Glimpses of the Irish in Nineteenth-Century Bogotá

By Edward Walsh


National Museum of Colombia in Bogotá

Among the many fascinating museums dotted around Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, is the Museo Nacional [1] located in the international centre on Carrera 7ª. This institution was founded in 1823 and is one of the oldest of its kind in America. The museum now occupies a unique building often referred to as El Panóptico. [2] For over seventy-two years this building served as the principal penitentiary in Colombia.

Museo Nacional of Colombia
(Ediciones Consuelo Mendoza)

The prison was designed by the Danish architect Tomás Reed, [3] who arrived in Bogotá from Caracas, Venezuela, in 1847 at the behest of the Colombian president Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera. [4] Reed was invited to occupy the chair of architecture at the Universidad Central and offered instruction in building design and construction techniques. Entrusted with drawing up a design for a new prison in Bogotá as well as the design for the Capitolio parliament building, Reed submitted his plans by 1852 but had left the country before actual construction commenced in 1874. Almost thirty years later, the construction of the prison was completed. Such was the excellence and flexibility of Reed’s design that it elicited the admiration and approval of Le Corbusier when the French architect visited Bogotá in 1947. Reed’s original plans and drawings are preserved in the Colombian National Archives.

Reed’s contract was renewed in 1848 and included the design of the Capitolio. He presented his design to Congress and from the tone of his presentation it was obvious that he considered this to be his most significant project. He was to be greatly disappointed when construction ceased shortly after the foundations had been laid. Reed was an urbane, freethinking and cultured individual who combined his architectural activities with other cultural interests. He was joint founder of the Philharmonic Society where he played the violin. Construction began on his neo-classical designs for the Philharmonic Society building, but was never completed. Like those of the Capitolio, its partially built walls remained in ruins for many years.

Reed’s design for the Panóptico was based on the layout of a structure in Philadelphia. It remained in planning stages and only came to fruition between 1874 and 1881, incorporating changes made by the contractor Francisco Olaya. In Colombia, Reed built two bridges over Bogotá’s streets, reconstructed another over the River Apulo, built several houses and remodelled the cloister of Santo Domingo to adapt it for use as public offices, converting 'the aged and austere colonial construction into an elegant palace to modern tastes. [5]

Frustrated, impatient and convinced that his greatest work would never be built, Reed decided to move to Quito in 1855 on receipt of an invitation from the president of Ecuador. He married and continued his architectural pursuits with major projects such as another penitentiary, the cathedral and the Governor’s Palace. He spent his final years on a private estate and died in Guayaquil in south-west Ecuador.

Reed would have been amazed to see the transformation of this structure from penitentiary to museum. Prisoners were transferred to the new Cárcel de la Picota in 1946. Following two years of refurbishment, the museum opened at its new home in 1948.

The museum holds over 20,000 individual artefacts including art collections, paintings, portraits, furniture, busts, statues, military regalia, as well as items of historical, ethnographic and archaeological interest. In this collection there are some items of Irish interest, nearly all of them relating to the Colombian War of Independence. [6] Some of these items have been reproduced in Matthew Brown and Martín Alonso Roa’s lavishly illustrated new book. [7] The exhibits of Irish interest in the museum are detailed in what follows.

(a)                 Daniel Florence O´Leary [8]

A Davenport mahogany writing desk [9] made in England by James Winter. [10] c.1835. Reg. No. 2710. 90.5 x 59 x 60 cm. Acquired by the Beatriz Osorio Foundation [11] from the Cantillo O’Learys, great granddaughters of Daniel Florence O’Leary, in 1971 for the Museo Nacional (Brown and Alonso Roa reproduction p. 255). [12]

(b)                 Daniel Florence O´Leary

A cut away 'superfin riche' [sic] [13] military jacket made from carded wool, using metal thread, sequins, silk, leather and velvet materials. Metal buttons. C.1835. Casa Museo collection. [14] Reg. No. 3454. (Brown and Alonso Roa reproduction p. 251).

Jeremías O'Leary, ca. 1835
(Catálogo de Miniaturas, 1993)

(c)                 Jeremías O´Leary

Anonymous portrait. [15] Miniature on ivory. c.1835. English school. Reg. No. 2712. 7.5 x 6 cm. Acquisition in 1971 as per (a) above.

(d)                 Jeremías O´Leary Burke [?]

Brother of Florence O´Leary Burke. [16] Anonymous portrait. Miniature. c.1835. Reg. No. 2713. 6 x 5 cm; oval. Acquisition in 1971 as per (a) above.

(e)                 Daniel Florence O´Leary

Anonymous portrait. Miniature on ivory. c.1835. English school. Reg. No. 2714. 7 x 5.8 cm; oval. (Brown and Alonso Roa reproduction p. 233). [17]

(f)                   Daniel Florence O´Leary

Anonymous portrait. c.1840. Reg. No. 2715. 66 x 55 cm; oval. Acquisition in 1971 as per (a) above. [18]

(g)                 Daniel Florence O´Leary

English-made collapsible bed and associated wooden carrying case. [19] c.1825. Casa Museo Collection. [20] Reg. No. 4108 (Brown and Alonso Roa reproduction p.240).

(h)                 Elvira Tanco de Malo O´Leary  [21]

Oil on cloth portrait by Epifanio Garay Caicedo. [22] c.1900. Reg. No. 2765. 125 x 98 cm. Wife of Arturo Malo O´Leary, Daniel Florence O’Leary’s nephew. Acquired for the Museo Nacional between 1972 and 1976 by the Beatriz Osorio Foundation.

Daniel Florencio O'Leary Burke, ca. 1835
(Catálogo de Miniaturas, 1993)

(i)                   Joseph Boylan [23]

Portrait of a man/Joseph Boylan by José María Espinosa. [24] c.1831. Miniature. Reg. No. 4560. Acquired in Caracas in 1978 by Carlos Duarte from the widow of Edbert E. Boylan on behalf of the Beatriz Osorio Foundation for the Museo Nacional, 15 November 2001.

(j)                   Robert Lee

Oil on cloth portrait by José Eugenio Montoya. [25] c.1890. Reg. No. 225. Legend on the painting states 'Robert Lee, Irlandés prócer de la Independencia. Murió 20 Febrero 1854' (Robert Lee, Irish man, leader of Independence. Died 20 February 1854). Donated to the Museo Nacional by Robert Lee Franco, 3 July 1891 (Brown and Alonso Roa reproduction p. 248).

(k)                 James Rooke [26]

Wooden bench. Maker anonymous. c.1819. Reg. No. 2559. This was the bench on which Rooke was attended to by Surgeon Thomas Foley and died, after the battle at Pantano de Vargas (Brown and Alonso Roa reproduction p. 234). Mentioned in the Nueva Guía descriptiva del Museo de Bogotá (1886).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 March 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Walsh, Edward, 'Glimpses of the Irish in 19th-Century Bogotá' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 2006. Available online (, accessed .


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