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Irish Railroad Workers in Cuba
Towards a Research Agenda

By Margaret Brehony




The story of 300-plus Irish railroad workers, contracted in New York in 1835 to work in Havana, Cuba, raises many questions about their recruitment, experience and survival. Situating their migratory experience within a context of race and class politics, at a time of nationalist struggles on two colonial islands on either side of the Atlantic, the position of these migrants as colonised ‘Other’ within the Iberian Atlantic system of slavery and colonial labour is highlighted. The need to explore the relationship between an Irish identification with subalternity, on the one hand, and the significance of ‘the wages of whiteness’ to the Irish on the other, against the backdrop of the Hispano-Cuban colonisation policy to ‘whiten’ the island’s majority black population is examined. In concluding that there was some opposition by the Irish to colonial rule and slavery in Cuba, the paper suggests that the question of Irish identification with a subaltern position merits closer investigation.


Cuba is not usually associated with Irish immigrants, but in the decades before the 1840s potato famine successive waves of Irish people migrated to the Spanish slave colony. In the early 1800s, Cuba and Latin America in general were destinations for labourers who knew little about the climate, customs or language and had no personal networks to fall back on if things went wrong. The expectations and ambitions of English and Irish emigrants heading to Brazil in the 1860s were born of ignorance and desperation and based on idealised images of ‘a land of mystery or lush paradise’ (Marshall 2005: 7). Immigration schemes targeting labourers were more often than not exploitative; this was certainly the case with the importation of an immigrant workforce to build the Cuban railroad. Described as a bitter and shameful episode (Serrano 1973: 35), the fate of 300 Irish railroad workers contracted in New York in 1835 to work in Havana raises many questions about their recruitment, the conditions they experienced, their provenance and their survival; it also highlights their position as colonised ‘Other’ within the Iberian Atlantic system of slavery and colonial labour.

In this paper, I propose to situate this particular episode of Irish migration within the context of race and class politics at a time of nationalist struggles on the two colonial islands of the Atlantic world. The perceived or real threat of a large population of oppressed “Others” in the case of Catholics in Ireland and of enslaved Africans in Cuba, especially their potential for inciting mass insurrection from below, weighed heavily on the cause for independence on both islands. Transformations in the world economy and the societal imperatives of colonial Ireland triggered a dynamic for the migration of labour. The railroad workers’ position as colonial others and British subjects was also coloured by the Hispano-Cuban elite’s colonisation project, a policy to ‘whiten’ the island’s majority black population and assuage the fear of ‘el peligro negro’ (the black peril) amongst its white minority elite.

Irish Latin American Studies

Within the broader context of Irish Latin American Diaspora studies, Irish migration and settlement in the Spanish Caribbean is one of the least researched areas to date. Mary Harris, in her survey of ‘Irish Historical Writing on Latin America,’ concludes that ‘weighty Irish academic studies are very few indeed,’ despite a growing interest and recognition of Irish communities in Latin America (Harris 2006). Citing Edmundo Murray’s description of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants in Argentina ‘as English colonisers in a remote location of the Anglosphere’, she underlines the challenge to historians who wish to locate Ireland within the discourse of colonialism (Harris 2006: 258). Historically, the close ties between Ireland and Spain have complicated the Irish attitude to Spanish colonisation, according to Harris, and she posits that ‘Catholicism, rather than postcolonialism, proved the strong point of identification with Latin America’. In a short biography of James J. O’Kelly, the Cuban scholar Fernando Ortiz distinguishes between the conservative Irish who were supporters of the Spanish colonial system in Cuba, such as the celebrated Irish generals and/or merchants O’Reilly, O’Donnell, O’Farrill and O’Gaban, and those other sons of Ireland who identified with the anti-colonial struggle, including Richard Madden and O’Kelly. Regarding Irish involvement in liberation wars throughout South America, Ortiz concludes that for the latter Irish, England was their Spain (O’Kelly 1930: 41).

Several Cuban academics researching the links between Ireland and Cuba recognise that there are important Irish influences in the economic, political and cultural development of the island (see the article by Rafael Fernández Moya in this journal). Some of the first registered settlements of Irish communities in Cuba date back to 1817, though Irish individuals and families found their way, voluntarily or by force, to the West Indies much before that time.

Railroad workers

During the months of November and December 1835, some 378 workers, most of them Irish, disembarked at the port of Havana. All had been contracted in New York to work for the Cuban Railway Commission. In a push to industrialise the sugar industry in Cuba on the eve of the abolition of the African slave trade, British investment paved the way for building the first stretch of railroad in Ibero-America between Havana and Güines. It was estimated that a workforce of 1,500 men would complete the excavations within a period of eight months. Benjamin H. Wright, the engineer in charge, looked outside Cuba to recruit cheap white wage labour of European descent. The Irish recruits are described as being semi-skilled with experience in explosives and railroad construction. A copy of one ship’s passenger rolls lists forty-six men and six women, and included artisans, labourers, mechanics, and overseers. Five women are listed as wives; one woman was apparently unattached to any of the men (Ballol 1987).

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Brehony, Margaret, 'Irish Railroad Workers in Cuba Towards a Research Agenda
' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 183-188. Available online (, accessed .


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