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Adventurers, Emissaries and Settlers: Ireland and Latin America
27-30 June 2007, National University of Ireland, Galway

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James J. O’Kelly in Cuba

Peter Hulme (University of Essex)

James J. O’Kelly (1845-1916) was a life-long Fenian who had a colourful career as a soldier, journalist, and politician.  He saw service with the French Foreign Legion in Algeria and Mexico , volunteered on the French side in the Franco-Prussian War, was involved in the operation after the Battle of the Little Big Horn to push Sitting Bull and his forces into Canada , and covered the Mahdi’s uprising in the Sudan for a British newspaper.  In 1885, now a close ally of Parnell’s, he was elected Member of Parliament for Roscommon, a seat he held to his death.  

This paper focuses on the months O’Kelly spent in Cuba in 1873.  Sent by the New York Herald to find Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, President of the insurgent Cuban republic, which had proclaimed its independence from Spain in 1868, O’Kelly had a series of hazardous adventures while travelling beyond Spanish lines, although he was finally successful in locating Céspedes and in sending reports back to the Herald.  However, captured on his return to Spanish-controlled Cuba , O’Kelly narrowly avoided execution, his case beyond a global cause célèbre.  Back in New York he wrote his only book, The Mambi-Land, or Adventures of a Herald Correspondent in Cuba (1874), one of the finest travel books written about the island and a book whose sympathetic portrayal of Cuban insurgency has led to O’Kelly’s enduring popularity in Cuba .

Online published: 24 April 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

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