Volume 7, Number 3

March 2010

Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

The Ancestral Home of Chile’s Blest Family in Sligo, Ireland

By Moises Hasson Camhi [1]

Translated by Karen Racine


This work is part of a broader investigation into the history of the Chile’s prominent Blest family, their European origins, and the first hundred years of their lives in Chile. Despite being a small family, its importance in the consolidation of national identity, as well as its academic, cultural and professional contributions, is notable. In this first background piece, I explore the characteristics of their ancestor Albert Blest, and his life in Sligo, Ireland, the town and county in which he was raised. His upbringing and experiences there left indelible fingerprints on the family’s character and predisposition.


The surname Blest has a permanent place in the Chilean public eye. Alberto Blest Gana (1830-1920) was an exceptional novelist, whose works have aided in a consolidation of the image of who we are and who we were; his books have become part of the mental world that all Chilean students bring with them when they enter school. Clotario Blest Riffo (1899-1990) was a successful labour organiser and founding member of the Central Única de Trabajadores (CUT, Workers’ Central Union) and the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria (MIR, Movement of the Revolutionary Left) whose struggles and speeches on behalf of working people spanned decades. These men are just two members of the famous and accomplished Blest family, whose efforts have had a significant impact on Chilean public life. The relationship of this family with Chilean history in the first years of the nineteenth century is so interesting that we believe it merits the trouble of going into greater detail.

Their formative experiences took place in an Irish community that had become embroiled in religious disputes; at the same time, Sligo was a booming commercial port, and the jumping off point for many entrepreneurial, westward-heading emigrants. The Blest children were marked by their youthful experiences in Sligo and brought with them to Chile certain distinct beliefs, habits and values which then became a proud and important part of the formation of an independent Chile.

The marriage of Alberto Blest and Ann Maiben resulted in the birth of many children, of which only seven reached adulthood, five boys and two girls. [2] We know much detail about three of these children who relocated, prospered and have descendants in Chile. The oldest of these, Andrew (Andrés) was a merchant, entrepreneur and business promoter, who blazed the trail for the others. John (Juan) was a medical doctor who moved between Chile and Peru before settling definitively in Chile. William (Guillermo) was also a doctor who went on to become the founder of the School of Medicine of Chile and the scion of the prominent Blest-Gana family.

The prominent scholar Raúl Silva Castro, in his award-winning analysis of the life and work of Alberto Blest Gana shows that his father Guillermo Blest Cunningham had been raised in a domestic environment where the children acquired “an ability to get along with people and a sense of respectability that was refined by daily exercise in the home, both of which became a common family inheritance.” [3] More contemporary studies of Clotario Blest have indicated a similar heritage: “[his great-grandfather] belonged to a Protestant family. Rejecting the Church and his family’s religion because he found it hypocritical, he, along with a Scottish petty industrialist, founded numerous Christian communities directly inspired by the Bible.” [4] I propose in this article to give a more complete description of the Chilean Blest family’s Irish forefather, Alberto Blest, and the home environment in Sligo in which young Guillermo and his siblings were raised. 

The Maibens were wealthy merchants of Scottish extraction, who moved to the Sligo area some time before 1780, in search of a good location to develop a commercial exchange for linen, which was rapidly becoming the fashion of the day; they had succeeded in setting up a thriving business dealing in textiles and linen production in County Sligo. Blest, on the other hand, is a surname of English origin which was brought over by an army official from Leeds who met and married a young girl while posted in the Sligo area; their union produced only one son, Albert, on 25 April 1755. [5]

As for Sligo itself, the denomination corresponds to the name of both a town and the county that surrounds it. It is located in the northwest of Ireland, a distance of 210 kilometres from Dublin, along a deep bay that permitted the growth of a busy port which was active in maritime trade. The zone is covered with rugged hills which, along with Sligo’s dreamy climate, grant it a beauty that has been universally admired. Sligo was the source of inspiration for the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, who spent his childhood years in the county and is buried there today. In the nineteenth century, Sligo was one of Ireland’s most important ports, and had transformed itself into one of the most popular sites of departure for Irish emigrants – particularly those heading to North America – perhaps as many as 10,000 per year for several decades.

According to some authors, all the factors that characterise Ireland in the popular imagination come together in Sligo: a rugged geography with rocky bays, islets, cliffs and hills; an archaeology of prehistoric stone ruins; a history reflecting conflict and drama; and a talent for commercial enterprise. No other county of the island had all these elements joined together.  More than two hundred years ago, one of Alberto Blest’s contemporaries observed that “[t]here is probably no other town in the kingdom that enjoys more diversity or which has a more picturesque neighbourhood than Sligo.” [6] The same eyewitness went on to describe the city thus: “[t]he streets, in the old part of town are narrow, dirty, ill paved and badly-suited for the bustle that the export trade requires. Convenient markets and large stores, however, have been erected, the quays have been improved and the extension of the city in broad streets regularly designed and constructed will very quickly obviate the difficulties and irregularities of the most ancient part.” [7]

Linen production, namely spinning and weaving, was the dominant industry and thus a relevant part of Sligo’s history from approximately 1750 to 1830. Before that date, it was practically impossible to speak of any significant industrial activity; only subsistence agriculture was taking place. In 1720, Sligo’s farmers and entrepreneurs began to give a certain commercial life to the production of linen. Industrialists began to contract with farmers to plant seeds in their fields and also put their own tenants to work spinning – a type of work that was primarily done by women and children – and the weaving mainly done by young men. That was the county’s main occupation, one whose income receipts varied with the price of the linen cloth. In 1760 the Sligo County Council entered into an agreement to proceed with the construction of Linen Hall, a building exclusively devoted to the trade and marketing of that textile. Contemporary testimonies mention that in 1802 it was a very active depot, but that it had already begun to decline by 1815. In 1824, it was offering linen cloth at whatever price it could get, and by 1834, “the linen trade practically did not exist” in the city. [8]

To return to the person of young Albert Blest, given the responsibility that his father had to the army, shortly after the boy’s birth, his parents left him in the care of his maternal grandparents, who raised him in a very unstructured way. With such relaxed discipline, it did not take long for the child to turn into an independent and strong-headed boy who was accustomed to deciding everything for himself. In a sense, Young Albert spent a childhood almost without rules or significant adult oversight. His home life was happy though, and he shared much in common with his grandfather especially, with whom he spent a lot of time and who taught him his first lessons. Albert always remembered his grandfather with affection, recognising in him a cultivated mind and the reserved disposition of man of character, albeit one with a strong moral centre, who was above reproach.

When his parents returned and settled down in Sligo eleven years later, they maintained a similar sort of approach to parenting, in which Albert was allowed to decide for himself what to do. This attitude quickly revealed itself to be more harmful for a teenager than it had been for a child; Albert surrounded himself with bad influences and joined his trouble-making friends in multiple misdeeds, a trend that bothered his parents a lot. They confronted him and scolded him harshly, which caused the youth to become infuriated and – demonstrating a firmness of character that would characterise him throughout his life – he decided to leave home. Lamentably for young Albert, the rainy and cold climate and the bad experiences that he had during the couple of days that he lived rough out in the countryside made him reconsider his rash decision and he decided to return to the family home.  He arrived with a supportive relative who helped him to face up to his livid father, a career soldier who we can assume was accustomed to being respected and issuing orders without being crossed. When negotiating the terms of his return, the main requirement was that Alberto would become an apprentice in a dye-factory for linen near to Greenville, in the neighbouring district of Coolaney. He duly complied and took up the apprenticeship. With that, young Albert returned to his house with a new maturity gained from being without his loved ones for so long and with the sense of responsibility that comes with having to carry out daily work. 

Alberto, grown up now and newly-responsible, showed himself to be a restless soul when it came to religion. While exploring options, he came in contact with Andrew Maiben, a local pastor with whom he felt a religious and familial affinity and whose second daughter he eventually went on to marry. Maiben was a wealthy Presbyterian, a cultivated man well-versed in Biblical studies, who had come to Ireland from Scotland. In Sligo, he decided to focus his efforts on the propagation of education and the Christian faith, establishing a type of religious school that included prayers each afternoon. Albert Blest toured one of these establishments in Greenville and became convinced, quickly transforming himself into Andrew Maiben’s right-hand man.

Albert had a great musical talent, something that he seems to have cultivated among his group of friends long before his stay in Greenville. He continued this predilection throughout his life, dedicating himself to gathering up traditional Irish peasant ballads; in fact, he become renowned among scholars of his day for his efforts, although sadly no trace of them remains today. [9] Apparently Blest also enjoyed poetry very much, but this literary ardour often got in the way of his religious reading and his work as a pastor and director of the Hibernian Society. Perhaps here we can identify the roots of the literary affinities of his Chilean grandsons Alberto and Guillermo Blest Gana.

We know that Albert Blest was a longstanding and well-respected leader in his community. In September 1798, some revolutionary troops came from France with the intent of attacking their historical enemy England by opening a second front. Fearing that they would advance upon the town of Sligo from the bay near where they disembarked, some sources say that Albert Blest played a central role in organising his fellow citizens into citizen-militias to defend their territory. Other sources indicate that he was primarily involved in maintaining the spirit of the forces that remained to defend the town, reuniting with his congregation and intoning religious hymns. It should be mentioned that many other notable men facing the same situation were disposed to flee in case the worst happened, and could be found embarking in boats supplied in the bay.  A book from 1802 confirms that “[a] number of Methodists joined them [the Irish soldiers] singing religious hymns, headed by their pastor Albert Blest, a man of great piety, and marked by his charity and humanity.” [10] Another contemporary author wrote similarly “every man capable of carrying arms... resolved to defend the city, and a great number of Methodists joined them, headed by their pastor Albert Blest.” [11]

Blest also participated in the government of his parish and its districts, being one of the elected commissioners-for-life who had been approved in a Royal Act of 1803. According to that decree, citizens of a certain economic level were permitted to choose twenty-four commissioners to oversee the port and the city. Their responsibilities included the administration and maintenance of the port and innumerable other civic duties. [12] Albert had to renounce the post when he changed localities, but he always continued to aid his fellow citizens in a public capacity when he could. For example, in 1816 he can be found serving on a special new committee created for the alleviation of those affected by the first great potato famine. [13] The Irish potato crisis reached its apogee with the Great Famine of 1846 to 1848, a time when tens of thousands of souls perished throughout the country, and even greater numbers were forced to seek a better future abroad in other countries, notably the United States of America. According to official registers, the population of County Sligo declined by a shocking 37% in the decade between 1841 and 1851.

As previously noted, Albert Blest began to attend religious services offered by Andrew Maiben in an old building attached to a feudal castle. Maiben was Presbyterian and when he fell into disagreements over the doctrine that the church’s main pastor was preaching, he decided to break away and create his own offshoot. Blest began feeling more and more attracted to the new sect and he began to converse with Maiben at great length. Maiben quickly saw in Blest a man of great valour. The intimacy between the two men grew stronger over time and, after numerous evenings spent at the Maiben home, Blest married their second daughter on 3 May 1780. In so doing, he transformed himself into Maiben’s personal advisor in both religious and private matters. They began to offer alternating services, denominating their church as the Independent Congregation of Sligo. [14]

The religious situation existing in the county during the waning days of the eighteenth century was one of quiet but tense confrontation. For many years, stories of clashes between Protestants and Catholics (or “Popists”, as they were called at the time) that resulted in death were common. Of course, the conflict had its origins much earlier in the time of King Henry VIII and intensified under Cromwell’s Protectorate, which initiated a difficult period in which English Catholics were forced to convert; where this was not possible or they proved unwilling, the Crown ordered their expulsion and the confiscation of their goods and land. For example, a text dated 1714 stated that the Grand Jury, the organ comprised of the principal landowners, had sent a report saying that the “Popists are so numerous in this county that without a resident army it is not possible to accomplish anything good.”

Albert Blest and all his family did not remain immune from these religious tensions. In fact, he was directly involved in a violent incident which is recounted in a biography of Selina, the Countess of Huntingdon. Apparently on 2 January 1701, the congregation inaugurated a new chapel of the protestant Evangelical Society in Sligo. A few days later, a group of hot-headed Catholics forced open the bars on the windows of the new building, breaking them and tossing burning torches into its interior with the intention of destroying it completely. Their efforts were only partially successful, and community members decided to establish a watch guard to protect the part that survived. However, the mob returned, intent on finishing the job, and it was Albert Blest who faced them down with only the arms he had in his own possession. After some tense discussion, Albert shot his weapon without wounding anyone, but this was enough to set off their hostility anew and he had to run for his life. The angry crowd followed him, some of whom broke down the door to his house and tried to take him hostage, aided by some of his own Catholic servants. All this happened in front of his terrified pregnant wife and his twelve children. Finally, he was hauled off to see a judge along with his father-in-law and the Protestant servants that had aided him. There Albert succeeded in demonstrating the truth of his innocence and channelling the delinquent rebels toward the appropriate legal repercussions. [15]

Along with his father-in-law, Albert maintained an active participation in religious services and substituted for the older man every time he could not perform. With Albert’s relocation to Greenville in 1803 and Maiben’s death in 1806, their congregation could not be sustained; its numbers dwindled and the faithful began to attend a couple of other local Protestant churches in the area. Albert’s wife aided him fully in all his activities, and together they took great care to educate and instil faith, correct habits and the value of hard work in all their children.

In the realm of business, it would seem that he worked for his father-in-law and the Maiben family for quite some time. However, the year 1803 he was listed as the only tenant of a linen factory in the townland of Greenville, ironically the same town to which his father had sent him as an apprentice many years before. He moved there to administer his enterprises, and was there for quite some time, eventually leaving his son Andrew in charge (the same Andrew/Andrés who would later emigrate to Chile). Registries indicate that in 1825 he announced his intention to leave the rental property, which he ultimately did the next year. [16] We know that by that time, Andrew was no longer living in Ireland and that two other sons were away at university studying medicine or perhaps even had recently completed their degrees and were beginning to practise. Albert Blest was beginning to involve himself in a subject that was a passion for him: the education of Irish children through the use of the Bible as a source for study. In this context, he accepted the offer of the important London-based Hibernian society to take charge of its Irish branch. In the beginning, its extent was limited to the Sligo area, but thanks to Blest’s dedication and capacity for hard work, it soon spread and could be found throughout Ireland.

The Hibernian Society was typical of the many societies formed at that time with the goal of educating poor youths through the study of the Bible. It had two main objectives: to raise the cultural level of children and youths who were basically illiterate, and also to introduce them to pious reading of the Bible in the belief that it would ensure their moral growth. It was founded in London in 1806 and initially its main focus was on religious education. The Hibernian Society sponsored at least 350 schools and already had more than 27,000 students under its tutelage by the year 1818. However, with the passage of time it became more and more inclined to the cause of education in general, a shift which was already apparent in 1814. Its new constitution stated that the society would dedicate itself to building schools and diffuse the sacred scriptures throughout Ireland. [17] It seems that this change was the product of the same attitude that animated Albert Blest, who prioritised teaching and education, founded multiple schools, and attracted the attention of the central committee to his work.

Coinciding with the new direction of the Hibernian Society, in 1813 Albert moved his family yet again, this time to Dublin where his responsibilities increased. Of the seven children who survived into adulthood, we know that three of the five boys studied medicine (Albert, John and William). A fourth son, Andrew, followed his maternal grandfather’s path and dedicated himself to industry and commerce. Anthony, the last of the five boys, appears also to have studied medicine but may have remained in England; we have not been able to trace his later activities with any certainty.

The history of the oldest Blest son seems similar to others went to Chile. He also emigrated in search of better options but in his case, he went to India instead of America. We know that his daughter Elizabeth was born around 1820 in Kandy, the capital city of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), an island that the English had seized only a short time before. In 1823, he appears in records as a resident of Madras (present-day Chennai) in India. He had returned to Dublin sometime before his father’s death, which allowed them to spend his last years together. [18]

By 1813, several of Albert Blest’s children were already living independently, or were reaching the end of their youthful years. Andrew became involved in the commercial trade with Chile, and his brother John practised medicine there. William, although only fourteen years of age, was about to embark on his university studies at Trinity College, Dublin. The remaining brothers seem to have been in similar situations. [19]

As we have seen, Albert Blest had been the only child produced by his parents’ union, and therefore his own children had practically no close family in Ireland on their father’s side. In contrast, they had a large extended family on their mother’s side. We know that at least two of them were doctors as well; for example, Ann’s brother Richard Maiben was a surgeon in the same militia regiment of Sligo in which Thomas Blest also served as a soldier in 1802. [20] William Maiben seems to have been one of two doctors who certified John Blest’s qualifications in 1815. [21] I believe that he must have been a significant inspiration for his nephews to follow his footsteps into the medical profession.

We can conclude that by the time that Albert Blest moved the remaining members of his family to Dublin, the family was formed and his children’s character well-established. He took great care with their education and the family’s relocation to Dublin had no effect on that preoccupation. Albert Blest’s life had many losses toward the end. Several of his children emigrated to distant lands. His wife Ann Maiben suffered serious rheumatic problems from the year 1815 onward, which significantly impaired her mobility before she died in 1826. Deeply pious until the end, she had dedicated herself to her husband and helped him in all his undertakings. They say that even when she could no longer move about on her own, she dedicated herself to reading the Bible to a blind person each Sunday. Months after her death, Albert suffered another great loss when his daughter Eliza also succumbed to illness after many years of infirmity. Albert continued to find meaning in his activities for the Hibernian Society, but his own health entered a long, slow decline until he died at home in January 1837. He was attended to by his son Albert who was residing with him in Dublin at the time. 

Meanwhile, across the ocean in Chile, Andrew (Andrés) Blest could be found already married to Concepción Prats and resident in Valparaíso, along with their eldest daughters. John was practising medicine in Santiago, where he lived with his wife María Faustina Zavala, who he had married in Moquehua Peru, and their oldest children. William (Guillermo) was heading up the new School of Medicine, and sharing a home with María de Luz Gana and their children Guillermo, Alberto, Joaquín, and José Francisco.

Moises Hasson Camhi



1 An amateur historian, Moises Hasson Camhi published his first book of history in Barcelona in 2009. It was titled Morada de mis antepasados [The Struggles of My Ancestors] and recounts the development, migration and disappearance of a Sephardic Jewish community in Bitola/Monastir in the former Yugoslavia and in the city of Temuco, Chile.

2 Aaron C. Hobar, The Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (London: William Edward Painter, 1844), p.211. The number of children must have been very high, considering the rate of infant mortality. In these memoirs, the editor notes that in 1791, Mrs. Blest already had twelve children and was pregnant again. And what is more, we know that there were still other children born in later years (for example William/Guillermo in the year 1800), so that the actual total of children was surely much greater than the twelve mentioned above.

3 Raúl Silva Castro, Alberto Blest Gana (1830-1920).  Estudio biográfico y crítico (Santiago: Imprenta Universitaria, 1941), p.4.

4 Maximiliano Salinas, Clotario Blest, profeta de Dios contra el capitalismo (Santiago: Editorial Rehue, 1987), p.50.

5 Rev. Maiben C. Motherwell, A Memoir of the late Albert Blest, (Dublin: William Curry, 1843), p.1.

6 James Fraser, A Handbook for Travelers in Ireland, 2nd edition (Dublin: James McGlashan, 1849), p.446.

7 Fraser, A Handbook for Travelers in Ireland, p.445.

8 W.G. Martin-Wood, A History of Sligo County and Town - Vol 3: From the Close of the Revolution of 1688 to the Present Time (Dublin: Dublin University Press, 1892), pp.244-245.

9 John C. McTernan, Here’s to Their Memory (Dublin: The Mercer Press, 1977), p.327.

10 Sir Richard Musgrave, Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland from the Arrival of the English, Vol.2, (Dublin: Robert Marchbank, 1802), p.168.

11 Wood-Martin, A History of Sligo County and Town, III: p.23.

12 Wood-Martin, A History of Sligo County and Town, III: pp.97-98. This book contains a detailed discussion of the committee’s origin, attributes and responsibilities.

13 Michael Farry, Killoran and Coolaney, A Local History (2005), p.76. Original publication date was 1985. I consulted the 2005 edition found at http://www.michaelfarry.com/killoran_and_coolaney.html

14 Wood-Martin, A History of Sligo County and Town, III: p.145.

15 Hobar, The Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, pp.209-212. Countess Selina was an English religious leader who played a prominent role in the religious renaissance of the Methodist movement during the eighteenth century, taking up the cause after her husband’s death.

16 Farry, Killoran and Coolaney, A Local History, p.78.

17 W.D. Killen, The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, Vol.2 (London: MacMillan and Co., 1875), pp.390-391.

18 Elizabeth was born in Ceylon in1820, and she is almost certainly the “cousin Lizzie” that the Chilean writer Alberto Blest Gana met in Paris many years later and to whom he affectionately dedicated his novel Los Transplantados.

19 In my private communication with archivist Irene Ferguson, Assistant to the University Archivist in Special Collections at the University of Edinburgh, it was possible to corroborate the following facts. In the registry book of medical degrees granted during the period 1705-1845, the Latinised name of Gulielmus C. Blest appears. In his enrolment card, the name is given as William C. Blest. His date of graduation was 1821 and his thesis was titled “De Amenorrhea.” Correspondence dated 7 November 2008.

20 The information relative to the 22nd Sligo regiment can be found online at http://www.igp-web.com/sligo/Military/1802_Sligo_Militia.htm. Website consulted on 1 June 2009.

21 John Blest is registered in the annals of the University of Aberdeen as receiving a doctor of medicine degree on 15 March 1815. He is recorded as a resident of S.Jago [ie.Santiago], along with Dr John Richard Farre and Dr William Maiben, both of Sligo, as course tutors. The information is found in Officers and Graduates of University and King’s College Aberdeen (Aberdeen: New Spalding Club, 1893), p.153.


- Farry, Michael.  Killoran and Coolaney, A Local History, (2005). http://www.michaelfarry.com/killoran_and_coolaney.html

- Fraser, James.  A Handbook for Travelers in Ireland.  Second edition (Dublin: James McGlashan, 1849).

- Hobar, Aaron C.  The Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (London: William Edward Painter, 1844).

- Killen, W.D.  The Ecclesiastical History of Ireland from the Earliest Period to the Present Time.  Vol. 2 (London: MacMillan and Co., 1875).

- McTernan, John C.  “Here’s to their Memory” (Dublin: The Mercier Press, 1977).

- Motherwell, Rev. Maiben C.  A Memoir of the Late Albert Blest (Dublin: William Curry, 1843).

- Musgrave, Sir Richard.  Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland from the Arrival of the English.  Third Edition.  Vol. 2 (Dublin: Robert Marchbank, 1802).

- Officers and Graduates of University and King’s College, Aberdeen (Aberdeen: New Spalding Club, 1893).

- Salinas, Maximiliano. Clotario Blest, profeta de Dios contra el capitalismo (Santiago: Editorial Rehue, 1987).

- Silva Castro, Raúl. Alberto Blest Gana (1830-1920). Estudio biográfico y crítico (Santiago: Imprenta Universitaria, 1941).

Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2010

Published: 02 March 2010
Edited: 23 September 2010

Hasson Camhi, Moises 'The Ancestral Home of Chile’s Blest Family in Sligo, Ireland' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 7:3 (March 2010), pp. 373-380. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla1003.htm), accessed .

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information