Boys from Vepery: A fascinating story about the Irish migration to India
A documentary, titled Boys from Vepery by Fokiya Akhtar, explores the migration of members of the Irish community to India during the Great Famine of Ireland during 1840-50.
Ian Michael, professor of marketing at Zayed University, Dubai, has vivid memories of listening to stories told by his great-grandmother, Agnes Footman, when he was 12 years old. Sipping grog in an old-style British home at Hyderabad’s Sarojini Devi Road, Agnes would tell of her great grandfather’s family of fighters and revolutionaries who migrated to India during the Great Famine of the 1840s and ’50s. She would go on for hours, talking about the valour and lineage of these Irishmen. As a child, the thing that stood out most for Ian was his family’s accent — an unusual mix of Irish and Indian.
About 40 years later, when he mentioned his Irish connection to Fokiya Akhtar, a fellow professor at the university, she said the story had the potential for a documentary. In the next few months, Michael and Akhtar had multiple sittings and locked the script for the documentary, Boys from Vepery, which they plan to release in mid-2018.
“The protagonist of the documentary is John Footman. He was my great-grandmother’s grandad. Footman was a famine migrant who travelled by ship from Ireland to Vepery, Madras, in 1847 as enlisted Irish fusiliers with the British East India Company. My mum’s mother also came from Irish stock. Her grandfather, William Curran, sailed as a 10-year-old boy from Ireland with his father Patrick and his three sisters,” Michael told HT, via email.
The documentary traces John Footman’s family to Clonakilty, a town in County Cork, Ireland.
Most of the Footmans served in the Army and Railways. After the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the British East India Company was disbanded and John Footman joined the British Army. He married a woman called Matilda, who was most likely Mangalorean. Their eldest son, Patrick, joined the British Railways in Madras. Patrick’s daughter Agnes (Michael’s great-grandmother) left Madras with three of her brothers to settle in Secunderabad. She married Lewis Francis, a senior railway line inspector with the then British railways.
“My grandmother Joyce Curran was the Station Master of Nampally (a Hyderabad suburb) station in the 1960s and ’70s. Her brothers, the Currans, were divers at the Mazagaon docks in Bombay. They migrated to the UK a few years after India got independence,” says Michael.
In India, the Footmans kept to themselves, mostly interacting with members of the Irish-Indian and Anglo-Indian communities. The only Indians they interacted with were the people they worked with. Nor did they imbibe the Indian culture. The women of the family never wore Indian clothes.
All their weddings were held at two Parsi community centres – the Zoroastrian Club and Percy’s hotel in Secunderabad. And their dances, especially at Christmas and New Year’s Eve, would involve lots of dancing and drinking, just like they would have back home in Ireland.
Picnics centred on fishing and shooting. Michael remembers going with his uncles and grand uncles, fishing and shooting in the forests of Andhra Pradesh, including Nizamabad.
For research, Michael made multiple visits to Ireland to obtain baptism and death certificates; went through the records of the British Indian Army and the Chelsea Hospital. He began investigating the Curran side of the family, but ended up getting more details about the Footmans. “I met relatives. We were several generations apart during filming and this feeling was nostalgic, filled with unique emotions,” Michael says.
Michael uncovered during his research a fascinating connection with General Michael Collins, a politician and soldier who spearheaded the struggle for Irish independence in the early 20th century and became the leader of the provisional government of the Irish Free State. “I discovered that John Footman’s mother was one Joan Collins, who came from the same village as General Collins,” says Michael.
He also stumbled upon the information that the ancestors of the late US President John F Kennedy, Margaret Field and James Hickey, came from Clonakilty and surrounding villages too. “So while John Footman chose to use the Indian Ocean route and came to India in 1847, his probable mates, the Fields and Hickeys, chose the Atlantic-to -Newfoundland route and went to Boston,” Michael says.