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Ireland and Mexico

By Séamus Ó Fógartaigh


The first Irishman to set foot on Mexican soil may well have been St. Brendan the Navigator, who, according to legend,

 crossed the Atlantic Ocean in his ‘currach’ (traditional Irish rowing boat) in search of new converts to the Christian faith. An ancient manuscript found in Medieval European monasteries allegedly described his voyage to strange Western Lands, and is known as the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. Some historians claim that Christopher Columbus found inspiration for his seafaring adventure in the pages of the Navigatio of St. Brendan the Abbot.


Whether the ancient Mexican Toltec god Quetzalcóatl (plumed serpent) was in fact a deified Irish monk is a matter for speculation, but the rumour seems to persist on both sides of the Atlantic. According to the Toltec legend, a white-skinned, bearded man from across the sea visited the shores of their land some 1500 years ago and taught the native people a new religion based on fraternal charity and resignation to God's will. The legend also claims that he taught them new methods of agriculture and the use of metals, as well as the art of developing a calendar to predict the changing seasons. To substantiate this theory, some commentators indicate a striking similarity between an astronomic-archaeological centre in Mexico and the passage-tomb at Newgrange, County Meath in Ireland. If an Irishman did teach the Mexicans about the art of astronomy, he certainly did a very good job: when the Spaniards arrived, they found the Mexican (Aztec) calendar to be more accurate than its European (Julian) counterpart.

Irish-Hispanic historical links can also be traced, according to historians, to the Ibero-Celts (Milesians) who, in ancient times, set sail from the Iberian Peninsula in search of the fabled island of Inis Fáil, where they established themselves as the dominant group, and contributed to the development of the Irish linguistic and cultural heritage. The Spanish province of Galicia still cherishes its ancient Ibero-Celtic cultural identity, and many Galicians regard the Irish as their distant cousins.

Reverse migration from Ireland to the Iberian Peninsula began on a significant scale following the defeat of the Irish-Spanish alliance at the Battle of Kinsale (1602), when the O'Neills and O'Donnells, as well as other dispossessed Irish chieftains, were given sanctuary by King Philip III of Spain. As a result, Irish regiments were organised in the Spanish forces, and Irish colleges were established in Spain to educate priests and other professionals who would minister to the Irish Catholic diaspora in Spain and throughout Spain's American colonies. Some were sent to the Spanish colony of New Spain (present-day Central America) as soldiers, administrators, explorers and missionaries, and the Hibernian Regiment (Regimiento de Hibernia) was stationed in present-day Mexico in the late 1700s.

The Capitán Colorado

Hugh O'Connor (Hugo Oconór) was born in 1734 in Dublin, Ireland, and emigrated to Spain as a young man, where he joined the military and became an officer in the Regiment of Aragón. He saw military service in Cuba, a Spanish colony, and was later transferred to New Spain. He was appointed military governor of Northern Mexico by the Spanish Viceroy and was assigned the task of reorganising and improving Spain's military outposts (presidios) as a bulwark against the Apache and Comanche people from the north. O'Connor earned a reputation for skill and bravery as a military commander, and the local criollos - the Mexican-born children of Spanish parents - referred to him affectionately as El Capitán Colorado (the ruddy-complexioned captain). He established new and more efficient presidios all the way from Texas to California, which guaranteed a period of relative peace and prosperity throughout the region for the settlers. O'Connor is still remembered in Arizona as the founder of the original pueblo which today is known as the City of Tucson.

Bronze statue of Hugo Oconór at
the Manning House, Tucson, Arizona

Following his arduous tour of duty in the northern desert regions, and due to failing health, Don Hugo Oconór was transferred to the Yucatán Peninsula where he served as governor until his death in 1797, at the young age of 45 years.

Irish names underwent a linguistic transformation in the Spanish-speaking countries: O'Connor became Oconór; O'Brien, Obregón; O'Kelly, Oquelí; O'Donohue, O'Donojú; and Murphy was transformed into Morfi and Morfin. Just as Gaelic names became anglicised in Ireland under English influence, they became hispanicised under Spanish influence. One of the most important explorers and historians of the late 1700s was Juan Agustín Morfi, who emigrated from Galicia in Spain to Mexico, where he became a Franciscan friar in 1761. He travelled extensively throughout Northern Mexico and described life as it was lived by the indigenous people in their pueblos. He also traced maps of some of the uncharted regions, and provided detailed accounts of the flora and fauna that he observed in his travels. His written account of his discoveries as an explorer and cartographer are to be found in his book, Viaje de Indios y diario del Nuevo México (Mexico City: Bibliofilo Mexicanos, 1935). (Indian Journey and Diary of New Mexico), which is still an excellent source of information for those who are interested in the history of the regions now known as Texas and New Mexico - formerly the northern provinces of New Spain. Morfi also had a distinguished career as a theologian and lecturer, and occupied a leadership role in the affairs of the Franciscan Order in Mexico until his death in Mexico City in 1783.

The O'Reillys of Yucatán

Justo Sierra O'Reilly (1814-1861) was of Irish-Hispanic lineage and became a noted lawyer, politician, historian and novelist, who left his mark on the history of the Yucatán Peninsula of Southern Mexico during the early 1800s. He was legal advisor to the state's General Assembly that rejected President Antonio López de Santa Anna's centrist policies and declared Yucatán to be an independent state. Santa Anna sent a military expedition to the region in 1843 and the Assembly was obliged to sign an agreement with the central government. When the US-Mexican war broke out in 1846, Yucatán declared its neutrality, and US forces occupied the Yucatán island of del Carmen.

O'Reilly was sent as a special envoy to Washington in 1847 to negotiate the US evacuation of the island of del Carmen and to offer the peninsula to the United States in exchange for military assistance to quell the Mayan uprising in the state. His diplomatic mission was not successful, and following the evacuation of US occupation forces from Mexico in 1848, the Mexican government subdued the Mayans in Yucatán and restored some semblance of order to that turbulent region. O'Reilly became a federal congressman in 1851, and the following year was appointed Minister for Development of his home state. Justo Sierra O'Reilly is best remembered in Mexico for his extraordinary contribution to jurisprudence, journalism and literature, rather than for his polemical activities in the political arena.

Justo Sierra (1848-1912)

O'Reilly's son, Justo Sierra Méndez (1848-1912) also became a famous jurist, poet, author and educator, who was instrumental to Mexican history during the late 1800s and the early 1900s. He is known simply as Justo Sierra, whose celebrated aphorism 'the people are hungry and thirsty for justice' inspired an ideological movement which found expression in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. He is remembered and revered in Mexico for his extraordinary achievements in the field of education and for his heroic efforts as Minister of Education and Fine Arts to make higher education available to all, at a time when education was mostly provided by Catholic Church institutions, and was the prerogative of a wealthy minority. He insisted that it was the obligation of the state to provide an educational system that would be non-sectarian and subsidised by the government. Justo Sierra was a strong advocate for democracy and freedom of expression at a time when Mexico was ruled by an authoritarian dictatorship. He is remembered particularly as the intellectual architect of the National University (UNAM) which now has an enrolment of some 250,000 students, and which in 1948, to commemorate the centenary of his birth, bestowed upon him the prestigious title of Maestro de América.

Following the success of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Justo Sierra was appointed ambassador plenipotentiary to Spain, where he died after a short illness in 1912. In 1998, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth, the National Congress decreed that his name be inscribed in gold letters in the Federal Chamber of Deputies.

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 1 March 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

O Fogartaigh, Seamus, '
Ireland and Mexico' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:1 (March 2007), pp. 1-4. Available online (www.irlandeses.org), accessed .


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