Volume 7, Number 4

November 2011

Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

A Historical Review of Irish Missionary Activity in Latin America       

By Séamus O´Fógartaigh

Séamus O´Fógartaigh, Ph.D has twenty-five years of missionary experience in Latin America. He is a member of SILAS and is the author of Liberation and Development: A Latin-American Perspective (London: Minerva Press, 1998), and of numerous articles on the Irish Diaspora in Mexico and throughout Latin America. He has been a staff member at The National Center for Social Communication (CENCOS) in Mexico City for fifteen years and is a retired member of the Salt Lake City diocesan clergy.

The first Irish missionary to set foot on American soil may well have been St.Brendan the Navigator, who, according to legend, crossed the Atlantic in his Currach (fishing boat) in search of new converts to the Christian faith. An ancient manuscript found in medieval European monasteries allegedly described his voyage to strange, western lands, and is known to history as Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abatis. According to an ancient Toltec legend, a white, bearded man from across the Atlantic visited their shores some 1500 years ago and taught the native people a new religion based on fraternal charity and resignation to God´s will. The legend claims that he also taught them new methods of agriculture and the art of astronomy which enabled them to design a calendar to predict the changing seasons. When the Spaniards arrived they found the Aztec calendar to be more accurate than its European (Julian) counterpart.

Whether the legendary Toltec deity Quetzalcóatl (plumed serpent) was in fact a deified Irish monk from Kerry is still a matter for speculation, and the rumor seems to persist on both sides of the Atlantic. The Spanish conquistadors were able to use the legend to facilitate their colonizing project, since the natives believed that Hernán Cortés was the reincarnation of this legendary deity who had promised to return. It is also claimed that Columbus found inspiration for his historic seafaring adventure in the pages of the Navigatio, by St. Brendan the Abbot.

When the Portuguese maritime explorer, Pedro Álvares Cabral reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, he apparently believed that he had reached an island which he named ‘Island of the Blessed’. Some historians have claimed that Cabral thought he had reached the mythical island of the Celts known as Hy-Brasil (Uí Breasail in Irish), and it is quite possible that maritime explorers were influenced by those ancient Celtic myths about unexplored islands to the west like Tír- na -nÓg, the island of Eternal Youth.

Irish-Hispanic missionary links are traceable to the late 1500s when Irish religious communities found refuge in Spain as they were forced to flee from the wrath of the invading English Protestants. In the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, the shared Catholic religion became the bond which created a special alliance between the Irish and the Spaniards, and Spain sent military assistance to the embattled Irish Chieftains O´ Neill and O´ Donnell, who were engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the English Protestant invaders. The defeat of the Irish-Hispanic Alliance at the Battle of Kinsale in 1602, marked the beginning of the end of the old Gaelic, Catholic order and many of the surviving Gaelic Chieftains were forced to seek refuge in Spain.

Religion was not the only bond between the two countries, however, and the Irish émigrés were at pains to recall that the Ibero-Celts (The Milesians) from Spain were their common ethnic ancestors. The Spanish historian Óscar Recio Morales in his book, Ireland and the Spanish Empire, quotes Hugh Ó’Donnell, Earl of Tír Chonaill (Donegal), claiming to be a direct descendent of the Milesian dynasty in Ireland. Another important link in the chain of Hiberno-Hispanic solidarity was the appointment of a Spanish Franciscan Archbishop of Dublin in the late 1500s.

During the late 1500s and early 1600s, Irish Colleges were established in Spain to educate the children of the Irish nobility in exile, and the Spanish King, with encouragement from Rome, became the protector of the Irish Catholic diaspora in Spain. The colleges, which also served as seminaries, were subsidized by the monarchy, and prepared their students for service as priests, soldiers and administrators in their adopted country. There were five Irish colleges in Spain and two in Portugal, and some of their graduates were sent as missionaries to the Latin American colonies. There were also three Irish Regiments in the Spanish army, the Hibernia, the Ultonia and the Irlanda. Historian Morales explains how these regiments provided strong support for Spain´s armed forces over a period of three centuries, and how some of their units were sent to serve in the American colonies.

Irish Franciscans and Jesuits were serving on the missions in New Spain (Mexico) in the early 1600s, and one of the most prominent Irish missionaries of that period was Fr Michael Wadding, S.J. (1591-1644) from Waterford. He studied at the Irish College of Salamanca and was later assigned to the Jesuit missions in New Spain. He ministered to the indigenous people in the northwestern region of the colony, and was very successful in converting those people to the Catholic faith. He changed his name, and is known to history as Miguel Godinez. Many immigrants adopted a Hispanicized version of their names and surnames as a token of their willingness to become inculturated, and that custom still persists in Spanish-speaking countries today. Fr. Wadding was the brother of the prominent Irish Cardinal Luke Wadding, a promoter of the Confederation of Kilkenny. Miguel Godinez had a successful career as a lecturer and theologian, and is remembered for his theological treatise, La Práctica de la Teología Mística (The Practice of Mystical Theology published in 1681, almost four decades after his death).

Juan Agustin Morfi (Murphy) came to New Spain from Galicia in 1752, where many Irish exiles had settled in the early 1600s. He joined the Franciscan Order and became known as Fray Juan Agustín de Morfi. As a missionary, he travelled extensively throughout the northern regions of the colony and kept a diary of his travels. He is best remembered for his book, Viaje de Indios y el Diario del Nuevo México (Indian Journey and Diary of New Mexico). (Editorial Manuel Porrua, Mexico 1980). He is also remembered as a brilliant historian and cartographer.

The most notorious Irishman in Mexico during the early 1600s was William Lamport also known as, Guillermo Lombardo, who was condemned by the Holy Inquisition to be burned at the stake as a heretic in 1659. While incarcerated, he wrote his famous Regio Salterio (Regal Psalter) which was a denunciation in Latin verse of the cruel and corrupt colonial system, including the Holy Inquisition. He advocated putting an end to slavery and the exploitation of the native people by creating an independent Mexico with himself as king. He is remembered in Mexico as the precursor of its Independence, and a school, Escuela Guillén de Lampart, is dedicated to his memory in Mexico City.

 His brother, Fr. John Lamport, was a Franciscan missionary in Mexico during the same period, but was unable or, as some say, unwilling, to help his brother William escape the wrath of the Holy Inquisition. Some claim that William should also be remembered as the precursor of Liberation Theology in Latin America. The Lamport brothers from Wexford were educated at the Irish College at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia where many Irish immigrants had settled in the early 1600s. The college was founded by Irish Franciscans in 1605, following the debacle of Kinsale in 1602, and Irish priests from the Spanish seminaries continued to serve the Church´s missions in Latin America throughout the colonial era and beyond.

Another outstanding Irish missionary in Latin America was Fr. Thomas Field S.J., from Limerick, who arrived in the Portuguese colony of Brazil in 1577. He later moved to Paraguay where he helped establish a Jesuit province and became acquainted with the local Guaraní people. He is credited with providing inspiration for the organization of the Jesuit ‘Reductions’ which were intended to protect the native people from Spanish and Portuguese slave traders, and to evangelise and educate the Guaraní people in their own language. He is believed to be the first Irish priest to celebrate Mass in the Americas. He died in Asunción in 1626.

Apparently, this new type of mission provoked the wrath of the colonizers, and led to the expulsion of the Jesuits from the region in 1767. Missionaries were expected to cooperate with, and provide moral justification for, the colonial system. When they failed to do so, they were dealt with severely by the local colonizers. Taking a stand on the side of the poor and exploited in Latin America has always been a very dangerous and even life-threatening undertaking for the missionary.

During the 1600s there was considerable Irish migration to the Caribbean Islands (West Indies), especially to the islands under British colonial control like Montserrat and St. Christopher. During the Cromwellian campaign in Ireland in 1648, people were rounded up like cattle and transported to work as slaves on the Plantations under British control. There was some Irish missionary activity in the region, especially on the island of St. Croix which, under Danish control, allowed the freedom of worship and some Irish priests were sent to minister to the emigrants settled there.

In the post-Colonial era of the early 1800s, Argentina became the preferred destination for Irish migration to Latin America. This was due to the fact that some Irish immigrants in that country, who had become prosperous entrepreneurs, returned to Ireland and persuaded their compatriots to join them in their business ventures. They also were promised land and opportunities for a much better life than they could hope for in their poverty-stricken homeland. As a result, thousands did emigrate and prospered in their new homeland. Some Irish immigrants in the US also moved to Argentina to escape the prevalent anti-Irish, anti-immigrant ‘Nativist’ bigotry in that country. 

The Irish in Argentina were so numerous that they could organize their own churches, schools and hospitals, and several Irish religious orders sent missionaries, priests and nuns, to minister to their spiritual, educational and social needs. The most outstanding patron of the Irish in Argentina was Fr. Anthony Fahy, a Dominican priest from Galway who arrived in the mid-1800s, and was a very talented organizer and administrator. As a result of his untiring efforts, Irish immigrants became a united and well organized group, and due to their numbers have been able to preserve their ethnic and cultural identity to the present day. In 1875, they were able to establish their own newspaper, The Southern Cross which still serves as a link for the Irish diaspora in Latin America and beyond. In other countries, the Irish immigrants were so few and far between that they were quickly assimilated into the local Hispanic culture.

Mexico might have rivaled Argentina as the Latin American country with the most Irish immigrants were it not for some adverse geopolitical circumstances. Just like in Argentina in the early 1800s, some Irish entrepreneurs (Empresarios), well established in Mexico, were authorized to organize Irish colonies in Mexico´s sparsely populated northern regions. They went back to Ireland and persuaded many to emigrate to Mexico with promises of land and opportunities for a better life. As a result, the San Patricio de Hibernia and other colonies were established in what is now southern Texas in 1831, and Irish priests and nuns ministered to the immigrants. Again, just as in Argentina, several Irish immigrants in the US moved to Mexico to get away from anti-Catholic bigotry so prevalent there at that time. In the 1840s, Fr. Eugene McNamara, described by historians as an Apostolic Missionary in Mexico, was promoting a plan to settle ten thousand Irish immigrants in Alta California. His plans came to an abrupt ending, however, when the US invaded Mexico in 1846 and annexed all of Mexico´s northern regions in 1848. McNamara was accused by US officers of persuading Irish soldiers in the invading US Army to desert and join the San Patricio Companies who fought on the side of Mexico. Some officers called for his arrest and execution, according to US historian Robert Ryal Miller (Shamrock and Sword, 1989). Apparently, McNamara was able to evade his would-be captors and returned safely to the Emerald Isle.

In modern times, the first major Irish missionary effort in Latin America was undertaken by the Legion of Mary in the 1950s. The Legion was intended to inspire and encourage lay people to take a more active role in the mission of the Church at a time when the clerical structure permitted very little lay participation. The Legion was founded in Dublin in 1921 by Frank Duff as an apostolic lay organization and quickly spread to Catholic churches throughout the world. The Legion´s lay missionaries were well received by the Latin American people, and Legion praesidia (local units) were established in several countries, where they continue to make an important contribution to the overall mission of the Church by preparing their members to play a more active role in parochial life.

During the early 1900s, Latin America was not regarded as mission territory, and the Irish Foreign Mission Societies like the Columban and Kiltegan Fathers concentrated their missionary efforts on Africa and Asia. The perception was that Latin America had been evangelised during the colonial era, but that perception was to change radically in the late 1950s when Pope Pius XII and his successor, Pope John XXIII urged church leaders in Europe and the US to send missionaries to Latin America, where the local churches were in dire need of personnel and material assistance. It also became evident that the evangelising efforts during the colonial era only reached a small section of the inhabitants, and had little effect on the vast majority which included the indigenous people and the poorer sections of the general population. It also became evident that very little effort had been made to encourage religious vocations among the poor.

Critics claimed the institutional Church in Latin America was elitist and concentrated on providing educational and health services for the privileged classes who could afford to pay for such services. And the hierarchy tended to be supportive of the status quo, providing moral justification for dictatorial regimes which oppressed and exploited the poor. Historians mention what they call the Triple Alliance that existed in Latin America between the local Oligarchy, the Military and the Institutional Church. The Church and the clergy were almost totally dependent on the patronage of the local Oligarchy who expected a quid pro quo for their generosity. That situation began to change dramatically in the 1960s due to the influence of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) which urged church leaders to challenge the socio-economic and political institutions which were responsible for so much poverty and injustice throughout the world, especially in Latin America. One Council document, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, spoke of ‘a new humanism wherein individuals are defined by their responsibilities toward others, and toward history’. The Council documents posed a challenge for missionaries to become involved in the struggle against poverty and injustice throughout Latin America.

Church leaders in Europe and the US responded to the Papal appeal by encouraging priests, nuns and lay volunteers to undertake missionary programs for Latin America. In the US, the response was widespread and included The Papal Volunteers for Latin America, the St. James Society in Boston, the Maryknoll Missionary Society, among others. In the political arena, President Kennedy promoted ‘The Alliance for Progress’ and the Peace Corps which encouraged young people to volunteer for service to the poor in underdeveloped areas of the Third World. In Ireland, the response too was generous where religious orders and missionary societies began preparing some of their members for service in Latin America. Lay volunteer programs were also sponsored by churches and funding agencies such as Trócaire and Gorta. Lay volunteers accompanied the religious as nurses, doctors, teachers, and so forth. There was much euphoria in the early 1960s about the creation of a better world, free from injustice and human misery, and Pope John XXIII and John F. Kennedy provided the moral leadership and inspiration for this newfound optimism.

The Columbans were the first Irish missionary society to send some of their members to Chile and Peru in the early 1950s, and in 1960, the Pope asked the Irish bishops to allow some of their diocesan clergy to serve with the Columbans in Latin America. The Kiltegan missionary society followed suit by sending some of its members to Brazil in 1963, and several other orders of nuns and priests in Ireland began to prepare and send missionaries to various Latin America countries during the 1960s, and this trend has continued down to the present day. 

The most ambitious missionary effort was undertaken by the Cork and Ross diocese which included a number of poor colonias and barrios (shanty towns) on the outskirts of the city of Trujillo in Peru. The Cork diocese financed the building of churches, schools and health clinics in the colonias, and sent priests and nuns to staff those missionary programs. The diocese also opened a mission in Ecuador in the outskirts of Manta where they organized mission programs similar to those already undertaken in Trujillo. Bishop Lucey of Cork was influenced by his close friend and benefactor, Cardinal Cushing of Boston who had established the St. James Missionary Society for Latin America, and had asked Bishop Lucey to release some of his priests to work with the St. James Society in Peru. The Boston-Irish Cardinal was very close to his Cork roots and had assisted the Cork diocese with its building programs. Inspired by Cushing´s initiative, Bishop Lucey decided to send some priests to Peru with the St. James Society, and this partnership led eventually to the establishment of the Cork and Ross mission program for Latin America.

Fr. Michael Murphy was one of the first volunteers to serve in Peru, and to organize the Cork mission there. When he became Bishop of Cork he continued to be a staunch supporter of the Mission, and encouraged the priests and nuns working there to continue, despite the serious threats they had received from the Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) guerrilla movement which intended to install a Maoist-inspired regime in Peru. In I991, they began to target foreign missionaries, killing three European priests and an Australian nun, but the Cork missionaries were not harmed. They did receive death threats, however, and on one occasion the guerrillas did attack a health clinic and stole a large amount of medical supplies. The guerrillas regarded foreign missionaries as agents of Yankee Imperialism, distributing food and medicine paid for with American dollars. When they robbed the clinic, they left a huge poster which read: ‘Death to Irish Imperialism’. The guerrilla movement came to an abrupt end when the leaders were captured and incarcerated, and the mission continued its work in peace until it was closed in 2004. After almost 40 years of dedicated ministry, and due to the scarcity of priests in the home diocese, the churches, schools and clinics were turned over to the local clergy and people of Perú. Leonard O´Brien has written a detailed account of the Cork mission in his book, Children of the Sun: The Cork Mission to South America (2010), which is reviewed in this issue by Gabriela McEvoy.


The euphoria of the I960s was short-lived, as were the lives of its two most prominent protagonists: the Pope and the President. However, ideals when once expressed tend to take on a life of their own, and to inspire future generations to carry on the struggle for a better world; and for the missionaries to continue to bear witness to the Gospel message of hope and reconciliation. The Irish and the Latin Americans continue to believe in miracles, cures and healing wells, and with poet Seamus Heaney believe that ‘once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.’

Some missionary projects, like the Cork Mission to Peru, have had to be turned over to the local church authorities, and that is precisely what foreign missionaries are expected to do, prepare local people who can take over and continue the work begun by the missionaries. Hence the appropriateness, in this case, of the well-known cliché used by missionaries ‘work yourself out of a job’.


-Fogarty, James, Liberation and Development: A Latin American Perspectve, (London: Minerva Press, 1998).

-Hogan, Michael, Savage Capitalism and the Myth of Democracy (Booklocker.com 2009).

-Kirby, Peadar, Ireland and Latin America: Links and Lessons (Trócaire and Gill and Macmillan, I992).

-Miller, Robert Ryal, The Shamrock and Sword (Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).

-Morfi, Juan Agustin, Viaje de Indios y el Diario del Nuevo México [Indian Journey and Diary of New Mexico]. (Mexico: Editorial Manuel Porrua, 1980).

-Morales, Óscar Recio, Ireland and the Spanish Empire, 1600-1825 (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010).

-O´Brien, Leonard, Children of the Sun: The Cork Mission to South America (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 2010).

-Ronan, Gerard, ‘The Irish Zorro’: The Extraordinary Adventures of William Lamport (1615-1659) (Dingle: Brandon Publications, 2004).


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2011

Published: 01 November 2011
Edited: 07 Diciembre 2011

Séamus O´Fógartaigh "A Historical Review of Irish Missionary Activity in Latin America  " 7:4 (November 2011), pp. XXX-XXX. Available online ( http://www.irlandeses.org/lmsla2011_07_04_Seamus_- OFagartaigh.htm),, accessed


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information