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Stranger at home

Sister Nivedita may be one of the most revered women in India’s Bengal, yet she was until recently unheard of in her birthplace of Dungannon in Northern Ireland.

Jean Mcguinness
Sat, Nov 23 2013

About Jean

Jean McGuinness is a retired lecturer of the Queen’s University, Belfast. Her interests include; Sister Nivedita, the Irish language, history, literature and the art of Ireland, and development of the arts within Dungannon Borough. She can be contacted at

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বরিশালের বাঙাল

My many Kolkata

Sister Nivedita, whom Rabindranath Tagore respectfully referred to as ‘The Mother of the People’ was born Margaret Noble in 1867 in the town where I live, Dungannon, in County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. Yet, I had never heard of her until 2007, when a blue plaque was erected by The Ulster History Circle in the street where she was born – as a result of a proposal by Maurice Hayes, previously Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and more recently a member of Dail Eireann (the lower house of the Irish parliament), among many other prestigious roles.

Maurice Hayes had first been told about Margaret Noble some 50 years ago in Iowa. When he returned to Ireland, he walked to several households in Dungannon trying to get information about her, but failed to find anyone in the city who had heard of her. So she was completely forgotten. Eventually, having traced her birth certificate, he found the address where she was born. Years later he prepared her biography for the Dictionary of Irish Biography and in 2007 persuaded The Ulster History Circle to put up a blue plaque in the street where she was born, in her honour.

The Ulster History Circle is a small voluntary organisation that places commemorative plaques in public places, in towns and villages all over Ulster (one of the provinces of Ireland), in honour of men and women who have contributed to the province's history.

 I first saw the plaque a few days later and was immediately intrigued. Who was this ‘daughter of Dungannon’, who went to India and what did she do when she got there? So began my quest to learn more about her. I ‘googled’, I asked, I researched, I bought and read her books. I was dismayed to find out that no one here seemed to have heard of her. I should not have been surprised, as Maurice Hayes could find no information about her about 50 years ago.

The more I came to know about her, her involvement with education, art, literature, politics and above all her spirituality, the more I resolved that my mission would be to create awareness of this great and remarkable lady. Bear in mind, this was a lady who, if she had stayed in Ireland, would not even have had a vote. Yet, she went to India and awakened a nation; indeed she designed the first national flag of India. She became Swami Vivekananda’s greatest disciple.

The Ireland that Sister Nivedita was born into in 1867 was completely under British rule and at that time both Ireland and India were suffering the consequences of British colonialism. There were stirrings of nationalist movements in both countries. Although Sister Nivedita completed her education in England, her formative years were spent with her grandmother in Dungannon. The importance of this was recognised by Swami Vivekananda when he said,

‘What is needed is not a man but a woman; a real lioness, to work for the Indians, women especially. India cannot yet produce great women, she must borrow them from other nations. Your education, sincerity, purity, immense love, determination and above all your Celtic blood make you just the woman wanted. You have in you the making of a world mover, and others will also come.’

Aurobindo Ghose, who worked closely with Nivedita also had a love for Ireland, which is evident in his poems about Ireland, ‘Glasnevin Cemetery’, ‘Lines on Ireland’ and ‘Parnell’.

When I first noticed the plaque in memory of Sister Nivedita plaque, I was undertaking a degree in Irish Language. I had retired from my job as a lecturer in Queen’s University, Belfast, and wanted to undertake something different and new. I had always felt a deep longing, a yearning, to learn my ‘own’ language and history. The measure of colonial success is destruction of a country’s language.

Being educated in Northern Ireland, which has remained under British rule, meant that children living here never got the opportunity of being taught Irish history or legends as the curriculum insisted that only English history is taught. (This is now being remedied by the increasing number of Irish language schools). Undertaking a degree in the Irish Language would surely rectify that for me.

I was searching for a topic for my dissertation and following discussions with my tutor, I decided to make Sister Nivedita the focus of my dissertation. In 2010, I completed a dissertation on Sister Nivedita in Irish. I was then receiving requests to give talks about Sister Nivedita, but I came to the conclusion that adapting the dissertation into a drama format might be more conducive to creating awareness. I wrote the script for the drama, ‘Awakening a Nation’ and persuaded a few friends of mine who were involved with drama groups to take on the various roles. We became known as ‘The Noble Thespians’.

The first performance took place in 2011 as part of a three-day event. It was an overwhelming success and a packed theatre rose to their feet for a prolonged standing ovation. From that first performance we were invited to perform in Birmingham and also at Samuel Beckett Theatre, Trinity College, Dublin and other requests followed. It has been performed as part of the Diwali Samhian festival in Belfast and has now become an annual fixture in Dungannon, on or near the date of Sister Nivedita’s birthday on 26th October.

Visits by several distinguished people have followed and we have been delighted to welcome Swami Girshinanda, Sister Amalprana and Swami Dayatamanda amongst others over the summer months of 2013, to the birthplace of Nivedita.

Although Nivedita left Ireland as a young girl to join her family in England she made the trip back to Ireland every summer to spend the long summer holidays with her grandmother. Her younger brother Richmond, who was born in England, eventually came to live for a while with his wife at 32 North Street, Ballycastle, Northern Ireland and it is noted on the 1911 census that he was an Irish language speaker.

The most recent performance of the play took place on 26th October 2013 in Dungannon. Taking part in the play was an Indian dancer called Yagnasi Bhattacharya, whose great grandmother was one of the first students in Sister Nivedita’s school in Kolkata – a very poignant moment indeed for everyone involved.

Through my search for information about Sister Nivedita, I have come to know many things that I may not have otherwise known. I came to know more about Swami Vivekananda - a man of vision, perception and insight, and pure mind. Shree Ramakrishna – he who taught Vivekananda all he knew.

Sister Nivedita’s direct or indirect influence on Star Wars - she influenced Ananda Coomarswamy, who influenced Joseph Campbell, who in turn influenced George Lucas, who wrote the Star Wars.

Such a great life – well lived, and yet how sad to be forgotten in the very place of her birth.

(Please contact Dungannon & South Tyrone Borough Council and ask them about what they are doing to celebrate Sister Nivedita’s life. Tell your friends to visit Dungannon. Contact me at and let me know as to how we can do more to rectify the old mistake of overlooking one of the great daughters of Dungannon.)

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Jean Mcguinness (Saturday, Nov 23 2013):
'Out of Dungannon' original artwork by Dungannon artist Marty Cullen. Showing Sister Nivedita and the house of her birth.


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