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The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba

By Rafael Fernández Moya [1]


Translated by Annette Leahy




Irish immigrants made history and left their mark on the noble heraldry and the toponymy of the island. This article, penned by the erudite hand of a well-informed chronicler at the Historian's Office of Havana, attempts to rescue from anonymity a wonderful collage of dispersed information and anecdotes that document the enduring Irish influence in Cuba from Spanish colonial times to the early republican era. 

Corner of O'Reilly and Tacón streets 
at Havana's Plaza de Armas
(Rafael Fernández Moya, 2007)

The villa of San Cristóbal de la Habana, founded in 1519 on the north coast of Cuba, was visited sixty years later by sailors and passengers from England and other countries. In 1609 the governor Ruíz de Pereda informed the Spanish king that many foreigners were arriving to the island, amongst them Irish people. Due to the lack of experienced seamen, many of these foreigners were enlisted in the Spanish navy.

Political events in England during the seventeenth century, and particularly the clashes between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, prompted a mass emigration of Irish people to Spain and the protection of the Catholic Monarchs. After the defeat of James II of England and the Catholics in Ireland, whose last stronghold was surrendered in October 1691, several thousand Irish followers of the king left the country, many of them joining the armies of other European countries. For example, for a long period of its history Spain maintained four regiments made up entirely of Irishmen, with their own uniform and officers, some of whom served in the Spanish territories overseas, among them the island of Cuba.

In 1665 Juan Duany, whose father was a native of the province of Connaught, travelled to Santiago de Cuba in the east of the country to take part in that city’s fortification works. A son of his named Ambrosio Duany y Fallon, from Briggs in Sligo, laid claim to the status enjoyed by Irish Catholics and allies in the Spanish legal regime by Royal Cédula of 28 June 1701. Ambrosio Duany was a consular representative, commander of the city’s militia and owner of a sugar plantation called “Yarayabo”. He died in Santiago de Cuba in 1738 and one of his descendants, Andrés Duany y Valiente received the title of Count of Duany in 1864.

Throughout the eighteenth century citizens with the surname Duany held office as council members and mayors of the City Hall of Santiago de Cuba. In the middle of the twentieth century a central neighbourhood of the city was named Castillo Duany after Demetrio Castillo Duany, general in the Cuban Liberation Army and civil Governor during the first American intervention (1898–1902), and a street that leads into the port’s Alameda carries the name of Joaquín Castillo Duany, also a general in the Liberation Army. Count Andrés Duany owned land in the modern-day province of Holguín in the east of the island, and his surname is the name of a village near Alto Cedro.

On 26 March 1713 the English Slave-Trading Agreement (asiento) was signed, which would remain in force for thirty years, and for this purpose the South Sea Company was created and obtained the monopoly for supplying enslaved Africans to all the Spanish possessions. Ricardo O’Farrill and Wergent Nicholson ran a company in Havana which also had a branch in Santiago de Cuba run by Messrs. Cumberlege and Walsh.

Palacio O'Farrill in Old Havana, former residence of José Ricardo O'Farrill, grandson of Ricardo O'Farrill y O'Daly.
(Cuba Travel, 2005

Ricardo O’Farrill y O’Daly was a native of the Caribbean island of Montserrat and a descendant of a family whose lineage traces back to County Longford. He married María Josefa de Arriola y García de Londoño in 1720 and both would establish a prominent family in the administration, economy and cultural development of the country, as well as at the heart of the Spanish-Cuban aristocracy. The surname O´Farrill appears in the family tree of almost all the Havana families with noble titles.

At the beginning of 1721 Ricardo O’Farrill asked to be granted Spanish citizenship and six months later it was public knowledge that he had travelled to Jamaica and brought part of his assets consisting of 236 African men and women of all ages, 260 barrels of flour, other possessions and household furnishings, as well as the materials necessary for the construction of a sugar plantation back in Cuba. On 17 January of the following year a Royal Cédula was signed which granted O’Farrill citizenship in Spanish America and a licence to trade there with the status of resident of Havana.

Besides working in slave-trading and the import business, Ricardo O’Farrill became the proprietor of two sugar plantations located in Sabanilla, adjoining Tapaste, situated on the road from Havana to Matanzas. The Tapaste church was built on land donated by descendants of Don Ricardo, who died in 1730.

It seems Ricardo O’Farrill had his slave depot on a short street known as Callejón de O’Farrill (O’Farill’s Alley), which was also called La Sigua and Las Recogidas, situated between Picota and Compostela streets, in the port area and near El Palenque – so called because it was the State’s African slave depot. In the present day this place is occupied by the Archivo Nacional (National Archive) building. The corner of Cuba and Chacón streets is where Ricardo’s grandson Rafael built his home and is called O’Farrill’s Corner. This mansion was restored for private lodging and is now the Hotel Palacio O’Farrill. Nowadays, in one of the capital’s neighbourhoods, La Víbora, there is a street called O’Farrill and another called Alcalde (Mayor) O’Farrill, after one of the Irishman’s descendants named Juan Ramón O’Farrill, who chaired the City Hall of Havana at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Alejandro O'Reilly (1722-1794)
(Ramiro Guerra, 
Historia de la Nación Cubana, 1952

In 1728 the Irishman Santiago Garvey applied for Spanish citizenship. He was based in Santiago de Cuba, where fellow countrymen Juan Francisco Creagh and Juan Rodríguez Kavanagh were also living. The latter, a native of County Waterford, was accused of serving as a pilot for the British troops who landed in Guantánamo Bay that year with the intention of taking control of the eastern region of Cuba.

A powerful British military force attacked the city of Havana in the summer of 1762 and occupied it until July of the following year. Among the members of the senior command of the troops under the command of the Count of Albemarle was the Quartermaster General Guy Carleton, born in Strabane, a town in County Tyrone, in the province of Ulster, who served as the military contingent’s quartermaster.

During the British occupation Cornelio Coppinger was a resident in the capital. Originally from County Cork, he worked as a slave-trader with the local authorities’ approval. After the evacuation of the British forces, he remained on the island and married the Havana woman María López de Gamarra, with whom he had four sons who excelled in careers in the military and in government. One of his sons, José Coppinger, an infantry colonel, was Governor of Bayamo, in the eastern region of Cuba (1801), Florida (1817-1820), Veracruz, Mexico, until 1825 and of Trinidad, in the central region of the island (1834-1837). Cornelio Coppinger died in Havana around 1786. The historian Manuel Pérez-Beato states in his book Habana antigua that the intersection of Cuba and Acosta streets in Havana was known as Coppinger Corner, but he does not give a reason why.

Pedro Pablo O'Reilly
(Family collection)

After signing a peace treaty with England, Spain regained the city of Havana in exchange for Florida. In order to re-establish Spanish control, Ambrosio Funes de Villalpando, Count of Rica and Lieutenant General of the Royal Armies, arrived in Cuba on 3 July 1763 accompanied by several foreign officers in the service of the Spanish crown among whom was General Alejandro O’Reilly, a native of County Meath, assigned to fill the post of second corporal and sub-inspector of the armies on the island, and as such the second military authority in the country.

General O’Reilly finished his mission in Cuba a short time later, but his first-born, Pedro Pablo, formed a Cuban family by marrying the Countess of Buenavista, heiress of the title Marchioness de Jústiz de Santa Ana. As well as these titles, their descendents added to the possession of the family those of Marquis of San Felipe y Santiago and Count of Castillo. However, General O’Reilly is remembered for having organised the military forces on the island and particularly the Black and Mulatto Militias. In honour of his achievements, one of the main streets of the historic centre of Havana was given his name. A stop on the railway line situated in the municipal district Quemado de Güines, in Sagua la Grande in the central region of the country also bears the name O’Reilly.

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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Fernandez Moya, Rafael, 'The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 189-198. Available online (, accessed .


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