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The Irish Presence in the History and Place Names of Cuba

By Rafael Fernández Moya



City of Havana, coat of arms.

Warships entered the port of Havana between 3 and 5 August 1780 carrying around eight thousand men under the command of Lieutenant General Victorio de Navia, army general and chief of operations in America. These troops were made up of the Soria, Aragón, Flandes, Hibernia, Guadalajara and Cataluña regiments, who stayed in the houses and quarters of Guanabacoa, Regla, Jesús del Monte and neighbourhoods outside the walls, with the High Command, generals, other high-level chiefs and also some of the troops staying inside the capital. 

That same year Spain reconquered West Florida and under the peace agreement reached in Versailles, in 1783 East Florida was also handed over by England. In order to take possession of the latter territory, on 19 June 1784 Brigadier Vicente de Céspedes left the port of Havana with a force of six-hundred men from the Rey, Dragones and Hibernia regiments, the latter made up of Irishmen.

Several hundred Irish soldiers destined for Florida passed through Havana under the direct command of officers like Lieutenant Colonel Hugo O’Connor, captain in the Hibernia infantry regiment, who was given the command of the Company of Grenadiers of the first battalion of this regiment which was left vacant by the retirement of its leader, Juan Hogan, in August 1784.

In the second half of the eighteenth century various descendants of Domingo Madan y Grant and his wife Josefa María Commyns, both Waterford natives, arrived in Havana from Tenerife, Canary Islands. At the beginning of the next century the Madans had settled in the city and were in business under the company name Madan, Nephews and Son. Later, several of them settled in the Matanzas area and would become part of the Cuban aristocracy with the title Count of Madan. Through marriage the Madans became connected to the Alfonsos who formed a powerful economic group with the Aldamas, linked to the operations of the German bank Schroeder which had its headquarters in England and which financed railway companies in Cuba.

Since colonial times one of the streets in Matanzas, near the bridge of the Yumurí river, was called Madan, as was a neighbourhood of the Carlos Rojas municipal district, also in Matanzas province.

Dr. Domingo Madan
(Adolfo Dollero, Cultura cubana, la provincia de Matanzas y su evolución. Habana, 1929)

As the eighteenth century was coming to a close, the Spanish Crown assigned the Count of Jaruco and Mopox the mission of heading a Public Works Commission that would be in charge of studying the existing conditions favourable to the colonisation of the island. Among those who formed part of this commission was the navy officer Juan Tirry y Lacy, born in Spain and son of Guillermo Tirry, Grand Standard-bearer of Cádiz and Governor of Puerto de Santa María, who was granted the title Marquis of Cañada de Tirry by Royal Dispatch on 28 September 1729.

Juan Tirry y Lacy was responsible for mapping Isla de Pinos, modern-day Isla de la Juventud, where he went with the mission of analysing the pine trees to see if they could be used for the ships in the Spanish navy. He also wrote a memoir of that region which gave rise to the Reina Amalia colony in 1828. In honour of his contributions to geography, the northernmost point of Isla de Pinos was called Punta de Tirry. In Havana Juan Tirry was the engineer general, was twice mayor of the city and Governor of Matanzas in 1816, a city where one of the streets bears his name. In May 1824 he inherited the title of Marquis Cañada de Tirry, which he retained until he died fifteen years later.

In June 1798 Sebastián Kindelán O´Regan, son of Vicente Kindelán Loterell-Loterelton, originally from Ballymahon in County Longford, was named political and military Governor of the Santiago de Cuba garrison. His sister, María de la Concepción, married to Phillippe O’Sullivan, Count of Berehaven, died in Havana in August 1771. In July 1810 Santiago Kindelán was transferred to Florida with the same position and from there he returned with the rank of King’s Lieutenant, and later came to occupy the post of second corporal and sub-inspector of the troops on the island.

Due to the death of Nicolás Mahy in July 1822, Sebastián Kindelán assumed the role of interim Captain General and governed the island for almost a year until May 1823 when Francisco Dionisio Vives took over. He died three years later having retired to his hacienda in Santiago de Cuba where he had founded an illustrious family. He had attained the rank of Field Marshall. Two geographical points in Cuba bear the name Kindelán, one of them is a Cupeyes neighbourhood in the municipal district of Morón, and the other is a neighbourhood in Matanzas near the border with Sagua la Grande.

During the first third of the nineteenth century there was a wave of immigration towards the island of settlers from different European countries and North America, amongst whom there were also Irish people who participated in the foundation and development of two new towns.

In 1819 on the southern coast of the island’s central region on the banks of the Jagua River, a town of the same name was founded, and was later renamed Cienfuegos. The first settlers were from Bordeaux in France, and were joined by settlers from the United States of America. On 30 December of the same year 99 people arrived from Philadelphia, and in this group were the Irish migrants Guillermo Carr, Patricia Collins, Jaime Riley, his wife María Mac Donald and his daughter Ana, Juan Boyle, Cristina Paulinger and their sons Sebastián and Juan, Juan Hotton and his wife María Guerty, Juan Conrad and his wife Luisa Owns, Felipe Honery, his wife Cecilia and son Guillermo, Juan Miller and his wife Lidia Sybbs, a North American, Francis Farland, John Byrnes and Jaime Collins.

On 21 December 1826 a ship called Revenue entered Baracoa port in the extreme east of the island with 40 people on board arriving from the United States, who came with the purpose of settling on the banks of the Moa River and forming a colony there. These settlers were mainly from Ireland, Scotland and the United States. The Irish group was formed by the labourers Joseph Ocons and his wife, Richard Powers, his wife and a child, Lawrence Heigar, his wife and a child, Robert Irving, Peter Higgins and Mathew Mac Namara, the carpenters Patrick Ollvan, James Mac Namara, John Blakeney and Simon Dorn, and the blacksmith Michael Mac Namara.

Juana Byrne
(Matanzas s.a.)

Besides John Byrnes, a settler in Cienfuegos town, in the same period other people of the same name lived on the island, probably his relatives. In June 1855 a boy named Juan Byrnes, whose father was Gregorio and his godmother Margarita Byrnes, was baptised in Havana. This surname became part of the heart of the intellectual community of Matanzas. Firstly, this happened through the educational work of Juana Byrnes de Clayton, the first headmistress of the school for poor girls. This school would later become the Casa de Beneficencia, founded in 1846, and later through the literary work of the poet and revolutionary journalist Bonifacio Byrne (1861-1936), who earned the title of national poet for his patriotic independence work. A street in the Los Olmos neighbourhood in Santiago de Cuba, which bears the name of this distinguished Cuban, is the expression of the permanent tribute paid to him.

The city of Cienfuegos bears the mark of the Irish settlers in its neighbourhood of the north part of the Jagua Bay which has the name O’Bourke and was founded at the end of the War of Independence in a parcelling of lots conducted by Miguel O´Bourke Ramos. Juan O’Bourke, who was born in Trinidad around 1826 and twenty-five years later took part in the armed uprising of July 1826 organised by Isidoro Armenteros, collaborator of the expansionist general Narciso López, lived in this city from 1839. The young revolutionary Juan O’Bourke was arrested and later condemned to ten years in prison in Ceuta from whence he escaped and headed to the United States.

Juan O’Naghten y O’Kelly was originally from Athlone, County Westmeath and travelled to Spain in 1747, where he served at every level of the Irlanda Infantry Regiment. He had attained the rank of brigadier before he died in October 1837. One of his sons, Tomás O’Naghten Enríquez, also an officer in the same regiment and who also came to Havana, died in this city in 1842. The Cuban branch of the O’Naghtens inherited various titles of Spanish nobility through marriage, among them those of Count of Casa Bayona and Count of Gibacoa. Some family members lived in the Chacón house on the street of the same name on the corner with San Ignacio, in Havana.

The Irish presence was particularly notable during the construction of the island’s first railway, from Havana to Güines from 1835 and 1838, as described in Brehony’s article in this journal. By Royal Order of 12 October 1834 the Junta de Fomento de Agricultura y Comercio (Agriculture and Trade Board) was authorised to build a railway from Havana to the town of Güines. For this purpose financing was arranged with the English banker Alejandro Robertson, who was an agent of the Railway Corporation of London.

On 31 March 1835 a public document approved by Captain General Miguel Tacón was signed in New York naming Benjamin Wright head engineer and main consultant for the railway project, Alfredo Krueger, first engineer, and Benjamin H. Wright, son of the former, as second in command, directing and carrying out the project. The Junta de Fomento brought the technicians, foremen, superintendents and a group of workers made up of 273 men and 8 women from the United States under contract, among whom were English, Irish, Scottish, North American, Dutch and German labourers. However, they were all identified as Irish, perhaps due to the greater numbers of those of that nationality.


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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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