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Ireland and Iberia: An Introduction

By Igor Pérez Tostado


Torre de Hércules, La Coruña, Galicia.
(Murray, 2006)

Relations between Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula have their roots deep in the mists of myth and history. According to the Irish Leabhar Gabhála (book of invasions), the last wave of settlers to arrive in Ireland came from the Iberian Peninsula. During the middle ages, trade and fishing created strong links between Ireland and the Peninsula. Foreign fishing vessels working in the fishing grounds of Grand Sol docked in Spanish ports for some months every year. For example, in 1571 around eighteen chalupas (fishing boats) from Gijón, Ribadesella and Llanos worked in Irish fishing grounds (Gomez-Centurión 1988). 

During the sixteenth century, Irish-Iberian connections took on a religious and political dimension. The first diplomatic contacts and treaties between the Irish nobility and the empire of Charles V date back to 1529. Iberian political involvement in Ireland increased progressively from the 1520s to the 1640s. The myth of the Iberian origin of the inhabitants of Ireland (the ‘Milesian myth’), a sense of solidarity based on Catholicism and the services rendered by the Irish in the armies of Spain, together with a strong campaign of cultural reinvention and projection carried on by the Irish with the Spanish Monarchy, convinced the kings of their duty to protect and defend the Irish. 

Parallel to the profound transformation that the English state wrought in Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a strong Irish community flourished in the territories of the Spanish Monarchy, mainly Castile, Portugal and the so-called Spanish Netherlands. On the other hand, as Declan Downey has demonstrated, the nature of the Irish Counter-Reformation movement was much more related to the Castilian monarchist model than to that to the Roman one (Downey 1994). 

These sixteenth and seventeenth century migrations are best remembered in relation to the military commanders that served in the Spanish Army of Flanders (some of whom returned to Ireland in the 1640s) and the almost thirty Irish colleges scattered around Europe. Less known is the political role played by a small Irish lobby at the courts of Lisbon, Madrid and Brussels, in defence of the rights of the dispossessed nobility and Catholic Church. 

On the other hand, the experience of the tens of thousands of migrants who served in the army as foot soldiers, and their dependent families, studied here by Moises Enrique Rodríguez, was full of hardship and need, as happened with many that took the mestiere delle arme. Many of them ended up dissolving in the marginal groups of society, as can be seen in the number of Irish making their last will at the paupers’ hospitals of Madrid, or in the satiric works of Francisco de Quevedo. De Quevedo tellingly used the word irlandesa interchangeably with prostitute. However, there were also merchant settlers who opened up Iberian and American commerce to European networks of trade and acted as backdrop to the Irish commercial success of the eighteenth century.

'Sir, these are all Catholics and very good people, 
but they are only Christians of St. Patricio' 
(The History of the Discovery and Conquest of the Canary Islands, 
Abreu de Galindo, translated by George Glas, 1764, p. 205)

Although the Spanish political role in Ireland was overshadowed by France’s influence and the stronger English and Scottish authority on the island from the 1650s onwards, the eighteenth century might be considered the golden age of the Irish presence on the Iberian Peninsula. Starting with Daniel O’Daly (1592-1662) as one of the diplomatic cornerstones of the Portuguese Crown during its war of independence from Spain (1640-1668) until the era of Leopoldo O’Donnell (1809-1867), military commander, political leader and prime minister, both Portugal and Spain boasted high-ranking diplomats, military men and politicians of Irish origin at their service. 

On the other hand, Irish merchants benefited from the full rights of Spanish citizenship, confirmed by the new Bourbon dynasty in 1701, in order to boost their trade. The most famous son of this trading aristocracy was the writer, poet and theologian José Blanco White (1775-1841) who in his writings refers to Lower Andalusia, the hub of Spanish intercontinental trade where he grew up. On this issue, Manuel Fernández Chaves and Mercedes Gamero present the unknown business and social context of the Irish community in eighteenth-century Seville.

Recent works to be published by the end of this year by Oscar Recio Molina and Enrique García Hernán show the success of Irish girls of marrying age at the Spanish Court among military officers, thanks to their social and cultural capital. On the other hand, Oscar Recio himself argues that in the same eighteenth century, some financial capital was always welcomed in order to have Irish claims to nobility swiftly recognised by Iberian administrations. However, high statesmen and military commanders such as Richard Wall (1694-1777), studied here by Diego Tellez Alarcia, and Alexander O’Reilly (1722-1794), endured severe criticism on the grounds of their being considered foreigners.


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 6 September 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Pérez Tostado, Igor, 'Ireland and Iberia: An Introduction
' in Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, 5:2 (July 2007), pp. 93-95. (, accessed .


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

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