion (which actually happened in England, after he met Muslims including the Indian lawyer and teacher Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din); 

"It is possible that some of my friends may imagine that I have been influenced by Mohammedans; but it is not the case, for my convictions are solely the outcome of many years of thought. My actual conversations with educated Muslims on the subject of religion only commenced a few weeks ago and need I say that I am overjoyed to find that all my theories and conclusions are entirely in accord with Islam? Even my friend Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din has never tried to influence me in the slightest degree. He has been a veritable living concordance, and has patiently explained and translated portions of the Quran which did not appear quite clear to me and in this respect he showed the true spirit of the Muslim missionary, which is never to force or even to persuade.

He would become a chairman of the British Muslim Society, travel and talk in Muslim communities around the world. And he made the Hajj to Mecca in 1923 (see the photo below).

Allanson-Winn, 5th Baron Headley, was a tireless campaigner for the Islamic faith in Britain and abroad and as he lay on his death bed in England in June, 1935, he scribbled a note to his son, asking that he be buried in a Muslim cemetery; “Means permitting I should like to be buried with my brother Khwaja."

It is easy to see him as an eccentric, in the great tradition of the British aristocracy who travelled the world and often became intoxicated by "Oriental mysticism".

But it seems that nobody who met the man in his life doubted his sincere conviction and his belief in tolerance and the values of other belief-systems. He campaigned tirelessly for Muslims and for understanding between the faiths and wrote several books about the Islamic faith, trying to explain its worth to Christians.

The 5th Baron Headly was a bit of a one-off. 


Daily Sketch - 1913

After a career which has included amateur boxing, civil engineering, the editing of a local newspaper, and expert advice on coast erosion, Lord Headley, an Irish Peer, aged 59, became a convert to Mohammedanism.
The conversion was announced at a meeting of the Islamic Society, held at Frascati’s, Oxford street, by the Rev. Khwaja Kamal-ud-Din, who is attached to the Mohammedan mosque at Woking.
“Those who know me will believe I am perfectly sincere in my belief,” wrote Lord Headley in a letter read at the meeting.
Lord Headley may be described as a muscular Mussulman, for when he was at Cambridge he won both the middle-weight and heavy-weight boxing championships. He has written more than one book on the noble art of self-defence. He writes very well, by the way, and has done a good deal of journalistic work in his time. For a couple of years he was editor of the Salisbury Journal.
He has also done a lot of civil engineering in recent years. He superintended some coast defence works at Youghal and similar works on the coast to the north of Bray Harbour. He also did some coast defence works at Glenbeigh, his place in one of the wildest parts of Kerry.
The problem of coast erosion has particularly interested him. At Dover in 1899 he read a paper before the British Association on the history of the reclamation of Romney Marsh.
Lord Headley is a grey-moustached, handsome man, with a fine intellectual forehead and good features, while his habit of smiling when he talks gives him a happy appearance.

Daily Mirror - 1913

That the lure of Eastern religions is affecting an increasing number of Europeans, is again shown by the announcement that Lord Headley, an Irish peer, who spent many years in India, has become a convert to Islam.
The announcement was made by the Rev. Kamal-ud-Din, who is attached to the Mosque at Woking, at a recent meeting of the Islamic Society.
Lord Headley, the fifth baron, succeeded only last January to the title and estates of 16,000 acres in Kerry.
He was born in London in 1855, and has been distinguished as civil engineer, at one time in India and latterly specially engaged in foreshore protection works.
He is an all-round sportsman, being fond of fishing, rowing, skating, swimming, fencing, shooting and golf. In his youth he won the heavy and middle weights as an amateur boxer at Cambridge University.
Lord Headley has four sons, having being married in 1899 to Teresa, youngest daughter of the late Mr. W.H. Johnson, formerly Governor of Leh and Jumoo.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Ballad Of Lucknow Kavanagh V.C. - Carry On Up The Raj

* I'm returning to one of my favourite themes, here, with the incredible story of "Lucknow Kavanagh" - the Mad Irishman who became an unlikely hero of the Indian Mutiny. And one of only five civilians to win the Victoria Cross. It's a small story and a strange one.

For some men are born heroes. Some have heroism thrust upon them. And a few, like Henry James Kavanagh, seize heroism by the throat and strangle it until it gives in. 

So gather round me, ladies and gentleman, as I bring you the strange tale of Mad Mullingar Man Lucknow Kavanagh....

Thomas Henry  Kavanagh VC - One Of Only Five Civilians To Win The Victoria Cross

Cannon-balls were tearing through the walls of the battered British residency. Outside,some 10,000 rebel native troops of the East India Company were grimly pressing home their attack after five months of siege. 

On the night of November 9th, 1857, with a fifth of the garrison defending what was left of the British stronghold of Lucknow already dead, one man was preparing to go to war. But first, he needed to complete his fancy-dress outfit.

Thomas Henry Kavanagh was about to embark on one of the most unlikely missions in British Military history. And he needed the English officers around him to get over their fits of the giggles.

Perhaps it was the strain of the long siege. 

Maybe it was simply the sight of the grimly determined, six-foot, red-haired civil servant before them in pantomime costume.

But General Sir James Outram, commanding the defence, could hardly keep a straight face.  Some of his subordinates had to leave the room, preferring the risk of being cut in half by a cannon-ball to getting caught, rocking with barely-suppressed laughter. 

It was Sir James himself who was rubbing boot-polish on the face of a lowly civil servant from Co Westmeath in Ireland. The unlikely hero of the hour, James Kavanagh. 

Kavanagh stood before him in the lamplight, dressed in "native garb" as a "hindoo peasant",  grimy robes and a turban, with boot-polish smeared across his face. In a moment, he would try to get beyond the walls and through the lines of rebel troops to reach the stalled relief column. Nobody in the room really expected to see him again. 

Henry Kavanagh was 36 and already the father of nine children when the Indian Mutiny broke out. Living with his family in the northern city of Luknow, he had a dull, low-paid job with the Bengal Civil Service and was resigned, as he said later, to a life of “miserable drudgery”.

And then came the Mutiny. When the native troops employed by the East India company to subjugate an ancient civilisation rose up in rebellion. And Henry Kavanagh suddenly found himself at the centre of Great Events, besieged inside the British Residency with thousands of Europeans, assailed on all side by the "natives" who had risen up to expel the British.

And as it all fell apart about him, as fire, death and destruction swept through the British Raj and the Great Conquerors cowered in their isolated forts, Thomas Kavanagh came alive! What had seemed set to be a life of grey drudgery as a minor clerk in some dusty outpost suddenly became the setting for epic heroism. And Thomas Kavanagh was not about to let his destiny pass him by. 

“I resolved to die in the struggle,” he later wrote, “rather than survive it with no better fame than I took into it.”

Five months into the seige of Lucknow, Kavanagh had been one of its bravest defenders. He had almost had his head taken off by a cannon-ball (the shot burnt his ear), one of his daughters died of dysantry and his wife was shot through the leg.

But Kavanagh had never felt so alive, or "glad to be rid of the restraints of civilisation". The grey civil servant had transformed into a technicoloured hero.

After four months, hopes rose inside Lucknow when word somehow arrived that a relief force was on the way. But that force's commander, Sir Colin Campbell, faced a serious obstacle. How could his small force find a way through the various bands of mutinous troops around Lucknow without having to fight every inch of the way?  One previous attempt had been beaten back with major losses. Without a safe way through the lines, Campbell's Scot's highlanders would face the same fate.

It was Kavanagh himself who came up with the answer. He would disguise himself as a native, find his way through the lines and guide the relief force through on the safest and quickest route. 

Of course, being a six-foot tall, ginger Irishman, he might find it hard to pass himself off as a local. But he convinced the general to let him try, in black-face and improvised costume. 

Kavanagh would not be put off from his suicide mission. "I sat amazed by my boldness" he recalled of the moment.

So off he went into the night, dressed like an extra from an Am-Dram production of The Arabian Nights. 

On the night of November 9, 1857, accompanied by a very brave Indian courier called Kunooujee Lal, Kavanagh slipped outside the walls of the residence. He was armed only with a double-barrelled pistol, one-shot for himself, one for Lal, if they were cornered. 

They blundered around in the dark for many hours, barely evaded capture on a number of occasions and finally made it to the British relief force, more by accident than design, shortly after dawn. 

After getting some reviving brandy and a pair of dry socks, Kavanagh was taken before General Sir Colin Campbell and insisted that the relief column follow him immediately through the safe route to the walls of the British Compound. 

Campbell's force of Highlanders and Sikhs stole into the city, staged a surprise attack on the besieging forces and saved the day. Lucknow Kavanagh was the hero of the hour! 

The Indian Mutiny eventually petered out, after terrible revenge attacks on the now-scattered rebels. In 1860, Kavanagh was presented with the Victoria Cross, a very rare distinction for a civilian and was celebrated throughout the Empire.

However, with the mutiny over, he slipped slowly back into obscurity. Kavanagh stayed with the British Civil Service oversees and died in Gibraltar in 1882, where he was buried.

It's estimated that more than 200 Irishmen have been awarded the Victoria Cross, around 16 per cent of all VC winners, not bad going for a small nation,

Perhaps the strangest VC story of all belongs to Lucknow Kavanagh.