On Sunday August 6, 1911, readers of the Irish Sunday Independent opened their papers to read about a Dublin-born Irish-American who had been “sailor, tramp, shepherd, truckman, stevedore and tally clerk” before becoming a Buddhist monk in Rangoon, Burma and working his way up to become an abbot and the equivalent of a bishop. The article was delighted to announce that when the British viceroy, Lord Curzon, visited the old Burmese capital of Mandalay the population were too busy welcoming this Irish hobo to pay any attention to their official ruler.
The full story, which I have spent five years piecing together with the help of Prof. Brian Bocking in Cork and Prof. Alicia Turner in York University Toronto, is even stranger than this. Born in Dublin around 1856, probably as Laurence Carroll, this young man without prospects emigrated first to Liverpool and then worked his way across the Atlantic, sailing schooners up and down the east coast of the U.S. before turning hobo and working his way across country (Buffalo, Chicago, Montana, Sacramento), finally winding up in San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast” and taking ship once again, this time working on the Yokohama run and eventually washing up in Rangoon.
It seems that he saw many parallels between Ireland and Burma as colonies, and wasn’t afraid to say so – although he was nearly put on trial for saying that the British “had taken Burma from the Burmans and now ... desired to trample on their religion.” Just as in the Ireland of the day local religion provided something of a shield to express anti-colonial sentiments, so too in colonial Asia Carroll, newly ordained as one of the first western Buddhist monks under the name Dhammaloka, found that a strong defence of local religion could tweak the nose of the powers that be – and became immensely popular for doing so.
If he had been a sailor and a migrant worker in the west, he never stopped travelling in the east either: Between 1900 and 1913, we find him touring rural Burma and the towns of Ceylon, setting up schools in Singapore and Bangkok, networking in Japan and teaching in Nepal. We also find him running up against the authorities time and again. This may have been a lifelong habit of his.
Laurence Carroll wasn’t the only name Dhammaloka gave for official purposes. Even more surprisingly, a full 26 years of his life before 1900 are unaccounted for, suggesting that he had learned the arts of troublemaking in the U.S., perhaps as a Fenian or a union organiser. In Asia he was put under police and intelligence surveillance, tried for sedition and faked his own death before disappearing as mysteriously as he had appeared.
Dhammaloka was perhaps just too colourful to remember comfortably, and later generations quietly forgot this story. Now, Meath-based filmmaker Ian Lawton wants to bring this dramatic story to life and is running a crowdfunding project to do so at https://dana.io/thedharmabum. Have a look at this page to find out more of the story!
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