11 September 2019

West Limerick remembers
the Irish civil servant who
translated Sikh scriptures

The Sikh community gathers at the unveiling of the plaque to Max Macauliffe in Templeglantine today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Templeglantine, near Newcastle West, this morning at the unveiling of a plaque in the community centre to recognise the work of Michael (Max) Arthur Macauliffe (1841-1913), who is still celebrated for his translation of Sikh scripture and history into English.

The attendance include representatives of the Sikh community in the Mid-West, church leaders, people involved in inter-faith dialogue, local politicians and council officials, as well as members of the local community, including teachers and pupils from the school Max Macauliffe once attended in Templeglantine.

Max Macauliffe was born in Glenmore, Monagea near Newcastle West, Co Limerick, on 10 September 1841, the eldest of 12 children of John McAulliffe and his wife Julia (Browne). He was baptised in Monagea and began school there.

The family moved to Templeglantine when he was eight. He then went to school in Newcastle West and Springfield College, Ennis, now Saint Flannan’s College, before going on to Queen’s College Galway, now NUI Galway, from 1857 to 1863. There he received a BA in Modern Languages (1860), and he obtained a senior scholarship in Ancient Classics (1860-1861), and a senior scholarship in Modern Languages and History (1861-1862).

Macauliffe joined the Indian Civil Service in 1862, and arrived in the Punjab in February 1864. The Punjab, now divided between India and Pakistan, was the birthplace of Sikhism in the 16th century. The religion was founded by Guru Nanek Dev Ji and is based on his teachings, and those of the nine Sikh gurus who followed him.

Macauliffe lived for a time in Amritsar, the centre of Sikh worship with its Golden Temple. When he reportedly converted to Sikhism in the 1860s, he was derided within the Civil Service for having ‘turned a Sikh.’ However, Professor Tadhg Foley of NUI Galway, who is completing a biography of Macauliffe, said this morning that his conversion is still an open question.

The three pillars or tenets of Sikhism are: to keep God in mind at all times; to earn an honest living; and to give to charity and care for others. Sikhism now has some 27 million followers world-wide. About 2,000 Sikhs live in Ireland, and a large proportion of them – 500 Sikhs – live in the Limerick and mid-West region.

Macauliffe was appointed Deputy Commissioner of the Punjab in 1882, and he was awarded an MA by his alma mater in Galway that year. He became a Divisional Judge in 1884. He retired from the Indian Civil Service in 1893.

Macauliffe is held in high esteem amongst Sikhs for his translation into English of the Sikh Scriptures, the Guru Granth Sahib. At a lecture in Lahore, he said the Guru Granth was matchless as a book of holy teachings. He also wrote The Sikh Religion: its Gurus, Sacred Writings and Authors (six volumes, Oxford University Press, 1909). He was assisted in his works by Pratap Singh Giani, a Sikh scholar.

According to Professor Foley, Macauliffe established the place of Sikh scriptures in world literature and laid the foundations for Sikh scholarship in the west.

Max lived in comparative wealth in London after his retirement from the Indian Civil Service. He never married, although he had fathered a son in India.

Macauliffe lived in retirement in London, although he returned to India regularly. He died in London on 15 March 1913. His personal assistant remarked in his memoirs that on his death bed Macauliffe could be heard reciting the Sikh morning prayer, Japji Sahib, 10 minutes before he died.

Dr Jasbir Puri of the Sikh Community speaking at today’s commemorations in Templeglantine, Co Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Over 100 years after his death, the ground-breaking work of this West Limerick linguist, scholar and civil servant was honoured and his unusual life story was recalled today when a plaque was unveiled at Templeglantine National School, where he was once a pupil and where his father was headmaster.

Limerick City and County Council was approached by the Dublin Interfaith Forum last year about ways to honour this man from West Limerick, and a working group was set up.

Today’s commemorations were organised by representatives from the Sikh community, Limerick City and County Council and local historians. In addition, a new biography of Macauliffe is being completed by Professor Tadhg Foley.

The other speakers at this morning’s ceremony included the Indian ambassador, Sandep Kumar, and Dr Jasbir Puri of the Sikh Community.

The plaque commemorating Max Macauliffe unveiled in Templeglantine this morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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